As the old joke goes, “You don’t have to outrun the bear, just the guy next to you.” But on Monday night, the Chicago Bears gained a step on the Detroit Lions. With their 30-24 defeat of the Philadelphia Eagles, the Bears drew within one game in the NFC North division race—or honestly, with the Packers running away with it, the NFC Wild Card race.
This Sunday the Lions will take on the Bears in an afternoon showcase, and nothing less than their entire season rests on it.
I called the Kansas City game a “must-win.” If the Lions were to make the playoffs, they had to win every winnable game in the front half of the schedule. Now, the Lions’ contest in Chicago is a “must-win” for a different reason: the difference between victory and defeat is enormous.
If the Lions win in Soldier Field, they’ll be two games ahead of the Bears in overall record, and own all the tiebreakers over the Bears. Effectively, they’ll be three games ahead of the Bears with seven left to play—an almost-insurmountable lead. If they lose, they’ll be tied with the Bears, tied head-to-head, tied on division record . . . tied. Huge lead, or tied. That’s the difference between winning and losing this game.
Going forward, both teams host the Chargers. Both will travel to Oakland. Chicago hosts the Seahawks, Detroit hosts the Panthers. Both teams will play the Vikings once more—Detroit at home, Chicago in Minnesota. Both will travel to Lambeau.
So, five out of the seven remaining games are essentially a wash, in terms of strength of schedule. In the two remaining games, the Bears host the Chiefs and play at Denver—but the Lions host the Packers and travel to New Orleans.
You see where I'm going with this: the Lions have two much more difficult games than the Bears. According to SRS, the Lions are the second-strongest team in football (+11.9)—but they play the #1 team twice, projecting a 5-2 stretch run. The Bears (+6.3) “should” go 6-1, by the same metric.
Again: if the Lions beat the Bears, they “should” go 12-4 and possess all the tiebreakers, leaving Chicago effectively two games back at 11-5. If the Lions lose to the Bears, the records are reversed; the Lions will have failed to outrun the Bears.
Here's the good news: the Lions don't need to outrun the Bears to make the playoffs. They just need to outrun the Cowboys (4-4), the Eagles (4-4), the Falcons (5-3) and the Bucs (4-4).