After losing three of their first four games and falling behind the Minnesota Vikings in the NFC North, it looked like the Detroit Lions were facing another long season that was doomed to unofficially end in December.
Entering its Week 5 home game against the Philadelphia Eagles, there wasn’t any real reason to believe that Detroit could actually compete for what would be just its third playoff appearance of the century. But a last-minute win over the Eagles was only the beginning for a 9-4 Lions team that’s currently riding a five-game winning streak and in the thick of the NFC playoff race.
Facing the three-win Chicago Bears, the Lions had to overcome a pair of their starting quarterback’s costly fourth-quarter miscues to extend their well-timed winning streak after Matthew Stafford threw two interceptions—one of which was returned for a touchdown, in the final frame of last Sunday’s divisional match-up. Ultimately, Stafford made up for his mistakes by rushing for a seven-yard score with just a few minutes remaining to give Detroit the 20-17 win. But if the Lions are going to claim their first NFC North crown in 23 years, they’ll have to fight through several key injuries while facing what’s arguably the league’s toughest remaining schedule.
This Sunday, Detroit’s daunting three-week war begins with an afternoon clash on the road against the 9-4 New York Giants, and also includes a trip to the Lone Star State to face the NFC East-leading Dallas Cowboys in Week 16 before returning home to host Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers in the regular season finale.
Above all else, the dislocated middle finger on Stafford’s throwing hand that’s forced him to wear an adapted glove for protection at practice this week, and caused issues with his accuracy during last week’s win over Chicago, is the Lions’ main concern heading into Sunday’s game against the Giants.
But last week’s game against Chicago was played in the cozy confines of Ford Field, and the wet weather that’s forecast for this weekend’s date with the Giants will undoubtedly test the severity of Stafford’s injury. Understandably, Lions’ head coach Jim Caldwell could only offer the obvious when asked about the injury during Wednesday’s pre-game conference call.
”You know what, we are going to work our way through that this week and kind of get a sense of it,” said Caldwell via ESPN. ”It is his first time, so we will see how it goes.”
Along with Stafford’s injured finger, Detroit is also expected to be without the services of injured dual-threat running back Theo Riddick when it takes the field on Sunday—a loss that the Lions’ 29th-ranked rushing attack can’t afford and an absence that the unfriendly weather is sure to magnify. With Riddick sidelined and third-stringer Zack Zenner also questionable, rookie Dwayne Washington will be expected to shoulder a much heavier workload against an improved Giants’ defense.
Following their visit to East Rutherford, the Lions will look to become just the second team to defeat the 11-2 Cowboys when they square-off with the NFC’s top squad on Monday Night Football. But if Detroit loses both of those games and Green Bay goes 2-0 over the next two weeks, football fans could be treated to a divisional slug-fest to decide this season’s NFC North champion when the Lions host the Packers in Week 17.
For the record, the Vikings will host the Indianapolis Colts this week and travel to Green Bay in Week 16 before entertaining the Bears, while the Packers are spending this weekend in the Windy City before hosting Minnesota in their final home game next week and travelling to Motown in Week 17. Although they currently own a two-win lead over their division rivals, the Lions’ remaining schedule has leveled the playing field.
While Detroit has earned its current position atop the NFC North by winning eight of its last nine games, and beating Minnesota twice in three weeks, only three of the Lions’ nine victories have come against teams with winning records—and two of those three were against the Vikings. And if they’re planning on the post-season, Caldwell’s ”Cardiac Cats” will have to beat more playoff-bound opponents during the next three weeks than they have all season with an injured M.V.P. caliber quarterback.