NFC contenders should hope Lions don't earn 7th seed, which says a lot about how far Detroit has come

Right now, the Detroit Lions are one of the three or four best teams in the NFC.

They weren’t one of the three or four best at the start of season, when they limped to a 1-6 start. It’s the reason why, at 8-8, they not only don’t have one of the four best records, they don’t even have a clear path to the postseason.

That’s the hole the Lions dug themselves and the hole they are trying to climb out from. The latest step was a 41-10 destruction of Chicago that moved them to 7-2 in their last nine games. Yes, the Bears are terrible, but what Detroit did to them is what good teams do (or try to do) to bad teams.

This was an annihilation. This was a show of force.

“As a whole, we have probably played better games, just a little, but this is certainly up there,” head coach Dan Campbell said.

And it was the latest proof that any actual NFC contender — certainly Minnesota or even San Francisco — should be hoping that the Lions somehow don’t get that seventh playoff spot and instead head harmlessly into the offseason.

Maybe it’s by losing in Week 18 at Green Bay. Or maybe it's Seattle winning out and blocking their path. Whatever it is, the sight of a white-hot Detroit team is suddenly something to … fear?

Jameson Williams and the Lions have arrived either half a season late or half a season early, depending on how you look at it. Either way, the future is bright. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

Calling Detroit a dangerous playoff team flies in the face of history. This is a franchise that hasn’t won a single playoff game in 30 years. And its most recent triumph, a divisional-round victory over Dallas after the 1991 season, represents its only postseason win since 1957. The Lions are 1-11 in playoff games the past 64 seasons.

This is the worst operation in NFL history and the first two months of the season suggested nothing had changed. They even traded away star tight end T.J. Hockensonto division rival Minnesota no less – seemingly a white flag wave on the season.

Then everything started to click. One victory beget another, one burst of confidence led to the next. They beat the Giants and the Jaguars and the Vikings. They lost a competitive game to Buffalo and stumbled on the road in Carolina, but other than that, they’ve been terrific.

The seventh playoff spot is just two years old, but for the most part the chase involves a lot of average or worse teams with average or worse records. These teams have seven or eight wins for a reason.

Detroit does too. But that was then, not now. This is a very good team with a very average record. That’s a big difference.

It’s what makes the Lions more than a little scary for a No. 2 seed expecting a relatively easy game.

Against the Bears, quarterback Jared Goff went 21-of-29 for 255 yards and three touchdowns, as he continues to lead a team that is averaging 28.9 points a game across the past nine weeks. During that stretch he has completed 65.8 percent of his passes and has tossed 17 touchdowns against just one interception.

“You give him just a minute to see it, he’s going to put it on the spot,” Campbell said. “I’m glad he’s here, I’ll tell you that.”

Jamaal Williams had 144 rushing yards and a touchdown. D’Andre Swift had 78 and a score on the ground and 39 yards and a TD through the air. Rookie wideout Jameson Williams had a 40-yard run as he tries to round into playing form after returning from a torn ACL suffered in Alabama’s national title game loss a year ago.

Meanwhile, the defense grows more fearsome. Chicago ran just 50 plays. After the first quarter, it gained just 85 yards.

Bears quarterback Justin Fields was sacked seven times. Three came courtesy of rookie James Houston, an inspired sixth-round pick out of Jackson State. First-round rookie Aidan Hutchinson had four tackles, half a sack, a fumble recovery and an interception. It was Hutchinson’s third interception of the year, the most for a defensive end since Richard Dent in 1990.

It was the fifth time in nine games the Lions have held an opponent to fewer than 20 points. Other than Fields breaking off some long first-quarter runs, this was near perfection from a unit that earlier this season ranked 32nd in the league.

The Lions may not be a Super Bowl contender. They may not even make the playoffs, or they might flame out once there. They can also beat anyone in the NFL right now though, which is why no one should want to play them.

They’ve arrived either half a season late or half a season early, depending on how you look at it. They either started too slow to salvage 2022 or got going a bit ahead of a 2023 schedule.

Or maybe this run is setting them up long-term and short-term.

“I think this is what you want them to taste,” Campbell said. “This has to become the norm. Once you begin to understand this, then it becomes you are playing for the division, you are playing for where your seeding is going to be, that’s coming.”

With five top-80 picks, including two first-rounders, in the 2023 draft, the future is bright. But the present is too. That means next week will be something close to a playoff game at Green Bay, whom Detroit beat back in early November to start this run. The opportunity is coveted.

“I think it means everything,” Campbell said. “I think it is just so special. It’s as good as it gets. You get to go to Lambeau, historic Lambeau and get to earn your right. I just think this is as special as it gets. You wouldn’t want it any other way.”

Campbell knows what he has here, a very capable team that for over two months has been about as good as nearly anyone in the NFL.

He may even get a chance to show it in the playoffs.