LI: The scourge of the erratic, the destroyer of the deserving and the saviour of the hot-streakers. With the NFL play-offs already well underway it got me thinking about how fair the playoff system really is in sport. It’s a conversation that’s usually brought up every playoff season, usually by the fans of teams that have just been eliminated in whichever sport it is – but do they have a valid point? Are playoffs unfair? Or are they just an excuse to keep the season interesting for the teams who clearly won’t win their respective leagues. With me I’ve invited fellow Fred contributor and hate-mongerer Billy Turner to discuss the issue. Billy…

BT: Playoffs in football are ridiculous. If you look at the Championship there are loads of teams that are coming up into the Premier League that finished 5th or 6th in the league. I’m sorry, but if you can’t come above Leicester then you don’t deserve to be in the top division. Blackpool, Burnley, Watford and West Ham have all been promoted to the top flight after finishing lower than 4th, and how have things turned out for them? Apart from West Ham they all got relegated in a hurry, didn’t they? People keep complaining about how teams are yo-yoing and free-falling and parachuting from the Premier League, but if you keep chucking in teams where Dean Windass is their star player how can you expect them to compete with the rest of the league?

LI: But wouldn’t that be boring? Teams that are in 11th or whatever at Christmas-time would have nothing to play for the rest of the season.

BT: You mean like in the Premier League? I don’t hear anyone complaining about that.

LI: There are European places to fight for.

BT: And that’s going to be Chelsea, Man Utd, Man City, Arsenal, Liverpool and Tottenham. I could have told you at the beginning of the season; it hardly makes me a prophet, does it? Then you’ve got clubs like Fulham and Stoke that finish in 8th and somehow get to play in Europe – but don’t get me started on that. In the Premier League the top four teams get the most money and they go on to be the best teams, and the cycle repeats itself; you need to do the same thing in the Championship. Give the top three teams promotion and money and they’ll get better. It’s not just fair – it makes economic sense.

LI: But teams who get promoted in the automatic places get relegated, too. Birmingham have been relegated twice, West Brom keep going up and down, Sheffield United.

BT: Uh…

LI: And you’d also lose out on all the great playoff games. The Blackpool-Cardiff game a few years ago was a classic.

BT: You mean the game between a team with the players and resources that were ready for the Premier League and a manager who had been there before, against a team with a Cornish-moron for a manager, a rundown stadium that needed to be repaired to fit Premier League standards and who only won because of a dodgy Brett Ormerod goal.

LI: Yeah, that’s the one.

BT: I guess you’re going to tell us how everything makes much more sense in America now, aren’t you? I tell you one thing – Blackpool complained that the playoffs lasted too long; by the time they won the final [May 22nd] the other two promoted teams had already started making signings for the Premier League. If we had it your way we’d have a best-of tournament that would last eight weeks like in America. What good would that do?

LI: American football doesn’t have a best-of tournament. And they call them “series.” And they don’t last eight weeks! The baseball World Series is seven games over something like nine days, ice hockey is five games over a couple weeks and the NBA is two weeks as well, I think.

BT: Well I am sorry.

LI: You better be. There is nothing more magical, more shocking, more controversial than the NFL playoffs.

BT: You’re just saying that because you just won a £20 bet, though.

LI: So? For one, the final weeks of the season are still important to the teams that have already qualified. Take the New England Patriots, they won their division with one week to play, but they still had a first round bye and homefield advantage to play for. Then you’ve got the fact that no matter how good or bad a team has been during the season, it all comes down to one match – it’s like if the Premier League ended with a knock-out tournament to decide the winner. When was the last time the title race had any drama about it going in to the last week? Probably not since the year Blackburn needed to win on the last day to win the title. Imagine if that happened every year.

BT: It would get boring.

LI: What?

BT: The reason that game is so memorable is because it was a one-off.  It’s like what Kierkegaard said, you know, the quote that he said.

LI: No. What was the gist of it?

BT: It was like; if you witness something unbelievable too often then it will become believable. Like how I always loved Monster Munch until I ate them all the time. They got same-y.

LI: Wow. That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard. Listen to this example –

BT: [rolls eyes] Here it comes.

LI: Last year the Seattle Seahawks scraped their way into the playoffs by winning on the last day of the season. The only reason they got into the playoffs was because the rest of their division was so bad, and they honest-to-God had conversations about changing the NFL rules to stop a team so bad from getting into the playoffs again. In the Wildcard round they played the New Orleans Saints, the defending Super Bowl champions. And they annihilated them, 41-36. The most memorable thing about the game was a 67-yard touchdown run by Seahawks running-back Marshawn Lynch, which the crowd cheered so loudly at that it shook the foundations of the stadium. Literally. Some scientist noticed seismic activity a hundred yards away from the stadium; it caused a very minor earthquake.

BT: Again, you’re telling me about a completely undeserving team lucking their way to a win. That’s not what sport is about. This is like that scene in How I Met Your Mother where Lily asks Barney, “when you watch The Karate Kid you actually root for that mean blonde boy?” and Barney says, “No, I root for the scrawny loser from New Jersey who barely even knows karate.”

LI: You can quote verbatim from sitcoms but when it comes to Soren Kierkegaard you’re lost? And trust me, when your team wins a playoff game you’re not complaining–

BT: Yeah, but when they lose you sure are. Look at all the teams that lose playoffs finals; do they get promoted the next season? No, because they’ve come so close and failed it’s worse than not making the playoffs at all. Players leave, managers resign or their sacked and they usually slump the following season. Do you call that “fair?”

LI: But when you win… Two years ago I watched Swindon play Charlton in the League One playoff semi-final, and the second leg was one of the best games I’ve seen in my life.

BT: You say that so often it’s lost all meaning.

LI: Swindon won the first leg 2-1 at home, but were 2-0 down with fifteen minutes to go in the return game when we had our captain sent off. We pulled a goal back and sent it into extra-time, where Charlton also got a player sent-off and it eventually went to penalties where we won 5-4. I didn’t even care that we lost in the final, it was such a great game and represented what play-offs – and football – is all about.

BT: And how did you do the next season?

LI: We got relegated… I see.


Billy Turner would like to remind you about why American football is stupid:

Meanwhile, Luke Irwin really thinks you should see Marshawn Lynch’s earthquake-inducing touchdown: (SPOILER: It’s not quite as earthquake-inducing as that touchdown in the new Dark Knight Rises trailer.)