That is the situation the Lions face in the next two games that most likely will decide whether they win the NFC North.
First up on Sunday are the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, revived with a two-game winning streak but still with a 2-8 won-lost record.
Four days later, the Green Bay Packers arrive for the traditional Thanksgiving Day game, with the possibility of Aaron Rodgers returning from a broken collarbone.
There are four games left after those two, and it’s not realistic on its face to say that anything would be decided with a quarter of the season left on the schedule.
But a lot rides on how the Lions perform in the next two games. The importance of winning, and getting their record to 8-4, cannot be understated.
This week’s Monday Countdown looks at the North race, and the impact two games in five days will have on the Lions and their hopes to win the division.
There is also a breakdown of the remaining schedule, a look back – of course – at Sunday’s 37-27 loss in Pittsburgh, including the fake field goal, how the Same Recent Lions should be of more concern than the Same Old Lions, and the best and worst of the NFL after 11 weeks.
We start with the next two games:
1. Must Win: As bad and wounded as they feel from Sunday’s 37-27 loss at Pittsburgh, the Lions have put themselves in the best position to win a division title in 20 years. That was 1993. The Lions skidded to 7-5 after a 7-2 start, then closed out the season with three wins in the last four games to finish 10-6 and win the old NFC Central.
There is no 20-year carryover. What happened in 1993 has no bearing on 2013, except to note that when there are so many games left a lot can happen – good and bad.
Beating the Bucs and Packers gets the Lions to 8-4 and guarantees at least a tie with the Bears for first in the North. And the Packers would be no better than 6-6.
A split or an unthinkable – but not impossible – two losses would put the Lions in the position of scoreboard watching for the last four weeks.
The certain way to remove a lot of that angst is to beat the Bucs and Packers, get an extended rest after Thanksgiving, and attack the final four games as though they’re the most important four games in franchise history.
For this team, at this stage of their season, it feels like they might be the most important four games.
2. Tiebreakers: Winning the next two gives the Lions huge advantages over the Bears and Packers. With the Bears, they’d be ahead with a sweep of head-to-head and division record. With the Packers, they’d be even in head-to-head and have the lead in division record.
It would not end the division race, but with four games left, the Lions would be in the driver’s seat.
3. Last six games: Lions – four homes games, two at home. After the Bucs and Packers they are at Philly (6-5), home against the Ravens (4-6) and Giants (4-6) and at Minnesota (2-8) in the last game.
4. Bears (6-4) last six: They’re the opposite of the Lions – four road games, two at home. They finish at St. Louis (4-6) and Minnesota (2-8), home against Dallas (5-5), at Cleveland (4-6) and Philadelphia (6-5), home against the Packers (5-5).
5. Packers (5-5) last six: home with Minnesota (2-6), at Detroit (6-4), home with Atlanta (2-8), at Dallas (5-5), home with Pittsburgh (4-6) at Chicago (6-4).
Bottom line: Playing four games at home, and with a reasonably healthy roster – especially with
Green Bay’s final six games include three with teams fighting for a division title – Detroit, Dallas and Chicago.
The Bears are doing something few teams have been able to accomplish this season – win with a backup quarterback. Josh McCown is 2-1 in relief of Jay Cutler, with the only loss to Detroit two weeks ago.
6. Wild card race: The Lions are one of six NFC teams that have won six games. Of the others, Carolina, San Francisco and Arizona are not leading or tied for first in their division. Philadelphia leads the NFC East, and Chicago is tied with the Lions in the North but is behind in the tiebreaker.
7. The real wild card: It’s when Aaron Rodgers returns to play quarterback for the Packers. Since Rodgers went out with a broken collarbone early in the loss to Chicago in Game 8, the Packers have lost to the Bears and the last two. Seneca Wallace and Scott Tolzien have combined to throw one TD pass against six interceptions.
Before he was hurt, Aaron Rodgers had thrown six interceptions in his last 14 games against 29 touchdowns.
The Packers cannot win without Rodgers. With him – look out, rest of the NFC North.
8. The fake, the day after: For the record, again, I don’t think the decision by head coach Jim Schwartz to bypass a short field goal and attempt a fake field goal in the fourth quarter was the right call. Being aggressive, with the intent to increase the lead to 34-23 instead of 30-23 – a touchdown – is understandable.
But taking a short field goal for a seven-point lead, with the wind at your back in rainy conditions, was the prudent call.
Schwartz was getting criticized on the national shows Monday morning as much for his aggressive defense of his call in his post-game interview as for the call itself.
That’s why some people call the interview sessions the fifth quarter. They’re hard to win, too.
9. Same Recent Lions: The focus on the fake field goal should not let the offense off the hook for scoring all of its points in the second quarter and completing only three passes in the second half, and the defense doesn’t get a pass for not stopping the Steelers after the fake.
After the fake, the defense gave up a 97-yard, 16-play drive to the go-ahead touchdown. The drive used up more than eight minutes, and the Steelers converted a third-and-nine from their four, and later turned a third-and-12 into a first down.
Ben Roethlisberger finished off the drive with a one-yard TD pass for the lead, then clinched the game with his fourth TD pass of the game and second in the last 4:46.
Frankly, the defense looked like the defense in the second half of last season. Week after week, the defense gave up long drives in an eight-game losing streak to close out the season.
Those are the Same Recent Lions, not teams that played a decade or two or three ago.
Last year, Green Bay went 82 yards in Week 11 to the winning score; Houston tied the game with a 97-yard drive and won on a field goal in overtime in Week 12; In Week 13, rookie QB Andrew Luck threw two TD passes in the last 2:30 to end drives of 85 and 75 yards for a 35-33 win; Green Bay ran through the defense for the go-ahead score in Week 14.
That was four games, five fourth-quarter TDs allowed, and four losses.
10. The Bucs: Historically, they’ve given the Lions trouble, even in seasons like this one when they’re 2-8. The Vegas odds-makers favor the Lions by 9.5 points, but that guarantees nothing. The Lions have been favored in every game except the 22-9 loss at Green Bay in Week 5, when Aaron Rodgers played and
The Lions need to play the game like their season is on the line, because it is – in this game and every other one the rest of the way.
11. The NFL’s best after Week 11:
1. Seahawks (10-1): Cruising to the AFC West title.
2. Broncos (9-1): Crunched KC’s offense and did enough on their own to win the AFC West showdown.
3. Chiefs (9-1): Looking more like a wild card than a division champ.
4. The Saints (8-2): A penalty helped them beat the 49ers, 23-20.
5. Patriots (7-2): Coming off a bye favors them in the Monday night game at Carolina.
6. Colts (7-3): Not really this good, but Luck is on their side.
7. Panthers (6-3): No surprise if they beat the Patriots. Their front seven on defense is among the best.
8. Bengals (7-4): Took advantage of the Browns to end a mini-skid.
9. Cardinals (6-4): A three-game win streak has them in the hunt.
10. 49ers (6-4): Colin Kaepernick’s play isn’t helping a team that should have a better record.
11. Lions (6-4): Six games to start the playoffs at home – playing, not watching.
12. Bears (6-4): Survived the elements to beat the Ravens at home in OT.
12. The NFL’s worst:
5. Washington (3-7): RGIII is being criticized by former players.
4. Falcons (2-8): Moved ahead of the Bucs with a fourth straight loss.
3. Vikings (2-8): Moving them up from second worst.
2. Texans (2-8): Eighth straight loss, and they’re bickering on the field.
1. Jaguars (1-9): They’ve won their game for the year.