A big part of the NFL's appeal is all that "any given Sunday" stuff—a team like the Chiefs can come out of nowhere and look like world-beaters, while a team like the Giants can spend the first quarter of the season playing like the last reel of Horse Feathers. A lot of this uncertainty can be attributed to sample size—16 games and single-elimination playoffs mean that random shit reigns in the NFL—but across the league's media, knees start jerking in response anyway, random shit or no.
What if basketball and baseball had all the chaos of the football season? As a little experiment, I decided to find out. Here's how you NFLify the NBA and MLB season:
- The regular season is 16 games—each team's first eight home games and first eight away games. (For baseball, I went with first game of their first eight series, home and away.)
- Tiebreakers are decided by comparing the teams' records in their ninth home and away game, then the 10th if needed, etc.
- Playoffs are structured like the NFL (12-team, single elimination). There are only three divisions, so the team with the best record that doesn't win its division also gets seeded in the top four (like what the NBA does now).
- The playoff result is based on the first time the teams faced each other, on the correct court, after the 16-game "regular-season" is complete, if possible.
Below are the last three seasons. The top NBA teams win the vast majority of their games (and home-court advantage matters a ton, giving an advantage to high playoff seeds), so the league is pretty resistant to the wackiness of a shortened season. Nevertheless, there are plenty of weird early-season fluctuations to totally bone some good teams over.
- The Utah Jazz start 2-3, but win nine of their next 11 to take the four seed in the West. In the actual season, they started 27-13 (.675), then lost 30 out of 42 to end the season below .500, and well out of the playoffs.
- Although they miss our hypothetical playoffs, the LeBron-less Cleveland Cavaliers post a respectable 7-9 record, knocking off the Celtics in their home opener. The NFLified NBA media spend the season cooing all over the scrappy, overachieving Cavs, who in overwrought Sunday newspaper stories across the country are made to stand in for their similarly forsaken but resilient hometown. In the actual season, the Cavs went on to lose 36 of their next 37 games.
- The first season of the Big Three era starts slowly for the Miami Heat, as a 9-7 start narrowly clinches a wild-card spot and a divisional-round exit at Boston. In the actual season, the Heat started 9-8, then went 49-16 (.754) en route to the No. 2 seed in the East.
- The Memphis Grizzlies have a terrible NFLified NBA season, losing 10 games and finishing tied for 11th in the West. The real-season Grizzlies sat at 22-24 through 46 games, but they went on a 24-12 run to end the season, claiming the No. 8 seed, knocking off the Spurs in a huge opening-round upset, and taking the Thunder to seven before bowing out.
- The Portland Trail Blazers start 7-2 and hold on to take a wild-card spot. After a 14-10 start in the actual season, they went on to lose 28 of their last 42 (including nine of their last 10).
- The San Antonio Spurs take a four seed but upset the Thunder at home in the playoffs to advance. The two teams met in the conference finals in the actual season, with the Spurs going up 2-0 before dropping the next four.
- The Boston Celtics, champions of the 2010-2011 NFLified season, and the Los Angeles Lakers both regress by four wins to go 8-8 and miss the playoffs. Imagine how this would get written up in an equivalently NFLified NBA media. Imagine the freakout on both coasts, the Plaschke and Shaughnessy columns, the "has the window shut for good?" stories. In reality, both rallied from their slow starts (15-17 for the Celtics, 15-12 for the Lakers) to win their respective divisions. The Lakers were killed by their early road play; they started 1-7.
- The Oklahoma City Thunder get burned by the single-elimination playoff for the second straight season, taking the No. 1 seed but losing to Spurs at home in their first playoff game. In real life, the Thunder advanced to the finals as the three seed.
- The NFL-style standings are remarkably similar to what actually happened: Of the 12 teams that took a six seed or higher in the real playoffs, 11 make the playoffs here. Of these 11 teams, nine are within one spot of their actual playoff seed. The Milwaukee Bucks make the playoffs as a six (they were an eighth seed in real life), and the Denver Nuggets break from a three seed to a five seed.
- The Chicago Bulls, sans Derrick Rose, win their wildcard game and then knock off the Heat and Knicks in successive road games to make it to the finals. The actual Bulls took the first game against the Heat in the conference semis, but lost the next four.
- The Miami Heat can't quite match the Knicks' strong "season" and drop to the two seed, losing to the Bulls in their first playoff game. In this NFLified universe, all you hear about anywhere are the goddamn Knicks, about how the luster has returned to the franchise, how Carmelo is the real cream of the league. In real life, the Knicks faded and the Heat won the East by 12 games, fighting their way to a second straight championship with Game 7 wins against the Pacers and Spurs.
- The Indiana Pacers, darlings of the 2011-2012 "playoffs," start 4-7 and can't recover, missing the postseason. The actual Pacers started 10-11 before going 39-21 (.650) to win the Central Division and nearly knocking off the Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Below, we break down the last three MLB seasons (remember, we're only counting series openers, so Oakland's six wins against the Astros in its first 16 games don't count for 38 percent of the A's season). Even the best baseball teams still lose about 40 percent of the time, so an NFL season turns the sport into an unwatchable mess of mediocrity and disappointment. Enjoy!
- The Toronto Blue Jays, Cleveland Indians, and Florida Marlins all dominate the regular season, tying for the best record in baseball at a sparkling 12-4. Jose Bautista posts a .453/.608/1.038/1.646 line with nine home runs and is the unanimous MVP, and Edwin Rodríguez wins manager of the year. In real life, not one of these teams finished above .500.
- The Washington Nationals' 9-7 record is good enough for the two seed in the NL, thanks to a ridiculous amount of league-wide parity (17 teams finish with seven to nine wins). After a first-round bye, they top the Giants and Braves in successive home games to make it to the World Series Game. The real-life Nationals–with no Strasburg, Harper, or Gio Gonzalez–were still one year away from competitiveness. They finished 80-81 and missed the playoffs by 9.5 games
- The Philadelphia Phillies, New York Yankees, and Detroit Tigers all have middling seasons and miss the playoffs. In the actual season, these three teams had some of the best records in baseball (102, 97, and 95 wins respectively), although none of them made it to the World Series.
- The St. Louis Cardinals also go 8-8 and miss the playoffs. In real life, they won 23 of their last 32 (while the Braves lost 20 of their last 30) to sneak in as the NL wild card, before upsetting the Phillies, Brewers, and Rangers to bring home a title.
- The Cleveland Indians build on their successes from the 2011 "season," going 11-5 to clinch a first-round bye in the American League. In the actual season the Indians started 50-49 and ended on a terrible 18-45 streak, finishing with 94 losses.
- The Philadelphia Phillies, Miami Marlins, and Boston Red Sox don't make it to 10 wins, but it's still enough to secure spots in the wild-card games. The Phillies win out to make it to the World Series Game. Over the winter the NFLified Red Sox front office, tantalized by the team's potential, drops major dollars on Zack Greinke and toys with a megadeal for Josh Hamilton. In reality, none of these teams was actually a contender: The Phillies started 54-65 before fighting their way to .500, while the Red Sox and Marlins both sold away their big contracts (to the Dodgers and Blue Jays, respectively) before losing 93 games.
- Both the Detroit Tigers and the San Francisco Giants squander talented lineups and narrowly miss the playoffs. While neither of these teams was a top seed in real life—the Tigers won 88 games, the Giants 94—both made it to the World Series.
- The Oakland A's and Atlanta Braves both finish among the worst teams in the baseball, with 10 losses apiece. In real life, both made the playoffs but failed to advance.
- The Texas Rangers go 11-5 to clinch a first-round bye and eventually advance to the pennant game. The actual Rangers lost at home to the Rays in a tie-break game, their second straight single-game elimination loss.
- The New York Mets start 4-5, but win five of their last seven to make the playoffs! In the actual seasons, the Mets last day above .500 is April 24 and sad stuff like this happens.
- The Los Angeles Dodgers post a terrible 5-11 record and finish in the cellar of the NL West. Given that the Dodgers spent over $200 million in salary and are locked into at least $160 million for 2014, Don Mattingly is almost certainly fired (mid-season, when Los Angeles drops to 4-8). In real life, the Dodgers start 30-42, before going on an absurd 42-8 run, eventually becoming the first team to clinch a playoff spot.
- The Pittsburgh Pirates start 2-7 and miss the playoffs yet again, instead of clinching their first appearance (and winning season) in 20 years.
So what can we learn from this little thought experiment? Everyone knows that the larger sample of an NBA and MLB season smooths out the spikes and dips, and that by the end, unlike in the NFL, teams more or less are what their records say they are.
But it's sort of instructive to think about why, say, an 8-8 Celtics start doesn't trigger a complete regional meltdown on the order of a hypothetical 8-8 Patriots finish, particularly in the context of Spencer Hall's post a few months ago wondering why the NFL press is so relentlessly shitty. It's not because Boston's basketball media are so much better than their football media. It's because the NFL presents a unique challenge: In no other league do individual games mean so much, and in no other league does the entire season tell you so little. That's how you end up with a manic-depressive media writing crazily overdetermined stuff based on a very small number of games. So to Hall's list, let's add one more reason the NFL media suck: No one knows anything, really, but everyone has to say something.