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2020 NFL playoff picture: Yes, the Detroit Lions are just 1 game out

But don’t get your hopes up too high.

Detroit Lions v Chicago Bears Photo by Quinn Harris/Getty Images

What a difference 24 hours makes.

On Sunday morning, I was preparing our Detroit Lions Week 13 Rooting Guide, paving a way for the team to potentially have a top-five pick in next year’s draft. In the following hours, Lions interim head coach Darrell Bevell provided the offensive spark this team has been looking for, as Detroit hung 34 on the Bears and picked up their first divisional win in nearly two years.

As Sunday night came to a close, I asked Lions fans whether next week’s Rooting Guide should be focused on draft position or the playoff hunt. Lions fans, god bless their heart, voted playoffs by a 62-38 margin.

Well, let’s talk about it then. With a Lions win, combined with losses from the Bears and Cardinals, Detroit is miraculously just a single game out of the third wild card spot, despite just a 5-7 record. Here’s how it lokos after Sunday.

Division leaders

  1. Saints: 10-2 (clinched playoff spot)
  2. Packers: 9-3
  3. Rams: 8-4
  4. Giants: 5-7

Wild card race

  1. Seahawks: 8-4
  2. Buccaneers: 7-5
  3. Vikings: 6-6
  4. Cardinals: 6-6
  5. 49ers: 5-6
  6. Bears: 5-7
  7. Lions: 5-7
  8. Washington: 4-7

Okay, now time for a dose of reality. The Lions find themselves just a game behind the Vikings, but they also have three teams in between them and the Vikings. The 49ers have a challenging game on Monday night against the Bills that could bring them down to an identical 5-7 record. The Cardinals have a game up (but are down a tiebreaker). And the Bears still hold the current tiebreaker over the Lions (more on that in a second).

There are two things working against the Lions right now: tiebreakers and strength of schedule.

For tiebreakers, the Lions are going to need a lot of help down the stretch. Their only head-to-head wins against wild card contenders are currently against the Bears, Cardinals, and Washington—although it feels unlikely the Football Team will truly contend for a spot. Detroit could still pick up key wins over the Vikings and Buccaneers—and they’ll have to—but even with wins over the Vikings and Bears, there’s a good chance they don’t jump them in tiebreakers. If it’s a two-way tie between the Bears or the Vikings for the final Wild Card spot, head-to-head will be even. Then it goes to division record. The Lions are currently 1-3 in NFC games while the Vikings are 3-1. Minnesota would have to lose to the Lions (obviously) and the Bears for Detroit to catch them there. Meanwhile the Bears are also 1-3 in the division, but they currently hold the tiebreaker in common game win percentage. Giving Chicago that win over the Vikings would be horrible for the Lions, considering the Bears also have remaining games against the Texans and Jaguars. I know their in free fall now, but their schedule is quite favorable for a potential bounceback.

The only tiebreakers working in Detroit’s favor right now are over the Cardinals (head-to-head win), the 49ers (Lions conference record, 4-5, slightly better than 49ers’, 3-5). That’s going to limit their pathways to the postseason.

But the real limiter will be the strength of schedule. Let’s look at the winning percentage for the remaining games of the six teams still in contention for the final wild card spot.

Lions’ opponents: 30-18 (.625)
Vikings’ opponents: 27-21 (.563)
Washington’s opponents: 31-26-1 (.543)
49ers; opponents: 29-28 (.509)
Cardinals; opponents: 21-25-1 (.457)
Bears; opponents: 20-28 (.417)

The Lions have the toughest schedule, and it isn’t particularly close. Literally all four remaining games are against teams who currently hold a playoff position: Packers, Titans, Buccaneers, Vikings.

All that being said, if the Lions can pull off a 3-1 record in those games, not only do they have a good chance of making the postseason, but they will have beat some talented teams and proven they actually belong in the playoffs. I’m not exactly holding my breath, though. There’s a reason the Lions’ playoff odds are 4.4 percent per Football Outsiders and the New York Times have the Lions at 4 percent.