MIKE O'HARA

O'HARA'S MONDAY COUNTDOWN: Breaking down Lions' playoff chances

Posted Nov 27, 2017

With five games left, the obstacles in the Lions' path of reaching the postseason for the third time in four seasons under head coach Jim Caldwell are obvious.

This week’s Monday Countdown is a five-course offering thrown together from the leftovers of the Detroit Lions’ 30-23 loss to the Minnesota Vikings on Thanksgiving Day.

In short, it’s a look at the possibility of the Lions making the playoffs, either by winning the NFC North (remote) or as a wild card (not good, either).

With five games left, the obstacles in the Lions’ path of reaching the postseason for the third time in four seasons under head coach Jim Caldwell are obvious.

They trail the first-place Vikings by three games in what a week ago was a two-team race for the North title and now looks like a runaway.

And in terms of the wild card, they are behind in won-loss records and tiebreakers because of losses to the Saints, Falcons and Panthers of the NFC South.

We start with the Lions’ chances:

1. Where the Lions stand: Losing to the Vikings kept them in second place in the North with a 6-5 record, but three games back of the Vikings when a win could have cut the margin to one game.

“If you’re around .500 a little bit before when you’re sitting down for your Thanksgiving meal, you’ve still got a chance,” Caldwell said after the game, repeating something he said he once heard.

“We’ve got a lot of football yet to play, and you don’t know what’s going to happen,” Caldwell said. “There’s other games that are being played too. I know the media will paint it like the sky is falling, but the sky is not falling for us.

“We’ve got to get ourselves a little bit better and keep moving forward.”

If you’re a head coach, you look ahead through the gloom of a crippling loss to the rays of hope.

One man’s opinion: It’s a long-shot hope because of the NFC’s crowded field of playoff contenders, but it isn’t no shot.

With a 6-5 won-loss record and five games left, the Lions have a chance to make the playoffs. To do that, they have to keep winning on the road, where they’re 4-1, and start winning at home, where they’re 2-4.

2. North race: It’s not over, but the Vikings look like the class of the division, and not just because of the numbers – a 9-2 record and three-game lead on the Lions.

The way they handled the Lions on Thanksgiving Day was impressive. In a pivotal game, they played like champs.

There wasn’t an area on offense or defense where the Lions had the advantage. The Vikings ran the ball better. They rushed the passer better. And for one game, Case Keenum had a better game than Matthew Stafford.

Vikings bottom line: With a seven-game winning streak, the Vikings show no signs of putting on the brakes. Their next two games are on the road against Atlanta and Carolina, but the final three aren’t nearly as tough – home against Cincinnati, at Green Bay and home against the Bears.

Don’t crown the Vikings yet, but the prospect of them playing the Super Bowl in their home stadium is not as far-fetched as it seemed at the start of the season.

3. Vikings flop, 2016: A three-game deficit with five left leaves a lot for the Lions to make up. But recent history shows that it’s possible.

The Vikings started 5-0 last season, while the Lions were three games behind at 2-3. The Vikings lost the next four games and were 6-4 after 10 games. The Lions went 4-1 and were 6-4 after 10 games.

The Lions went on to make the playoffs as a wild card at 9-7. The Vikings continued their skid to 8-8 and out of the postseason.

Bottom line: A similar fade like last season is unlikely. For one thing, the Vikings already are at nine wins. For another, they’re playing better ball than last year, and the Lions are the only other legitimate contenders.

The Lions and Packers both were contenders last year, and the Packers rallied to win the North by beating the Lions in a final-game showdown at Ford Field. With Aaron Rodgers currently out with a broken collarbone, the chance of another Packers comeback is remote.

4. 10 for the show: Again, based on recent history 10 wins are the minimum to make the NFC playoffs as a wild card. Only once in the previous seven seasons – from 2010-2016 – has a team made the NFC field as a wild card with a record of 9-7.

The exception: The 2016 Detroit Lions, who got in at 9-7.

In four of the last seven seasons, 10 wins did not qualify as a wild card. In 2010 the Giants and Bucs sat home at 10-6. Same for the Bears in 2012, the Cardinals in 2013 and the Eagles in 2014.

Bottom line: Win 10 games, you might get in. Win 11, you will. Win nine, stay at home.

5. The schedule: Some teams above the Lions might sink in the standings. Some below might rise up. The Lions have to focus on their business and let the rest of us watch the schedule and make projections.

Three of the Lions last five games are on the road, against the Ravens, Bucs and Bengals. The two at home are against the Bears and Packers, teams the Lions already have beaten on the road, and teams the Lions should beat again at Ford Field, regardless of their 2-4 home record this season.

Predicting a five-game winning streak for the Lions is a flight of fancy, but picking them to win any of the five games from week to week is legitimate.

Bottom line: Improbable does not mean impossible, but the Lions have dug their way into a hole. They need help to climb out.