Ranking the major sports by unpredictability of postseason
Sports are all about the playoffs. That’s where champions are crowned, where legends are born, where legacies are written. The postseason is the beginning of the “real” season in most sports, considering the goal is to win in the playoffs, not just the regular season.
Sometimes, the playoffs don’t always hold to regular season form, which is yet another reason we as fans love them so much. The postseason is predicated on unpredictability, and that unpredictable nature is why we tune in night after night to see who is really capable of outlasting the field.
College football debuted its new playoff format last year, and the last team into the field went on to win the national title to cement the playoff system in college football culture. But where does the unpredictability of that playoff rank among the more-established playoff formats in major American college or pro sports?
We aimed to answer that question with the rankings below:
6. NBA Playoffs: The NBA playoffs are a three-month extravaganza of basketball played at its highest-level, and the entertainment value is through the roof. The unpredictability, however, is lacking in comparison to other leagues’ playoffs. Sure, there are some lower-seeded teams that slip out of the first round, but it’s extremely rare that at least one of the top-two seeds in a conference doesn’t reach a conference finals, and even more rare that one of the perceived favorites entering the postseason doesn’t win it all. For instance, prior to this year, only four teams won the Western Conference in a span of 16 years, and two of those teams won 13 of those conference titles (the Spurs and Lakers). That’s as predictable as it gets.
5. College Football Playoff: I already know what you’re thinking: “Uh, Ethan, have you already forgotten how the lowest-seeded team in the first-ever playoff took down the nation’s reigning dynasty to win it all in a stunner?” No, I haven’t forgotten, and yes, the inaugural CFP validated the shift away from the BCS system. The unpredictability associated with Ohio State’s national title run was thrilling, but it wasn’t enough to move college football higher on this list. Ultimately, the CFP includes only the top-four teams from the 127-team FBS. The playoff itself is more exclusive than any other playoff in major American team sports, and that makes for some high-quality football. But because only the top 2 percent of the nation even reached the playoff (its often around the top 30 percent in other sports), it’s tough to call any win in the CFP an “upset.” And without upsets there’s little unpredictability, and we’ll see that come to fruition in the coming years.
4. NFL Playoffs: There are numerous examples of Wild Card teams with 8-10 wins out-performning their regular season numbers to make a run to the Super Bowl (the Giants did it twice with Eli Manning, and the Jerome Bettis Steelers fit this mold as well). There are also numerous examples of top-seeded teams led by league MVPs like Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers falling at home early in the playoffs. Because not just the postseason but the entire league format is a one-at-a-time method, the cliche “any given Sunday” truly takes form in the playoffs when it’s all about who’s playing well at the right time, not about who was the best team from September through December. For that reason, the NFL earns an edge over college football, at least until the CFP becomes a bit more established.
3. MLB Playoffs: The baseball playoffs are thrillingly unpredictable because while all the rules are the same, playoff baseball games are played completely different than regular season affairs. In the regular season, teams play 162 games and thus have the luxury of giving stars a day off, not having to overcompensate for minor mistakes and not having to worry about every little pitch and every last possible scenario. In the playoffs all those factors become extremely relevant. After a season in which no one game represents more than a drop in the bucket, each pitch in the playoffs is analyzed under a microscope and every scenario is broken down into dozens of potential outcomes. Managers manage differently in the playoffs. Pitchers work differently, and hitter must then adjust as a result. Because there’s such a shift in on-field culture from the regular season to the postseason, the baseball playoffs are one of the more satisfyingly unpredictable postseasons in sports.
2. NHL Playoffs: In hockey, there are hockey players and then there are goalies. That’s obviously over-simplifying matters a bit, but it’s not far removed from the true culture of postseason hockey. Every game is of course low-scoring, and it’s rare that a team ever amasses a lead greater than one goal. As a result, any single goal can affect an entire series, and teams that win in the playoffs often have the best goaltender, not the best team. So like the NFL, it’s all about whose goalie is playing his best at the right time, because a team can get out-shot 50 shots to two, but if one goalie makes 50 saves and the other allows two goals, it’s moot. Because so much rests on one man, and because no human is perfect (as far as we know), the hockey playoffs are as unpredictable as professional sports get.
1. March Madness: Was there ever any doubt as to what would rank atop this list? It’s called “Madness” for a reason, as every year small schools we’ve never heard of make deep runs into the tournament involving upsets of traditional power programs. The Big Dance is the largest single-elimination tournament in major American sports, so that alone gives it an unmatched edge in unpredictability. And considering how easily one man can take over a game (i.e Stephen Curry as part of Davidson’s Elite Eight run) and how unfamiliar most opponents are with one another, there’s even more unpredictability in play. Only in March can George Mason take down UConn (the team with more titles since 1999 than any in the nation) for a spot in the Final Four. That’s just the most recent of dozens of examples throughout history of why the tournament is so great. Again, it’s called “Madness” for a reason.