It’s not a good time for the Detroit Lions to start sounding panicky.

But that’s what they seem to be after two straight losses that have them stuck on six wins, the high-water mark during the Matt Millen era, which started in 2001 and produced a 24-72 record going into this season.

“You let a team come in here and beat you that isn’t better than you?” Jon Kitna said after the Lions lost 16-10 to the Giants on Sunday. “It’s unacceptable to me.”

Forget whether Detroit is better than the Giants. New York was better for most of Sunday’s game and on the scoreboard. Also forget that Michael Strahan, a world-class yapper himself, immediately parried Kitna in one of those silly jawing matches that usually takes place before games, not after them.

Kitna’s statements seem to show an underlying insecurity after two straight losses, with 9-1 Green Bay coming up on Thursday. If the Lions lose to the Packers – and they are 3-point underdogs – it will be their third straight defeat and second in a row at home, where before Sunday’s game they were unbeaten and averaging 31 points a game.

If the season ended now (that silly phrase), the Lions would make the playoffs as the NFC’s second wild-card team behind the Giants. But their psyche seems a bit shaky, not surprising for a team that hasn’t made it to the postseason since 1999.

While Detroit fans nervously anticipate a third straight loss that could douse their high hopes, here’s a look at the playoff races taking shape after the 10-game mark, when things tend to start sorting themselves out.


New England (10-0) will clinch the AFC East if it beats Philadelphia on Sunday night. Anyone want to predict otherwise? Anyone want to predict that, barring injury, the Patriots won’t finish unbeaten? Anyone want to predict they won’t cruise to the Super Bowl?

The most interesting other AFC team might be Jacksonville (7-3), which is only a game behind Indianapolis in the South. Yes, everyone assumes the Colts will win because they’re the defending NFL champions, they have Peyton Manning and they’ve won the division four straight seasons.

But the Colts are badly hurt. Aaron Moorehead became the third of their four top wide receivers to be injured when he went out Sunday with a back problem. Manning isn’t Manning without them; no QB would be.

Jacksonville, meanwhile, survived three weeks without David Garrard, who returned from an ankle injury Sunday and led the Jaguars to a 24-17 win over underachieving San Diego.

Assuming the Jaguars beat Buffalo at home next week (pretty good assumption), mark down Dec. 2 at Indy as a very important game. And Tennessee continues to hang around, certainly a wild-card contender and maybe another challenger.

Despite a distressing loss to the Jets on Sunday, its third loss in five road games, Pittsburgh (7-3) will almost surely win the North. It’s still a game ahead of Cleveland, effectively two because it beat the Browns twice.

Cleveland (6-4) is a wild-card contender despite a stat that should eliminate any team from playoff contention: last in the league with 294 points allowed, almost 30 a game. Romeo Crennel and the Browns deserve good things – since returning to the NFL in 1999, they have won more than six games only twice and made the playoffs just once, in 2002.

Just call the West horrible and leave it at that. San Diego (5-5) leads, but is having an awful season for a team with so much talent.

Maybe the city should fire the Spanos family and general manager A.J. Smith for bungling the coaching situation. If they wanted to fire Marty Schottenheimer after going 14-2, they should have done it as soon as he lost in the playoffs and hired Wade Phillips, then their defensive coordinator.


Dallas and Green Bay (both 9-1) will play Nov. 29 for what is likely to be home-field advantage in the playoffs. Most of the country will miss that game because of the standoff between the NFL Network and the nation’s largest cable companies. Neither side seems ready to move before this game, with another big NFLN game to finish the season: the Patriots, likely in pursuit of a perfect season, at the Giants.

The Cowboys lead the East, where none of the four teams is under .500. Barring the unforeseen, they will win it – they have two convincing wins over second-place New York (7-3).

The Packers are clearly the best team in the North, although they have two games left with the Lions, starting with the Thanksgiving matchup. But as Detroit is starting to fade, the Packers are getting better, more balanced offensively with Ryan Grant emerging as a decent running back.

The other two divisions are likely to go to Tampa Bay and Seattle (both 6-4) although Arizona (5-5) could challenge the Seahawks. Kurt Warner is playing pretty well for a 36-year-old quarterback with a torn ligament in his left elbow, and the schedule is relatively easy.

Seattle is playing better since Mike Holmgren decided to emphasize the pass. The Bucs are playing decently, but the South turns out to be a gimme if the Saints don’t run off another four-game winning streak. Carolina is going nowhere with Vinny Testaverde as the fill-in QB.

Unless the Giants fold, hard to do against what at worst is a middling finishing schedule, they will be one wild-card team. The other? If the Lions can’t handle prosperity, look to the Cardinals or to the Eagles or Redskins (each 5-5). Of course, the Eagles play at New England on Sunday night and now QB Donovan McNabb has a sprained ankle.

So yes, it’s getting shaky for the Lions, who have lost to all three of those 5-5 teams, which knocks them out of almost all tiebreakers.

Not only do they still face the Packers twice, but they also play Dallas on Dec. 9 and at San Diego the next week; maybe the Chargers will be straightened out by then.

And they had better learn to run the ball.

After being held to minus-18 yards in Arizona, they came out running against New York, rushing for 19 yards on four carries on their first possession. Then they had seven carries for 6 yards the rest of the game.

Not the way to make the playoffs.

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