Detroit, Chicago or Green Bay are lined up in that order in the race to win the NFC North, but the last-place Minnesota Vikings represent the blockade on the way to the finish line.
The Vikings are deep in the North basement with a 2-8-1 record, but having three of their final six games against division teams set them up to make an impact on which team gets the title – and the right to start the playoffs at home.
The Vikings made an impact last week at by hanging on for a 26-26 tie with the Packers at Lambeau Field. They can put up another road block on Sunday at home against the Bears.
From whatever points the Lions scattered to for rest and recovery for the final push after dismantling the Packers on Thanksgiving Day, they'll have at least a passing glance at the Vikings-Bears game. Some other games on this week's schedule are of interest in the wild card race, but nothing is as important to the division race as the Bears-Vikings.
The Lions are on top of the North with a 7-5 record, with the Bears a half game behind at 6-5. Green Bay has faded to third at 5-6-1, with a tie and four losses in five games since quarterback Aaron Rodgers went down with a broken collarbone in the first quarter of a loss to Chicago.
Packers, Coach Mike McCarthy told reporters that their only hope of winning the North was to sweep their lost four games and hope the Lions and Bears stumble.
“We're in a hole,” McCarthy said. “We felt like we were in a hole going into the Detroit game.”
Winning the North is the Lions' clearest path to the postseason – and not only because the Vikings could block the way in the final game of the season.
Here are five games this weekend in which the outcome could affect the NFC playoffs, rated 1-5 on their importance to the Lions.
1. Bears (6-5) at Vikings (2-8-1): From where the Lions stand, it's the most important game on the slate, and for the obvious following reasons:
1. The Bears will be tied with the Lions with a win and a game behind with a loss.
2. A sweep of the season series gives the Lions the tiebreaker advantage. The Bears cannot beat out the Lions unless they have a better won-lost-tied record.
A 31-30 loss at Chicago on a TD pass with 10 seconds left was the second -- after losing to the Lions -- in a 0-3 start that began a doomed season for the Vikings.
Also, Josh McCown is still starting at quarterback in place of Jay Cutler, who's out with groin and ankle injuries.
Adrian Peterson had an even 100 yards against the Bears in the first game, and he blitzed the Packers for 146 last week. The Bears gave up 258 rushing yards in last week's loss at St. Louis.
Peterson hasn't quite been at full health this season, but he's still an imposing presence who makes the tough runs or the breakaway sprints on any play.
“I'm not going to make any predictions,” Peterson told reporters. “Just go out and do what it takes to win. If it's 150 (yards), then it's 150. I'm not going to predict any type of numbers or stats right now.”
“All these games now are certainly important games,” he said after the final practice. “No doubt about it. We can say what we want, but we have to try to be at our best every week.
“In this league, I truly believe that records have no effect on the two teams that play. If you're not at your best, you will not be able to compete against any team in this league, any Sunday.”
2. Cardinals (7-4) at Eagles (6-5): Any impact on the Lions could be in the wild card race, and the Cardinals have the tiebreaker advantage on the Lions because of a victory in Game 2.
The Cardinals close out the season at Seattle and home against the 49ers. Realistically, that looks like an 0-2 finish, which could get the Cardinals passed in the wild card.
Philly's last four games are home against the Lions, at Minnesota, home against the Bears, at Dallas.
Any interest the Lions have in this game is diluted by the reality that what is really best is that they beat the Eagles, then the Eagles beat the Bears two weeks later.
Unlike me, the Lions won't look ahead. At least they shouldn't.
3. Bucs (3-8) at Panthers (8-3): Realistically, there are wild card implications only if the Panthers lose. The Panthers still have hopes of overtaking the Saints for first in the NFC South. After Sunday, they have two games in three weeks against the Saints, who lead at 9-2.
The Bucs got their upset last week when the Lions gave away the game with turnovers. That won't happen this week. The Panthers are on a seven-game winning streak and should make it eight.
4. Rams (5-6) at 49ers (7-4): The wild card race would get tighter if the Rams win a third straight and drop the Niners to 7-5. The Rams scored 38 points two weeks ago to beat the Colts and 42 last week to beat the Bears. In the last month, the 49ers' only wins were over the Jaguars and Washington.
5. The game of the week -- Saints (9-2) at Seahawks (10-1): It's the best matchup on Monday night TV this season. Too much would have to happen to both teams for the outcome to have any effect on the Lions.
If the Lions haven't had enough football of their own, they might tune in for entertainment value.