Good morning, class. I hope you had a nice weekend. Now take out your pencils -- it's pop quiz time. Don't worry. This should be a breeze.
Which team is better in each of the following two scenarios:
(1) Team A, which finished a 16-game regular season with an 10-6 record or Team B, which finished 16-0 and defeated Team A in Team A's home stadium?
(2) Team A, which finished a 16-game regular season with a 9-7 record or Team B, which finished 15-1 and defeated Team A in Team A's home stadium?
Team B is the answer to both, right?
Wrong. At least according to the logic of the bloated modern NFL playoff. In both 2007-08 and 2011-12, a mediocre New York Giants team has been crowned champion over several teams that both previously defeated the Giants and finished with far better overall win-loss records than New York.
In 2007 the Giants finished the regular season at 10-6. New York played only six games against teams with a winning record during the regular season, recording only one win (against the 9-7 Redskins) in those six games. The average W-L record of the Giants' opponents in its 10 wins was 6-10. And yet, New York caught fire in the playoffs. After defeating a mediocre Tampa Bay team (9-7) in the wild card game, the Giants reeled off three consecutive victories over teams that had collectively beaten the Giants four times during the regular season. The end result? The Giants, a team that was at best the 6th best team in the NFL during the regular season, will forever be remembered as the league's champion.
This season, the Giants put together an even less impressive regular season. Despite playing only four teams with winning records, the Giants barely eked out a playoff spot with a 9-7 record. New York went 1-3 against playoff teams, its only victory coming against Super Bowl opponent New England. Much like 2011, the Giants defeated a mediocre opponent in the wild card round, and then reeled off consecutive victories against teams with far better records than, and previous victories over, the Giants. As a result, the 12-7 Giants are the 2011 NFC Champions, while 15-2 Green Bay, 13-4 New Orleans and 14-4 San Francisco (teams that collectively went 3-0 against the Giants during the regular season) are also-rans.
"What's the problem?", you might ask.
SHUT YOUR FUCKING CHOWHOLE, YOU INTRUSIVE PIECE OF HUMAN GARBAGE!, I might scream in response before taking several deep breaths and popping a couple of anti-anxiety meds.
There. That's better. I'm now floating on a pillowy cloud of serenity, and your snide inquiries no longer annoy me to the point of uncontrollable violence.
The problem is that the post-season success of the 2007 and 2011 Giants demonstrates the folly of using a single-elimination playoff to determine the "best team." The playoff elevates certain data points (i.e. those in the post-season) over others (i.e. those in the regular season), and bases its conclusion on only partial information. Critical data is simply tossed aside.
But data-trashing is just the first component of a two-part problem. A playoff is often necessary to decide which of two or a handful teams with relatively equal records should be crowned champion. It's not the only way, or necessarily the best way, but it's one way to break a statistical tie at the end of the regular season. Under the current system, however, the playoffs include teams that will never surpass the records of their opponents, no matter how well they perform in the post-season. Including such teams creates the possibility that a bad team will simply get lucky and, because playoffs exclude consideration of a huge chunk of relevant data, the playoff will pick the wrong team as champion.
Teams like the 2007 and 2011 Giants don't belong in the playoffs in the first place. No one will ever convince me that the 2007 Giants were a better team than the 2007 Patriots. It is more likely that New York simply got lucky, and beat a team that is far superior over a sample size that approaches statistical significance. The same holds true for the 2011 Giants, when compared to the Packers (and even New Orleans and San Francisco).
If we invite inferior teams to the post-season dance, we allow inevitable improbabilities -- instead of long-term track record -- to occasionally determine the champion.