sports 3 days ago

Dissecting the Lions' competition in race for NFL playoffs

Detroit Free Press — By Dave Birkett Detroit Free Press

Nov. 13-- Jim Caldwell cares deeply about making the playoffs, but he loathes the process it takes to get there.

Or talking about it at least.

Ten days before Thanksgiving, Caldwell insisted he's "not concerned with" magic numbers or what his team needs to do to make the postseason, or anything really beyond Sunday's game with the Chicago Bears.

"I've told you guys that a thousand times, and it's a fact," Caldwell said. "It's one game. If that game just so happens to be the trigger game somewhere down the line, then it's one game. So that's all we focus in on."

That myopic approach has worked well for Caldwell in the past, as he has led the Lions to the playoffs in two of the past three years. But for everyone not bound by coach-speak, the playoffs are and should be the only concern.

The Lions inched back over the .500 mark with Sunday's too-close-for-comfort win over the Cleveland Browns, but they still have a long way to go to make the postseason.

Projecting ahead, the Lions will need at least 10 wins to win the NFC North or earn a wild-card spot, and even that might not be enough. The Carolina Panthers, Atlanta Falcons and New Orleans Saints all hold tiebreakers against the Lions based on head-to-head results, and the Minnesota Vikings have a two-game lead in the division thanks to one of the NFL's best defenses.

If the playoffs started this week, the Vikings (7-2), Philadelphia Eagles (8-1), Saints (7-2) and Los Angeles Rams (7-2) would be division winners, and the Seattle Seahawks (6-3) and Panthers (6-3) would get wild-card berths.

Here's a look at the NFC playoff picture, and what the Lions-who have the most favorable schedule of the group-need to do to work their way in.

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Minnesota Vikings

Record: 7-2.

Upcoming schedule: vs. Rams, at Lions, at Falcons, at Panthers, vs. Bengals, at Packers, vs. Bears.

Playoff outlook: The Vikings are the favorites to win the NFC North, and it's going to take more than just a Thanksgiving win by the Lions to prevent that from happening. Minnesota hosts the red-hot Rams this week and has a tough three-game road swing upcoming, but the Vikings have a very favorable end-of-season schedule that should get them to at least double-digit victories. If the Vikings win at Ford Field next Thursday, go ahead and print the NFC North champion T-shirts.

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Los Angeles Rams

Record: 7-2.

Upcoming schedule: at Vikings, vs. Saints, at Cardinals, vs. Eagles, at Seahawks, at Titans, vs. 49ers.

Playoff outlook: The Rams are one of the NFL's most exciting teams, with a good young quarterback and the league's best defensive player, but there's bit of uncertainty about how good they are. They've only played two teams with winning records so far, and they have games upcoming against the other three best teams in the NFC. One thing to watch: The Rams lost at home to the Seahawks in October. If Seattle sweeps the season series, the Rams could be playing for a wildcard.

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Seattle Seahawks

Record: 6-3.

Upcoming schedule: vs. Falcons, at 49ers, vs. Eagles, at Jaguars, vs. Rams, at Cowboys, vs. Cardinals.

Playoff outlook: The Seahawks are dealing with a mass of injuries that threaten to derail their playoff hopes. Richard Sherman is done for the season, Cliff Avril hasn't played since Oct. 1 and there's no telling when Kam Chancellor will be back. The Seahawks have just two gimmes left on their schedule, though three of their toughest games (Falcons, Eagles, Rams) are all at home. One other note: Seattle's game against the Cowboys on Christmas Eve could be Ezekiel Elliott's first game back from suspension.

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New Orleans Saints

Record: 7-2.

Upcoming schedule: vs. Washington, at Rams, vs. Panthers, at Falcons, vs. Jets, vs. Falcons, at Bucs.

Playoff outlook: No team is playing better right now than the Saints, who've won their last seven games by an average of 18.4 points. They're the clear favorites to win the NFC South, but if they falter they'd hold the wildcard tiebreaker against the Lions. From Detroit's perspective, the best option is for New Orleans to stay hot and pick off other potential playoff teams like the Falcons and Rams.

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Carolina Panthers

Record: 7-3.

Upcoming schedule: bye, at Jets, at Saints, vs. Vikings, vs. Packers, vs. Bucs, at Falcons.

Playoff outlook: The Panthers defeated the Dolphins on Monday Night Football, making them a half-game behind the Saints in the NFC South with a bye week this weekend. They seem like a lock for 10 wins, and would hold the head-to-head tiebreak with the Lions based on their October win at Ford Field. Carolina seems more flawed than most other playoff contenders, but Cam Newton has them on an inside track to a playoff spot.

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Atlanta Falcons

Record: 5-4.

Upcoming schedule: at Seahawks, vs. Bucs, vs. Vikings, vs. Saints, at Bucs, at Saints, vs. Panthers.

Playoff outlook: The defending NFC champion Falcons aren't out of the division race yet, either, given the fact they have two games left with the Saints and one against the Panthers. The more realistic possibility for now, though, appears to be a wild-card spot. Atlanta hasn't played up to its 2016 level, and running back Devonta Freeman is dealing with his second concussion of the season. But with Matt Ryan and Julio Jones, anything is possible.

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Philadelphia Eagles

Record: 8-1.

Upcoming schedule: at Cowboys, vs. Bears, at Seahawks, at Rams, at Giants, vs. Raiders, vs. Cowboys.

Playoff outlook: The Eagles are the best team in the NFC right now and are playing for home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. This is a 13-win schedule, and the Lions have to hope they receive help from the Eagles in terms of wins over the Cowboys, Seahawks and Rams.

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Dallas Cowboys

Record: 5-4.

Upcoming schedule: vs. Eagles, vs. Chargers, vs. Washington, at Giants, at Raiders, vs. Seahawks, at Eagles.

Playoff outlook: The Cowboys' playoff chances are fading fast with Elliott one week into his six-game suspension. If Elliott doesn't have the suspension overturned, or the bulk of it delayed until next season, the Cowboys won't make the playoffs. Dallas plays three straight home games starting Sunday night, and it needs to win at least two of those games to reach the postseason.

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