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Tuesday, January 18, 2005

In Praise of Blowout Victories 

Ah, TMQ, the great explainer of football. There's a funny story about my current interest in the NFL: I started reading Easterbrook's "Tuesday Morning Quarterback" column (this was back when it was part of Slate), and it was so interesting I began to watch the football games so I could keep up with the column.

But this note has very little to do with TMQ, and only a little to do with football. Across all sports, we idolize the close game, the close series, the dramatic comeback. Red Sox go down three games, then come storming back to win four in a row to defeat the hated Yankees? That's a story! Red Sox toast subsequent opponent in four straight games? Not so interesting.

I beg to differ. To the extent that sports standings and playoffs have any meaning, it is to bring to life the idea of "may the best team win." We decry games decided by factors beyond the control of the players, like a blown call. The fundamental drive is to see the contest decided in favour of the best team. Indeed, we basically use the contest to decide the matter of best team. And then we forget all about the losers.

If you're going to do this, doesn't a game (or series) that's too close to call invalidate the process? When a game goes into overtime, it largely becomes a crapshoot, since you can hardly say that if a game is tied at full time, the better team is clearly the one that scores the next goal. You've already determined that the two teams can play each other close enough to tie after a full game! The overtime period (especially a sudden-death overtime) is a crude mechanism. Look at what happened last weekend: Jets miss two field goal attempts, and that makes the Steelers a better team. Sure, the Steelers made theirs, but the Jets got into winning position twice, and on average, their kicker should have made one of those kicks. So you'd expect, most of the time, that the New York Jets had won the game. Except they didn't.

So a close game tells you little about which team is superior, and suggests that the resulting standings change, be it a better league record or advancement in the playoffs.

But a blowout, now that tells you something! Win 47-17 or 20-3, and you've demonstrated statistically meaningful dominance. Were the Falcons and the Pats better than the Rams and the Colts? All signs point to yes.

Close games have their own rewards (drama, entertainment, good NFL film fodder), but I'll take a statistically meaningful blowout.

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