How Detroit Lions' upcoming schedule sets them up for NFL playoff contention in December

Dave Birkett, Detroit Free Press
·6 min read

Major improvement is the goal.

When Sheila Ford Hamp officially replaced her mother as Detroit Lions owner in June, she repurposed the “meaningful games in December” edict laid down last winter to something less defined and perhaps harder to achieve.

Hamp, rightfully, declined to set a win-loss bar at the time given the “weird” circumstances of the year. But when she vaguely declared “major improvement is the goal” in 2020, she wasn't shrinking her measuring stick.

Detroit Lions owner and chairwoman Martha Firestone Ford, right, along with daughter Sheila Hamp, arrives at the annual NFL owner's meetings in Phoenix on March 24, 2019.
Detroit Lions owner and chairwoman Martha Firestone Ford, right, along with daughter Sheila Hamp, arrives at the annual NFL owner's meetings in Phoenix on March 24, 2019.

Anyone who has been in or around the organization in recent years knows the Ford family yearns for a playoff appearance — a home playoff game, really — and considers that a necessary next step in the evolution of the franchise.

That does not guarantee a housecleaning will happen come January if the Lions fall short of that goal, but that will remain the next rung of success.

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Five games into the season, the Lions are long enough shots to win the NFC North that it’s not even worth discussing that possibility here. The Green Bay Packers (4-1), even after the butt-kicking they took from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday, are the team to beat in the division, with the smoke-and-mirrors Chicago Bears (5-1) running a distant but certain second.

The Lions as playoff contenders is more digestible — remember, there are three wildcard spots in each conference this year — and in that regard, not much has changed from Sunday’s so-what win over the lowly Jacksonville Jaguars.

Much has been made of the Lions’ soft middle-of-the season schedule, and that’s where we are now.

At 2-3, the Lions are in a lump of mediocre teams in the NFC, nowhere near as good as Seattle, Green Bay and New Orleans, and nowhere near as bad as the entire NFC East.

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Detroit Lions head coach Matt Patricia, center, during the game against the Jacksonville Jaguars at TIAA Bank Field on Sunday, October 18, 2020.
Detroit Lions head coach Matt Patricia, center, during the game against the Jacksonville Jaguars at TIAA Bank Field on Sunday, October 18, 2020.

Over the next six weeks, they play six of their mediocre (or worse) brethren, and while how they do in that stretch of games won’t reveal “major improvement,” it might set them up to play “meaningful” December football.

The Lions play three of the next four weeks against one-win teams, and they face one team with a winning record between now and Thanksgiving.

If they go 5-1 in that stretch — not a difficult ask, considering the competition, but not a layup for these Lions, either — they’ll enter the holiday shopping season with a legitimate chance to make the playoffs for the first time since 2016.

The Lions crushed the Jaguars, 34-16, on Sunday.
The Lions crushed the Jaguars, 34-16, on Sunday.

Hamp will have to decide if that constitutes the “major improvement” she seeks, or if the Lions simply will be back to where they were under coach Jim Caldwell: Proficient against the dregs of the league but incapable of consistently beating anyone else.

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Ultimately, that might be decided by how the Lions navigate their difficult December, with games against the Bears, Packers, Tennessee Titans and Bucs on consecutive weekends. But for those games to matter, they first must take care of these games these next six weeks:

Oct. 25 at Atlanta Falcons

The Falcons (1-5) destroyed the Minnesota Vikings for their first win of the season on Sunday and have a lot of Lions in them. They play bouts of really good football, especially on offense, and occasionally hang with some of the NFL's best, but usually find a way to blow things in the end. This game is a coin flip now that interim head coach Raheem Morris seems to have lit a fire under the Falcons, and if Julio Jones is healthy — and it looks like he is coming off a 137-yard, two-touchdown performance — it will take the Lions’ best defensive effort of the season to win this game.

Nov. 1 vs. Indianapolis Colts

At 4-2, the Colts are the lone winning team the Lions face over the next six weeks, but they’re flawed like most of the NFL’s middle tier. The Colts are top five in scoring, rushing, passing and total defense, but they rely on a haggard quarterback in Philip Rivers whom the Lions beat last year. In low-scoring games, anything is possible, and the Lions cannot afford to lose both of their next two games.

Nov. 8 at Minnesota Vikings

The Vikings have been the Lions’ kryptonite the past few seasons, winning five straight games in this series. Watching them now, though, they’re a mess. Kirk Cousins has 10 interceptions in six games, the defense has grown old before our eyes and there’s no telling when Dalvin Cook will be back. Cook could be a difference maker; he’s that good of a running back. But the Lions right now are better than the Vikings (1-5).

Detroit Lions defenders try to tackle Minnesota Vikings running back Dalvin Cook during the first half Sunday, Oct. 20, 2019 at Ford Field.
Detroit Lions defenders try to tackle Minnesota Vikings running back Dalvin Cook during the first half Sunday, Oct. 20, 2019 at Ford Field.

Nov. 15 vs. Washington

Washington (1-5) is as bad a football team as Jacksonville, maybe worse. Losing to them for a second straight season would be fireable.

Nov. 22 at Carolina Panthers

This is a game most everyone chalked up as a win for the Lions heading into the season, and I’m not sure people know what to make of it now. At 3-3, the Panthers are one of the surprise teams, playing above their talent level even without top running back Christian McCaffrey. Presumably, McCaffrey will be back in a month’s time, and we all know how good the Lions’ run defense is. Still, if the Lions fancy themselves as playoff contenders, this is a game they must win.

Nov. 26 vs. Houston Texans

The last leg of this winnable six-game stretch comes against a team I overrated coming into the season. Deshaun Watson is one of the best quarterbacks in the game, but — and Matthew Stafford’s most ardent supporters will second this notion — quarterbacks can’t do it alone. The Texans (1-5) have no other difference makers at the skill positions, one of the worst offensive lines, and by the time Thanksgiving rolls around, the shine will have worn off interim coach Romeo Crennell.

So there you have it. Six games against teams with a combined 11-25 record. All are winnable, most are loseable, and when the Lions are done with them, we should know how meaningful their December will be

Contact Dave Birkett at dbirkett@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: How Detroit Lions' schedule sets them up for playoff contention