For weeks, the Detroit Lions have been losing momentum in the NFC playoff race. They came into today out of playoff positioning for the first time all year, and morale was low with a tough game in New Orleans tonight sans Ndamukong Suh.
But while nothing’s changed regarding tonight’s game at the Superdome, the Lions will at least enter it knowing that their playoff chances have already improved drastically based on the events that took place Sunday afternoon.
Just look at the state of the two teams that held the NFC’s wild-card spots heading into Week 13.
The fifth-seeded Bears managed just three points in a home loss to a bad Chiefs team. It’s hard to use the “we didn’t have our starting quarterback” excuse when you lose to a team led by a guy named Tyler Palko at quarterback, but Chicago can definitely use Matt Forte’s absence to help explain what happened at Soldier Field this afternoon.
Two weeks after losing their second-best offensive player for an indefinite amount of time, the Bears lost their best offensive player to a knee injury early in today’s game. Without Forte, Marion Barber led the team in rushing with just 44 yards on 14 carries.
They couldn’t sustain drives, and on the rare instances in which they hit the KC red zone, mistakes did them in.
First, an illegal formation penalty cost them a touchdown in the second quarter (they settled for a field goal, their only points of the game).
Then, on their next possession, a nine-yard Hanie sack and a delay-of-game penalty brought them out of field goal range and they were forced to punt.
And later, with Chicago trying to tie the game in the final minutes, Hanie threw an interception in the end zone (one of three on the day and six in two weeks).
They were out of their element without Forte and Cutler. The good news is that it doesn’t sound like Forte tore anything. The bad news is that there are only four weeks remaining in the season and the Bears are now 0-2 in the post-Cutler era (after winning five straight prior to the Cutler injury).
The injuries hurt, obviously, but the circumstances surrounding this loss were particularly painful. In the end, this fluke play was the difference on a nightmare day for the Bears.
At the same time, the sixth-seeded Atlanta Falcons were equally as disappointing in Houston, where they lost to a fifth-round rookie making his first career start. To boot, the Texans were without Andre Johnson and Brian Cushing for solid chunks of the game. But Atlanta still blew a chance to get a leg up on their wild-card competitors.
Wade Phillips’ defense completely shut down Michael Turner and Matt Ryan. Turner pulled a Marion Barber with 44 yards on 14 carries while Ryan completed just 43 percent of his passes. Atlanta’s only touchdown came after Gary Kubiak foolishly handed them a very short field by attempting a 54-yard field goal with a 10-3 lead. Julio Jones and Roddy White each had crucial drops (what’s new?) and the Falcons defense couldn’t make stops when it mattered.
Now at 7-5, the Falcons don’t know who to cheer for tonight. A win from the Saints puts New Orleans up 2.5 games in the NFC South, which pretty much means the fat lady will be warming up there. But a win from the Lions knocks Atlanta out of the playoff picture for the time being.
With injuries and mistakes plaguing everyone involved in the race, it’s beginning to look as though we’ll be using the words “by default” to describe how the eventual wild-card teams managed to get into the playoffs.
And for the Packers, 49ers, Saints and Cowboys, that’s great news.