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NFC playoff picture update: Teams the Detroit Lions could realistically jump in the Wild Card

The Detroit Lions are 2.5 games out of a playoff spot, but we take a look at the route to the postseason if they go on a run.

NFL: Buffalo Bills at Detroit Lions Lon Horwedel-USA TODAY Sports

With the Detroit Lions’ loss to the Buffalo Bills on Thursday, their playoff odds went from slim to even slimmer. They went into the week with about a 16 percent chance at the postseason, and will leave it with that number around 10 percent.

However, those aren’t exactly astronomical probabilities. If you had told me at the beginning of the year that the Lions have a 1-in-10 chance of making the playoffs, I may have taken that. And with the Lions undoubtedly hitting their stride right now—and the 10th easiest schedule in the NFL ahead—there’s reason to believe Detroit could make a little noise in the final six weeks of the season.

So let’s lean into these long odds and see exactly what needs to happen for the Detroit Lions to make an improbable run at the playoffs.

First, let’s look at the current NFC Playoff standings after Week 12

Division leaders:

  1. Eagles: 10-1
  2. Vikings: 9-2
  3. 49ers: 7-4
  4. Buccaneers: 5-6

Wild Card standings (top three advance)

  1. Cowboys: 8-3
  2. Giants: 7-4
  3. Commanders: 7-5
  4. Seahawks: 6-5
  5. Falcons: 5-7
  6. Lions: 4-7

The Lions currently stand 2.5 games behind the Commanders for the final Wild Card spot, needing to jump three teams to get there. Let’s break down each of the Wild Card contenders and Detroit’s likelihood of jumping each.

Cowboys (8-3)

  • DVOA ranking: 2nd
  • Strength of schedule remaining (by record): 16th (.507)

The Lions are 3.5 games behind the Cowboys and Dallas has the tiebreaker. The Cowboys also have the head-to-head tiebreaker, so this ain’t happening.

Giants (7-4)

  • DVOA ranking: 21st
  • Strength of schedule remaining: 1st (.699)

Not only are the Giants much worse than their record suggests and have the toughest remaining schedule, but they’re also in the midst of a two-game losing streak. Detroit also has the head-to-head tiebreaker over New York, so if the Lions go on a run, it seems quite likely they could catch the Giants, even though they currently have a three-game lead.

Commanders (7-5)

  • DVOA: 18th
  • Strength of schedule remaining: 3rd (.600)

This is a very similar situation to the Giants, but there’s one major difference: Washington appears to be hitting its stride, while the Giants are falling back to reality.

The trickiest part here is that the Giants and Commanders still have two games against each other. Those may be the two teams most likely for the Lions to jump, so the best outcome may be to split those games. Still, Washington has two other tough games against the Cowboys and 49ers... and don’t sleep on the Browns, who just posted a nice win over the Buccaneers and will have DeShaun Watson back soon.

Seahawks (6-5)

  • DVOA: 8th
  • Strength of schedule remaining: 18th (..493)

Seattle has the tiebreaker over Detroit, and they still have two games left against the Rams and one against the Panthers. If they take care of those games alone, that gets them to nine wins—meaning Detroit would have to get to 10 to pass them. That’s bad news, because the only way the Lions can get to 10 is if they win out.

The good news is that Seattle could very well lose the other three games on their schedule (49ers, Chiefs, Jets), meaning all it would take is one slipup to give the Lions some breathing room.

Falcons (5-7)

  • DVOA: 17th
  • Strength of schedule remaining: 29th (.411)

The Falcons are a sneaky team to worry about. Not because they’re a really good team. Heck, the Lions could jump them in standings by next week. But their strength of schedule is ridiculously easy:

  • vs. Steelers (3-7)
  • at Saints (4-8)
  • at Ravens (7-4)
  • vs. Cardinals (4-8)
  • vs. Buccaneers (5-6)

But here’s the thing. If the Lions have any realistic chance of making the playoffs, they’re finishing either 9-8 or 10-7. That means the Falcons would have to win at least four of their last five games to keep pace, and I’m not sure I’m really afraid of that happening, even with this easy schedule.

So taking all of this into account, it seems like the Lions’ best route is to jump the Falcons, Giants, and Commanders. So focus your rooting efforts on those three teams tanking. Jumping the Cowboys isn’t going to happen, while the Lions would need an unexpected collapse against a soft schedule for them to jump Seattle.

Of course, none of this matters if the Lions don’t take care of their own business. That means, at a minimum, the Lions need to win at least five of their last six games—preferably all of the NFC games, as conference record is a high-ranking tiebreaker.

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