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Lions' Playoff Chances Come Down To December Performance

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The Lions will need a strong December run if they want to continue celebrating this season. Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images.
The Lions will need a strong December run if they want to continue celebrating this season. Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images.

December: the most critical month of the year for NFL teams. Also, if you’re a Lions fan, usually the time of the football season where playoff hopes have gone to die.

But this year is different, right? The Lions sit in first place going into their first December game of the 2013 season, and own division tiebreakers over both Chicago and Green Bay. They have very few injuries to worry about, and none to their most important offensive and defensive players. This Lions team is poised for a playoff appearance—they just have to navigate December first. However, as history has shown, that has not always been an easy task.

Since the Super Bowl era began, prior to the 1966 season, the Lions have been downright bad in the month of December. Their record in the 47 years through 2012 has been a dismal 66-105-2, good for a .387 winning percentage. To put that into context, over a 16-game season, that would equate to 6.2 wins—so basically, the Lions have played as well as a 6-10 team in the month of December since 1966.

Of the 47 years from 1966-2012, the Lions have made the playoffs in just 10 of those years, meaning 37 seasons have ended in either late December or the first couple days of January. In those 37 seasons, the Lions’ record from December until the end of the season (to account for early January games) has been 40-91-2, which amounts to a winning percentage of .308. Simply put, losing seasons have been characterized by December struggles. The Lions have achieved a winning record in December just seven times out of those 37 years, and only once since 1989 (4-1 record in 2010).

There is a bright side, though, I promise. In the 10 seasons that the Lions have produced a playoff team since 1966, their December/early January play has generally put them into the position to clinch a postseason berth. Outside of their 1999 December implosion (1-4 in their final five games), and a 2-3 December/January record in 1982, the Lions have played winning December football in their playoff seasons. In their 10 playoff seasons, the Lions have put together a record of 26-14, good for a .650 winning percentage. Put into a 16-game context, the Lions have played 10-6 December/January football in their playoff seasons.

Playoff Years December Record
1970 3-0
1982* 2-3
1983 2-1
1991 3-0
1993 3-2
1994 3-1
1995 4-0
1997 2-1
1999* 1-4
2011 3-2
Total (10 seasons) 26-14 (.650 winning percentage)
Non-Playoff Years December Record
Total (37 seasons) 40-91-2 (.308 winning percentage)

*denotes losing December/January record in playoff season

The moral of this story is, when the Lions play above-.500 football in December/January, the team is looking at a strong chance at making the playoffs. More times than not, the Lions’ December play has been indicative of their season as a whole, so a winning record in the final calendar month has usually showed positive results for the season overall.

So where do the 2013 Lions fit into this? Well, based on their upcoming schedule, playing indoors the final three weeks, and the current tiebreaker scenarios, playing winning football will get them a spot in the playoffs. With 10 wins, the best the Bears could do is tie the Lions, which would result in a Lions division title. The Packers have no chance at 10 wins after their Thanksgiving Day loss in the Motor City. Splitting their final four games would more than likely result in a playoff appearance, as both Green Bay and Chicago would have to win out to pass the Lions in the NFC North.

With four games left to play in the regular season, the Lions are in control of their own destiny in the NFC North. If they can put together a winning month of December—something that only 15 Lions teams have done in the Super Bowl era—playoff football will be headed to Detroit this winter.