Elimination from possibility of reaching postseason

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Elimination from possibility of reaching postseason, or being eliminated from playoff contention, refers to when the record of a team in a sports league has fallen so low that it is mathematically impossible for the team to qualify for the postseason, even if they win all their remaining games and the team(s) they are trailing lose all their remaining games. This occurs when the number of wins paired with losses of higher-ranking teams in the league or division needed in order to reach first place in the division or a wild card spot (where applicable) exceeds the remaining number of games to be played.

The concept of "being eliminated from possibility of reaching the post-season" is applicable to sports leagues and programs where qualifying requires a first-place finish or at-large berth (i.e., a "wild card" spot). It does not apply to certain sports leagues, often (but not always) for some high school and college-level sports where all teams participate in the playoffs or conference tournament, regardless of record. It also does not apply to those sports that do not have a postseason or whose postseason criteria are too subjective to determine until the selectors make their decisions (a classic example of the latter is top-level American college football, where the number of teams is so high, and the season so short, that a panel of judges typically is tasked with sorting out the numerous teams with equal records and determining who gets to play in the College Football Playoff or, in previous years, the BCS National Championship Game).

Definition[edit]

When a sports season is reaching its conclusion, ranking watchers, such as the media, keep track of which teams have clinched divisions and playoff berths, and what teams close to this point must accomplish in order to achieve this ahead of the season's conclusion. Often, a team that has won a championship (such as a conference or divisional championship) is automatically granted a postseason berth, regardless of record, and there are still teams remaining in contention for one or more "wild card" or "at-large" playoff berths. At the same time, the poorer performing teams face the prospect of elimination before and sometimes long before the season is over. Elimination occurs when, regardless of the outcomes of all unplayed games on the league schedule, the eliminated team is unable to qualify for advancement to the playoffs. In exceptional cases, such as forfeits against a leading team, an "eliminated" team may be chosen to advance in their stead.

The term "elimination" when used in this sense differs from elimination when used in the postseason. In the postseason, a team is said to be "eliminated" when it is defeated by another team it is playing in a round of the postseason, thereby ending the team's season. But a team eliminated during the regular season continues to play the remaining games on its schedule. There may still be some value to the team in playing these games. (In both cases, elimination prevents the team from further pursuing the league championship.)

Effect on rest of the season[edit]

While a team that has been officially eliminated must still play its remaining games, the team's behavior may differ from one that is striving for the postseason or has already clinched the playoffs. And among those "eliminated" teams, the team's behavior will vary.

Oftentimes a team would be eliminated from clinching a division title, home field advantage or other postseason advantages but the wildcard or lower seeded spot might still up for grabs thus some teams may play with an effort to win in order to choose its first round opponents.

When the team is eliminated entirely from postseason contention it does not need to worry about winning to qualify for the postseason, the urgency to win may be lower. As a result, coaches may give playing time to backup and other lesser players who would not be used when a win is urgent, thereby giving them some real-game experience in an attempt to develop them. This is especially true at the high school and college levels, especially if a coach sees a number of players that are "promising." Former starters (such as seniors on a high school or college team) will often still be asked to play a role in helping develop their younger teammates, but their roles may be different than before. Additionally, a team may take greater risks during the remaining games in order for players to master new skills or try plays a coaching staff believes will help them win in the future. And if a team has many younger players the coaching staff will sometimes play different combinations of players to see which ones work best together, another building block for future seasons.

Often, an eliminated team will now have the opportunity to play the role of spoiler – that is, possibly eliminate one or more teams from contention that had a chance to make the playoffs (especially if they were "on the bubble," or holding one of the lowest qualifying positions while still in contention and, as a result, their own qualification depends on the outcomes of other games and/or other teams' performances) or – if the opponent is in the playoffs, cause them to get a lower seed in the elimination tournament and/or lose home field advantage they had already provisionally secured.

Pride and opportunity also play into eliminated teams still striving to achieve victory on multiple occasions. These teams often want to go down swinging – that is, play their best even if there isn't a realistic chance they can defeat, much less compete with, future opponents. Sometimes, teams will still have to play an opponent they have a good chance of defeating, even if the opponent has made the playoffs: The teams may match up well on the field and have comparable playing ability, despite a disparity in win-loss records; the other team has players who are unavailable (starters are resting, key players are injured or suspended, etc.); or the opponent is from a lower division and, even with the opponent's excellent win-loss record, the team with the losing record can rather easily outmatch the opponent and, although with some work, readily achieve victory. For cases such as a divisional or geographical rivalry, a losing team nearly always puts in effort against their rival as it would be considered bad form by the fans of either team, along with the players and outside observers to not play with a full effort against a team which is considered the rival most identified with by a team.

Other reasons eliminated teams still try hard to win include achieving an improvement over the previous year's record, attempting to finish the season with a winning record (especially if winning the final game is needed to achieve that goal), or the team wants to avoid the stigma of a last place finish or worse –- if they have yet to win -– a winless season. For teams in sports that have been eliminated from a wild-card berth but qualifying is still possible by winning a conference tournament, the objective might be to win as many games as possible to try to earn as high of a seed as possible for the conference tournament, thereby increasing their chances of making the playoffs after all.

In some cases, a team with a severely losing record may attempt to achieve the worst record in the league in order to attain a high draft pick. This is sometimes referred to as "tanking" the remainder of the season, and is sometimes done by putting players on the field that are too young and/or inexperienced to realistically be expected to win a game. Conversely, if the team is planning on making changes to its roster or coaching staff as a result of the poor performance, it may do so during this time in order to give new players and coaches some experience and try to keep players – those who may be sought by other teams – with their team.[1]

Still, in some cases, a team with a losing record – or one that has yet to win – may not even try to win and/or play very poorly in the remainder of their games; in other words, they "quit," even against other teams that are eliminated and/or have performed exceptionally poorly during the season. Here, the philosophy might be that the current season is best forgotten once concluded, and that with changes (sometimes wholesale) during the offseason things will be better in the future. Often, these cases arise when:

  • Team and/or player morale is poor.
  • A coach is seen as a poor fit or otherwise does not relate well with others – players and other coaches, the media, his superiors and so forth – and a change in leadership is apparently forthcoming or desired. Often, there will be rumors of a coach's departure – often by dismissal or forced resignation – once the season is concluded, with said rumors often beginning several games before the end of the season. This will be true, even at the high school level.
  • With most or all pre-season goals – and new and adjusted goals made as the season progresses – no longer achievable, the team no longer sees any value or worth in their remaining games, even if some of those games are considered by others to be "winnable."
  • In sports where there is a high rate of injury, the risk of going onto the field for a meaningless game, and subsequently suffering a serious injury, outweighs the mostly nonexistent benefits. (See also: resting the starters)
  • The team is protesting against the league. In 2003, St. Bonaventure University's basketball team protested sanctions the NCAA levied against the team (the NCAA stripped the team of all their wins and barred them from the 2003 Atlantic 10 Men's Basketball Tournament for having a transfer student with inadequate academic credentials on the squad) by outright forfeiting the last two games of the season.[2]

The National Hockey League and National Basketball Association both impose a draft lottery to discourage teams from deliberately tanking the rest of their season for a higher draft pick. The injection of random luck into the draft process can have the unintended consequence of depriving a team that is legitimately deprived of talent the opportunity to acquire a top prospect (this is especially true of the NHL, where because players are drafted at a younger age compared to the NFL or NBA and must typically complete junior and minor league development before reaching the majors, there is typically only one NHL-ready prospect in any given draft).

Effect of eliminated teams[edit]

Teams eliminated from playoffs can affect other teams in the league as they play, often having a spoiler effect on teams still in contention for playoff spots.

For example, on the final day of the 2011 Major League Baseball regular season, the long eliminated Baltimore Orioles defeated the Boston Red Sox, who had been seen all season as contenders for the playoffs. This Red Sox loss, combined with a Tampa Bay Rays win over the AL East winner and Red Sox rival New York Yankees, knocked the Red Sox out of the playoffs in favor of the Rays.[3] On the same day, the NL East champion Philadelphia Phillies defeated the Atlanta Braves, and the Braves loss, combined with the St. Louis Cardinals victory over the NL Central rival Houston Astros, eliminated the Braves from the postseason.

In a testament to the Giants-Dodgers rivalry, the 1982 Los Angeles Dodgers knocked the 1982 San Francisco Giants out of playoff contention on the second to last day of the season. With the Dodgers needing one more win to tie the lead for the division, the Giants defeated the Dodgers on the final day to eliminate their rivals from contention, much to the delight of the fans at Candlestick Park.

On the second-to-last day of the 2015-16 NHL regular season, the long-eliminated Ottawa Senators defeated the Boston Bruins, who were in playoff contention for the entire season; this result, combined with a win by the Philadelphia Flyers over their in-state rival, the Pittsburgh Penguins, knocked the Bruins out of the playoffs in favor of the Flyers.

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