The worst sports analysis I’ve ever heard comes courtesy of Yahoo! Sports’s usually-respectable Shutdown Corner. In the wake of the Arizona Cardinals’ 40-11 thrashing of the Indianapolis Colts, the site handed the reins to Eric Edholm — not to be confused with Eric Edhelms — and he had this to say:
The Cardinals are hot. They are dangerous on defense and vastly improved on offense. They’re a team we must take notice of in a deep and confusing NFC picture. It’s a dreaded phrase, but if the playoffs started today, Arizona — and not the San Francisco 49ers — would be in the big dance.
“If the playoffs started today” is certainly a — I wouldn’t call it “dreaded” — silly phrase. It’s just another one of those sports cliches I usually skim over without a second thought. It’s a lazy way to note that one team is ahead of the other in the standings. Not harmful, but not really meaningful, either.
But here, I draw the line.
You see, when the aforementioned phrase is typically uttered, it’s in the context of some plausible alternative universe that follows the rules of football.
What do I mean?
Imagine Team A is 6-5, and Team B is 5-6. In a universe where (when?) the NFL plays an 11-game season, Team A would make the playoffs. Obviously, the point is academic because the NFL plays 16 games in the universe we actually inhabit, but the underlying comparison is easily understood: through 11 games, Team A has been better than Team B. We can all wrap our heads around that.
This is not such a situation. Yes, the Cardinals currently sit second in the NFC West — behind the Seahawks — and the Niners sit third, but take a look at their records:
The only reason the Cardinals would make the playoffs over the Niners is — yes, they have 7 wins to the Niners’ 6 — because they have played eleven games and the Niners have played only ten.
The statement, “If the playoffs started today” is therefore more unhelpful than usual. An imagined universe of 11 games is only different in degree — indeed, this very National Football League has contemplated an eighteen-game schedule. But a universe in which every team plays a different number of games would be different in kind. No NFL, in any conceivable universe, would ever begin the playoffs while teams in undecided races had played fewer games than their divisions rivals: no Cardinals would ever play 11 games and make it into the playoffs a half-game ahead of some 10-game Niners.
And it’s not like you can argue that even if the Niners won tomorrow night, they’d still sit in third place: San Francisco beat Arizona 32-20 on October 13, meaning that if the teams had identical records heading into the playoffs, the Niners are going in and the Cardinals are going home. It’s certainly possible that the Forty-Niners lose tomorrow and Arizona gains sole possession of second place, but until that’s happened, nobody’s going to the playoffs in any universe.
From now on, this is how it ought to be done:
the Cards are technical wild card-leaders.
So let’s try sticking to the universe we’ve got — even if it’s a universe that’s stuck with Yahoo!