Dave Birkett Detroit Free Press
Published 2:23 PM EDT Oct 29, 2018
The best team in the NFC North right now is anyone’s guess, and for a Detroit Lions team coming off a disappointing loss to the Seattle Seahawks, that’s the only good thing to come from an otherwise dismal weekend.
The Green Bay Packers fumbled away a chance to hand the Los Angeles Rams their first loss of the season. The Minnesota Vikings fell at home to the New Orleans Saints in a rematch of one of the most thrilling playoff games in recent memory.
And while the Chicago Bears snapped a two-game losing streak with a two-touchdown win over the New York Jets, the division race is so crowded that just a single game separates the first-place Bears from the last-place Lions.
That’s the jumbled mess the Lions find themselves in this week as they embark on a month-long stretch of games that ultimately will decide their playoff worth.
They play division road games against the Vikings and Bears the next two weeks, then return home for three straight against playoff contenders the Carolina Panthers, Bears and Rams.
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If the Lions aren’t careful, they could lose every one of those games, especially if they play like they did Sunday, when they couldn’t run the ball, couldn’t stop the run and couldn’t get out of their own way on special teams.
At the midpoint of the NFL season – the Lions have played just seven games, but by the time Tuesday dawns, 18 teams will have eight games in the bank – the NFC has separated itself into three clear tiers.
There’s the Rams and Saints, who are two of the four best teams in football and part of the league’s upper crust of teams that can lock themselves into a playoff spot so long as their quarterbacks stay healthy.
There’s the Giants, 49ers and Cardinals, three teams so bad that they’re ticketed for top-10 draft picks and ought to be active sellers at Tuesday’s trade deadline in order to improve their draft spot.
And there’s everyone else.
The Lions, of course, reside in that middle tier of teams that’s both good enough to beat anyone on their schedule but flawed enough to lose to anyone, too. Case in point: They drubbed Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers in a span of three weeks, and lost to the lowly Jets and 49ers.
As impressive as those wins were, it’s the losses that now hang over the Lions’ collective head as they stumble into November jostling for playoff position.
At 3-4, the Lions have precious little room for error in the NFC wild card chase.
Historically, 10 wins is the magic number for a wild card spot – the 2014 Philadelphia Eagles are the last NFC team with double-digit wins to miss out on the postseason – which means the Lions probably need to go 7-2 over the season’s final two months to make the playoffs.
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With five division games left, three of them on the road, plus those home dates with the undefeated Rams and 5-2 Panthers, a team on the cusp of joining the NFC’s elite, that’s a tall task for a Lions team that’s been as inconsistent as anyone in the NFL this year.
Beyond those September losses to the Jets and 49ers, Sunday’s game against the Seahawks and last month’s loss to the Dallas Cowboys loom large as potential wild card tiebreakers that won’t go the Lions’ way.
The Seahawks, at 4-3, would be the NFC’s second and final wildcard team if the season ended today, with the Panthers as the No. 5 seed in the playoffs.
That’s why, with Halloween fast approaching, the Lions’ best chance to reach the postseason appears to be doing something they haven’t done in 27 years – winning their division.
If that sounds far-fetched, consider what the mediocrity in the NFC North has given us so far:
• A 21-point loss by the Vikings to the Buffalo Bills, who might be the worst team in the league.
• A three-turnover meltdown by the Bears against the Brock Osweilier-led Miami Dolphins.
• And a Week 2 tie between the Vikings and Packers, who still have a knee-braced Aaron Rodgers playing quarterback, that could serve as a wild card in the division race.
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The Bears have played the best football of the NFC North teams to this point in the season, and I still consider the Vikings the best, most talented team in the division.
But the fact is, the Lions, even coming off another disjointed performance that did little to inspire hope, still have their goals in front of them and a clear path to reach them starting this Sunday in Minneapolis.
If they can summon up some of what they showed against the Packers and Patriots, it could make for an interesting final two months.
If not, they have only themselves to blame.
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