Lions close to playoff berth in NFC race

The Lions would lose tiebreakers with Arizona and Seattle, but they would win tiebreakers with Philadelphia and Dallas.

Tim Fuller

ALLEN PARK, Mich. — The Detroit Lions are edging closer to a rare playoff berth with three weeks remaining in the NFL season.

More than likely, they will wrap up at least a wildcard bid by winning their next two games against Minnesota (next Sunday at home) and Chicago (Dec. 21 on the road).

There’s also still the chance of clinching their first division championship in two decades by winning those two plus the regular-season finale at Green Bay.

However, if they only win one of their last three games, and finish 10-6, the Lions could be left out of the postseason once again.

In reality, they are one of six teams from the NFC North, East and West — two from each division — vying for five available slots, with the conference’s other bid going to the lowly South division champ.

Of those five spots, three will go to the division champs (Detroit or Green Bay in the North, Philadelphia or Dallas in the East, and presumably Arizona or Seattle in the West), while the wildcard berths likely go to the top two second-place finishers from those divisions.

It’s quite the logjam in this NFC race, provided the teams from the South, which is currently led by Atlanta at 5-7, are thrown out.

All of the other NFC playoff contenders are within a game of each other, led by Arizona (10-3) and Green Bay (9-3 entering Monday night’s game against Atlanta), followed by Philadelphia, Seattle, Detroit and Dallas all at 9-4.

The Lions would lose tiebreakers with Arizona and Seattle, but they would win tiebreakers with Philadelphia and Dallas.

Here’s why:

— The tiebreaker with Arizona would be based on head-to-head matchup, which the Cardinals won 14-6.

— The tiebreaker with Seattle would come down to their records against common opponents. Both have played Green Bay, Carolina, the New York Giants and Arizona. The Lions are 2-2 in those games, and the Seahawks are 4-0.

— The tiebreakers with both Philadelphia and Dallas would be based on records against NFC opponents. Detroit is 7-2 against the NFC while Philadelphia is 5-4 and Dallas 6-4.

Lions coach Jim Caldwell isn’t talking playoffs just yet. He’s trying to keep his players focused on the next game.

Sunday’s 34-17 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers suggests that his team is doing just that, unlike a year ago when the Lions got upset at home by the Bucs during their 1-6 late-season collapse.

"Didn’t play perfectly, but they played well," Caldwell said of Sunday’s win. "It was a really good win for us."

One of his biggest concerns going down the stretch is an ongoing emphasis on reducing penalties.

The Lions committed nine totaling 122 yards against Tampa Bay.

"That’s an area that we’ve got to continue to improve, plain and simple," Caldwell said. "I’m more interested in winning, but I know one thing: If you have too many of them (penalties), they lead to deficiencies, they lead to problems, they lead to losses. That’s an area that we have to get straightened away."

EXPERIENCE OVER YOUTH

Four weeks after being the hero with a game-winning, sliding touchdown catch in the final minute, Theo Riddick became the odd-man out in the Detroit Lions’ offense.

Reggie Bush returned from an ankle injury and that left Riddick with no snaps offensively on Sunday. Riddick did get in for seven plays on special teams.

"Theo does a lot of things that Reggie does," Caldwell said. "When Reggie’s out, Theo kind of takes on a number of the same roles. When Reggie’s back, there’s only one spot for one guy."

Bush, in his ninth NFL season, has rushed for 217 yards on 61 carries in his eight games with one touchdown. He also has 27 receptions for 226 yards.

Riddick, in his second year in the league, has 19 carries for 47 yards, along with 27 receptions for 272 yards and three touchdowns in 11 games.

Some are wondering whether Riddick’s young legs might be the better option over Bush’s experience at this point.

Not Caldwell.

"It’s a guy that’s done it, that’s done well," he said of Bush. "The guy’s still capable, still a talented individual, can still take it the distance if you give him a crack. That’s how we feel about it."

EXTRA POINTS

— Caldwell, on the personal-foul penalty called against defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh for his forearm to the helmet of Tampa Bay quarterback Josh McCown: "You can see where his initial contact was made and then from there the forearm slid up. It will be for the league to make a determination on it (for a possible fine). He had two that were almost identical. One was not flagged."

— Tight end Joseph Fauria reinjured his ankle in Sunday’s game and was noticeably in pain afterward. His status for practice this week is unclear. "We’ll see what’s going to happen with him," Caldwell said. "There’s a few guys that always after a ballgame are a little worse for wear."