Obviously, the NFL is greatly popular and Super Bowl Monday really ought to be considered a national holiday. Seriously, take a look at Google. The idea has legs. But as far as crowning the best team? Sorry, I think the NFL does a horrible job of that. First of all, there’s the one-and-done format. I don’t think the nature of football allows anything different, so this isn’t necessarily a complaint. And we see by the popularity of March Madness that one-and-done and the randomness it brings certainly has an appeal. But many times, you end up finding yourself surprised when the consensus best (or second best) team actually ends up winning the whole thing in the end. It seems far too often that a quarterback gets red hot at the right time (see Joe Flacco) or a defense suddenly finds itself (see the 2006 Colts). It also feels like Wild Card teams have been wildly successful as of late, which seems to bear out after looking at the Football Hall of Fame website. It at least seems to confirm that if a Wild Card team is hot, don’t bet against them. Of all those teams that reached the Super Bowl, only four have lost. The last one was in 1999 (Titans coming up just short against the Greatest Show on Turf), which has been a little while now. It’s a lot of fun, but I don’t think anybody really believes the Giants were a better team than the Patriots either Super Bowl, or that the Falcons should have beaten anybody in the playoffs last year (except the Colts).
The NHL does play best of seven series the whole way through, which you would think would be good. And, well, it is, but somehow it just doesn’t quite translate. Many times, similar to NFL quarterbacks, picking the team that will hoist the Stanley Cup means picking what random goalie will get super hot. It was Jonathan Quick a couple years ago. Jaroslav Halak took an exceptionally good playoff showing with the Canadiens* into becoming the savior for the Blues (which hasn’t quite panned out).** Maybe surprisingly, both times the Blackhawks have won the Stanley Cup lately, their goalies were not particularly hot. Good, yes. Corey Crawford especially showed some real flashes of brilliance last year. But nothing as to what we’ve come to expect from Stanley Cup winning goalies. Related to this, hockey has a reputation of big upsets in the playoffs. The current format has been going for 19 seasons now. An eight seed has won in 11 of those seasons, with the Islanders damn near making it 12 last year. Somewhat related to that, the Presidents’ Trophy winner has only captured the Stanley Cup eight times since it was introduced for the 1985-86 season. In terms of competition, I still stand behind the NHL playoffs as the best in terms of “ratcheting up,” but there’s no denying it’s a bit of a crapshoot.
*While filling in for an injured Carey Price, the Canadiens pulled off a pair of stunning upsets of the Capitals and Penguins, both Cup favorites to start, before falling to the Flyers in the conference finals.
**Not that Halak has been bad, but he’s never shown quite what he did for that month or so in Montreal again. He and Brian Elliott are a true 1 and 1A situation in St. Louis, which was wonderful last season, but crapped out spectacularly in the playoffs.
I was going to put baseball first, and I could very easily be swayed to change this order, but for right now, I’m putting it second. It is by a sliver, though. Playoff baseball is a joy to watch, and pretty much the reason October was allowed to exist. A strong reason to put baseball at number one is how exclusive it is. From 1902 to 1969, only two teams got into the postseason. Directly to the World Series. If we were still under that system, there would be absolutely no doubt about baseball being the purest playoff. In 1969, things were necessarily diluted a bit with the introduction of the League Championship Series. It had to be done, there were just too many teams to go without it at that point. Even at that, though, only four teams would still be enough to put MLB at number one. I’ve written here before I think MLB ought to go back to this system. Go back to two divisions, get rid of interleague play so you can properly determine your division champions, and then we’ll start at the LCS in October. If you couldn’t be the best out of seven or eight teams over the course of 162 games, well, too bad. You had your shot. I understand that’s not happening, though. Seven or eight team divisions is pretty heavy for professional sports, I understand. So the wild card was introduced for 1994, but would have to wait until 1995 to debut, because, well, you know. I do appreciate that this first round is an abbreviated five game series, resisting the call of other leagues going to full seven game series for all rounds. It might be a bit of a strike against the “satisfaction” we’re going for here, but as said earlier, that’s not a bad thing. What is a bad thing is introducing a second wild card and how that has been integrated. When you completely change the entire philosophy of how you determine your best teams at a point in time where it absolutely matters most, that’s just not a good system. The last strike putting baseball in this spot is how a hot pitcher or hitter can be ridden to a championship. It’s not nearly to the same level as football or hockey, though, which is why the gap between baseball and basketball (spoiler alert?) is much, much smaller than the gap between baseball and hockey.
I mean, at this point, you can probably piece together why I put the NBA here. Sure, you can ride hot players, but due to the nature of the sport, your hot players are more than likely your star players. Furthermore, because the NBA plays entirely seven-gamers for the playoffs, it would be harder for a “lesser” player to catch fire and steal a whole series. If the NBA still played a best of five first round, I would probably have MLB and NBA swapped. That isn’t an endorsement, however. NBA (and NHL) playoffs take for-freaking-ever between the long series and just how many teams get in. The inclusiveness of the NBA playoffs was almost enough for me to knock it back to number two. The only reason the NBA is here is because we judge players on how many rings they get. This happens in other sports, but not nearly to the level that it happens to basketball. It’s not good enough to win once, like it (typically) is in football or hockey. Baseball puts more emphasis on individual achievements (like 3000 hits or 500 home runs) for historical arguments than it does team achievements like pennants. But basketball? Sure, LeBron has a couple rings now. But Jordan had six. Kobe has five with the (remote) possibility of more. Bill Russell has eleven sitting around. When your historical worth as a player is so directly tied to championships, that’s a pretty good indication that your playoffs carry an awful lot of merit as to crowning the actual best. And it bears out. As much as I didn’t like them, Jordan’s Bulls were the best, and they won a ton. The Kobe-Shaq Lakers were the best. They kept winning. The Heat have been the best team as of late, and, well, here they are. It’s not a perfect system, but even upset winners (like the Mavericks a couple years ago) usually can point to their stars that would be expected to have rings.