Can The Detroit Lions Outrun The Chicago Bears?

>> 11.08.2011

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).


Jeremy Reisman,  November 8, 2011 at 12:39 PM  

If the Lions lose, the Bears would actually have a pretty big stranglehold on the tiebreaker. After head-to-head, the next tiebreaker is conference record. A loss to the Bears would put the Lions at 4-3 in the NFC and the Bears at 6-3. The Bears' remaining games in the NFC are Minnesota, Seattle and Green Bay, while the Lions have Green Bay twice, Carolina, New Orleans and Minnesota. The Lions likely couldn't afford to drop two of those games to keep pace with the Bears in the tiebreaker.

Ty,  November 8, 2011 at 2:21 PM  

Actually, I looked it up:

Two Clubs

* Head-to-head (best won-lost-tied percentage in games between the clubs).
* Best won-lost-tied percentage in games played within the division.
* Best won-lost-tied percentage in common games.
* Best won-lost-tied percentage in games played within the conference.
* Strength of victory.
Strength of schedule.
* Best combined ranking among conference teams in points scored and points allowed.
* Best combined ranking among all teams in points scored and points allowed.
* Best net points in common games.
* Best net points in all games.
* Best net touchdowns in all games.
* Coin toss


Neil,  November 8, 2011 at 2:40 PM  

Of course, watch, this will be the one year that the Lions go 11-5 and miss the playoffs because two 12-4 teams grab the Wild Card.

anon,  November 8, 2011 at 7:54 PM  

The Lions, Bears, and Falcons are really the only 3 teams in the NFC wild card race at this point, assuming the entire NFC East doesn't miraculously go into beast mode.

While they're a good team and they've buckled down big time since their loss to the Lions, I can't see the Bears going 6-1 the rest of the way. But anything can happen.

jammitch!,  November 8, 2011 at 10:30 PM  

SRS believes that the NFC East should do exactly that... adjusting 3 points for home field advantage, it predicts 11-5 for both the Cowboys and Eagles. It also predicts a Millenesque collapse for the Giants.

Here's the predictions for the NFC "contenders" - everyone with either at least a .500 winning percentage or a positive SRS rating:
Packers 15-1 (7-1 remaining)
49ers 15-1 (8-0)
Saints 12-4 (6-1)
Eagles 11-5 (7-1)
Lions 13-3 (7-1)
Bears 11-5 (6-2)
Cowboys 11-5 (7-1)
Falcons 10-6 (5-3)
Giants 8-8 (2-6)
Bucs 5-11 (1-7)

I have no idea on the relative order of the 11-5 teams, and I don't really care to calculate it as long as the Lions are on the right side of the picture.

If this happened, then an 11-5 team would miss the playoffs. However, as usual, 25% of these predictions will be wrong. For the 8 teams above 10 wins, 84% of their future games are projected wins. We'd expect them to actually win 75% of that 84%, as well as 25% of the 16% they're expected to lose. That comes out to something closer to a 67% win rate, a decrease of 17%, or 1.34 wins over 8 games. This neglects the fact that most of the projected losses for contenders are against other contenders, but I don't feel like figuring that much out.

Long story short, we probably won't actually be having an 11-5 team miss the playoffs.

jammitch!,  November 8, 2011 at 10:35 PM  

Two notes:
* The Eagles are 3-5, not 4-4.
* The Bears gained substantially in the SRS by winning on Monday night, climbing all the way to 7.7. I don't think it changed their relative position in the standings at all, but 1.4 points is nothing to sneeze at. The Lions gained a little as well, going up to 12.1.

Angus Osborne,  November 9, 2011 at 4:42 AM  

Awesome, Lions only team to beat the Packers. Let's finish the season now.

Jeremy Reisman,  November 10, 2011 at 12:19 PM  

Scratch this, I'm an idiot and wrong. Didn't realize that two division teams fighting for a wild-card spot reverts to the divisional tiebreaker. My apologies.

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