Before 2016, perhaps the worst playoff choke was when the 2004 New York Yankees blew a 3-0 ALCS lead against the Boston Red Sox. However, the past 9 months have given the world some of the most unprecedented postseason collapses.
In chronological order: the Golden State Warriors blew a 3-1 lead against the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2016 NBA Finals, the Cleveland Indians choked away a 3-1 lead against the Chicago Cubs in the 2016 World Series, Hillary Clinton relinquished a surefire victory against Donald Trump in the 2016 Presidential Election, and, most recently, the Atlanta Falcons lost the 2017 Super Bowl after going up by 25 points against the New England Patriots.
While all four of these collapses are of epic proportions, they all occurred under different circumstances and in different contexts. For all intents and purposes, we could chalk all these up as equally bad and call it a year, but people want order. So, let’s give the people what they want.
The Golden State Warriors
The beginning of the 2015-16 season saw the Warriors as having the second-best odds to win the title at 18%. The number one team? The Cavaliers at 28%. However, as the season progressed, we watched in awe and for some, disgust, as the Dubs jumped out to a 24-0 start, ultimately ending the season with an NBA-record 73 wins. Stephen Curry repeated as MVP, becoming the first unanimous winner, while also breaking his own three-point record by hitting 402 in the season.
By the conclusion of the regular season, the Warriors’ title odds had jumped to 42%, while the Cavaliers’ had dropped to 8%. However, the playoffs proved to be a much tougher task for the Dubs than the regular season had been.
While the Cavs cruised through the Eastern Conference (12-2 pre-Finals record), suffering only the briefest of scares against Toronto, the Warriors had it much tougher (12-5 pre-Finals record), including the previously unprecedented 3-1 comeback against the OKC Thunder in the Western Conference Finals.
The Warriors also dealt with the scare of Curry turning his right ankle in Game 1 of the Western Conference Quarterfinals and then again when he sprained his right knee in Game 4. Even after his triumphant return in Game 4 of the Portland Trailblazers series in which he scored 40 points (including a record 17 in overtime), Curry and the team still seemed off. It showed in the Conference Finals matchup against the Thunder in which the Warriors got thoroughly trounced in their Game 3 and 4 losses, by 28 and 24 respectively.
Despite the rough Conference Finals, the Warriors were still favored to win the Finals, heading into Game 1 with 67% odds to win it all. Fast forward to post-Game 4, and the 3-1 Dubs were sitting pretty at 96%. Even after dropping the next two, allowing the Cavs to tie the series back up at 3-3, the Warriors were still favored heading into Game 7 at 65%.
As Game 7 went back and forth, the Warriors still maintained the probabilistic edge to win the game and the series, with their win likelihood maxing out at 71.6% after a Draymond Green putback layup with 5:37 left in the fourth put them up 87-83. But as we all know, a LeBron block and a Kyrie three ultimately destroyed the dream of back-to-back championship victories and cemented, for now, the worst choke in NBA Finals history.
The Cleveland Indians
Heading into the 2016 MLB season, the Chicago Cubs’ young core propelled them to the top of the World Series favorites list at 4:1 odds (or 20% favorites) to win it all. The Cleveland Indians, despite their top 10 pitching rotation, were only listed at 16:1 odds (or roughly 6%).
At the conclusion of the regular season, the odds hadn’t changed much with the Cubs at 19% and the Indians at 7.1%. While the Indians (94-67) had a strong showing, the Cubs (103-58) were still heavily favored to win the World Series.
Even after the Indians swept the powerhouse Red Sox in the ALDS and the Cubs won a surprisingly well-battled NLDS against the San Francisco Giants, Chicago remained favored at 29.3% to 19.3% (odds increased simply because teams were eliminated).
As the Cubs and Indians headed into the World Series after convincing performances against the Dodgers and Blue Jays, respectively, the Cubs, while still favored, had lost the significant edge they had maintained against the Indians throughout the previous series.
As the World Series got underway, the probabilities were as follows:
Game 7 of the 2016 World Series may have been, at the time, the best sports game I had ever seen. Right from the get-go, Dexter Fowler’s leadoff home run set the stage for an epic battle between the offensive juggernaut Cubs and the finesse-pitching Indians.
That solo shot immediately decreased the Indians’ odds to 39.8%, a pit which they wouldn’t dig themselves out of until the bottom of the third when Coco Crisp led off with a double to left. After tying the game up 1-1 on a Carlos Santana single, a Javier Baez error pushed the Indians’ odds to a peak of 59.6%. But as the Cubs worked their way to a 6-3 lead, the Cleveland odds dwindled all the way down to 3.8% when Mike Napoli struck out in the bottom of the eighth.
However, three batters later, after a Rajai Davis homer tied the game at 6-6, the Indians were back in business with a 54.9% chance of victory. From there, the odds hovered, with no team gaining a significant edge until Ben Zobrist doubled home Alberto Almora in the top of the 10th to drop Cleveland’s odds from 41.9% to 9.6%.
The Cubs did not relinquish their lead (and their odds), tacking on another run, and despite an RBI by Rajai Davis (again) in the bottom of the 10th, held on for their first World Series title since 1908.
The 2016 Presidential Election
Regardless of political beliefs, the result of the 2016 presidential election was a surprise to most of America, and the world for that matter. The majority of news sources had predicted a Hillary victory from the outset, and even into the closing hours of Election Night. In fact, between June 8th and November 8th, FiveThirtyEight (whose prediction model I am using for these election statistics) favored Trump exactly once.
The models peaked for Hillary on August 14th with her probability at 89.2% and Trump’s at 10.8%. Heading into election night, she still held a significant advantage at 71.4% to 28.6%.
While this straightforward statistic is informative enough for most people, the FiveThirtyEight team calculated other statistics that, while trivial at the time, proved to be actually quite informative post-election.
The most telling harbingers for the election outcome were Clinton’s odds to win the popular vote but lose the Electoral College (10.5%) and Trump’s odds to win states that Obama had previously won (85%). As we know, Hillary did indeed win the popular vote and lose the Electoral college and Trump flipped five states from blue to red (Wisconsin, Iowa, Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania).
On Election Night, Clinton peaked at 77% after winning Delaware, Illinois, and Rhode Island. After that, however, her lead dissipated throughout the night, culminating in a Trump presidency.
The Atlanta Falcons
At 66/1 odds (1.5%), the Atlanta Falcons weren’t even favored to make the playoffs at the conclusion of the preseason. The New England Patriots, despite missing Tom Brady for the first four games of the season, were still 25/4 favorites (14%), ranking only behind the Green Bay Packers.
However, with Matt “Matty Ice” Ryan leading the charge, the Falcons finished 11-5 and secured their first playoff berth since 2012. Ryan finished 56 yards short of becoming the NFL’s 6th QB to pass for 5,000 yards in a season, finished second in passing TD’s with 38, and won the MVP award.
Heading into the playoffs, the Falcons had a 14% chance to win the Super Bowl and the Patriots 35%. After promptly handling both of their respective opponents (combined +76 points), the teams headed into a Super Bowl touted as a matchup between the league’s most high-powered offense and stingiest defense.
The pre-kickoff predictions had New England favored at 61%, making the Falcons the underdog at 39%.
A 0-0 first quarter favored the Patriots at 64.5% as their odds actually rose despite an uncannily lackluster beginning to the game. After three consecutive Atlanta touchdowns in the second quarter, the Falcons saw the odds shift in their favor, up to 91% with 2:21 left in the quarter.
With 9:40 left in the fourth and the score 28-9, the Falcons saw their win probability peak at a seemingly insurmountable 99%.
The Patriots responded by scoring the final 25 points of the game to cap off a 31-0 run and ultimately win the Super Bowl. Seeing as the Pats had at one point been down by 25 points (28-3), their comeback from that deficit ranks as tied for the 5th largest of its kind in NFL history (regular and postseason).
In terms of Super Bowl comebacks, New England stands alone at the top with the second biggest being a mere 10 points (also accomplished by the Patriots against the Seahawks in Super Bowl XLIX).
For my very professional ranking system, I will assess the blown leads via the following criteria: Odds to Win, Home-Field Advantage, Precedence, and Other Factors. The rankings for each category will go from biggest collapse to smallest based on the category at hand.
The difficult thing about standardizing each team (or candidate’s) breakdown is accounting for the different circumstances in which they occurred in. For the Warriors and the Indians, their collapses occurred over the final three games of a seven-game series. The Falcons blew their lead over the course of minutes in a single game. And Hillary’s campaign faltered over the course of months or even days, depending on how you view it.
For the sake of simplicity, I simply permutated the odds of the Warriors and the Indians losing games 5, 6, and 7 into one compound odd. The results had the Warriors with a 99.4% chance of winning one of the final three games and the Indians with a 97.5% chance.
Since the Super Bowl is one game and we can consider the election to be one long game, I simply took the peak odds for the Falcons and Hillary, which were 99% and 89.2% respectively.
From a purely odds-based perspective the biggest collapse ranking is as follows: Golden State Warriors, Atlanta Falcons, Cleveland Indians, Hillary Clinton.
Home Field Advantage
While home field advantage is often calculated into the odds, it’s generally a standardized league-wide aggregate as opposed to a team-specific percentage. Both the Warriors and the Indians played two of the last three games of the series at home. The Warriors (39-2 at home and 34-7 on the road in all pre-Finals games) had a +.122-winning percentage at home. The Indians (53-28 at home and 41-39 on the road) had a +.141-winning percentage at home. The Super Bowl, seeing as it was played in Houston, was a neutral site with no team gaining home field advantage.
I initially was going to classify the election as a neutral site as well. However, after reading several articles about Donald Trump flipping states, I realized I could actually calculate home field advantage. In the 2008 and 2012 elections, Democrat Barack Obama took home 65% of the electoral votes. Assuming 50% of the electoral college as a baseline, I gave Hillary a +.150 ‘home field’ advantage.
These calculations rank the home field advantage factor as follows: Hillary Clinton, Cleveland Indians, Golden State Warriors, Atlanta Falcons.
From a purely odds or statistics-based standpoint, any comparison in the world seems obvious. That’s the beauty of numbers; they are easy to compare and can explain a lot. However, without context, it’s hard to take numbers at face value. That’s where precedence comes in.
Though all of these comebacks or chokes (depending on your point of view) were highly improbable, precedence can suggest how unlikely each one was based on previous performances in similar circumstances.
Up until the last three games of the 2016 NBA Finals, the Golden State Warriors hadn’t lost two games in a row, let alone three. Before the 2016 NBA Finals, there were a total of 10 times (including the 2016 Western Conference Finals) where a team has comeback from a 3-1 playoff deficit. I could dive deeper into the specifics of Games 5, 6, and 7, but to sum it up, none of them required an extraordinary performance from the Cavaliers. Sure Kyrie’s 3 and LeBron’s block were otherworldly, but as a whole the Cavaliers played solid basketball over the course of the final three games — nothing more, nothing less.
After the Chicago Cubs completed their comeback after being down 3-1 after Game 4 of the World Series, they joined the rarified company of just five previous teams who had accomplished the feat. Again, I could get into the details of each game, but similar to the Warriors-Cavaliers series, while each game (especially Game 7) contained multiple extraordinary individual efforts (see Alberto Almora tagging up from 1st on a sac fly), each individual game was not unprecedented on a holistic basis.
The closest parallel I can draw to the Trump-Clinton upset is that of Truman-Dewey in 1948. Thomas Dewey’s +6% advantage over Harry Truman in the night-before polls is right in line with Clinton’s +4% advantage and the certainty of victory, as portrayed by the quintessential “Dewey Defeats Truman” headline, is eerily analogous. In terms of precedence, Dewey is the only other candidate that has been as overwhelmingly favored as Hillary Clinton, and lost. One can argue for liberal media bias or closeted Trump voters as reasons for skewed predictions, but those arguments can be made for all previous elections and are essentially standardized throughout the history of the modern polling system.
The great thing about the Super Bowl is that it is just one game. Barring the fact that it is the be-all, end-all of professional football, it plays exactly as any other NFL game would. As I mentioned earlier, the Patriots’ 25-point comeback was the largest in Super Bowl history, and fifth largest in NFL history. There are too many firsts to list, so here is a list that shows just how unique this Super Bowl truly was. Some of the highlights include the first overtime Super Bowl and the most passing yards (Tom Brady, 466) in the game’s history.
These somewhat subjective synopses rank the precedence factor as follows: Hillary Clinton, Atlanta Falcons, Golden State Warriors, Cleveland Indians.
Now I know this is going to sound biased coming from a Warriors fan, but if Cavs fans can complain (reasonably) about Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love being out for the 2015 Finals, I can point out the importance of Draymond Green’s suspension and Andrew Bogut’s injury. On the season, the Dubs went 77-13 with their starting center and power forward and 11-5 without. Simple math dictates that their winning percentage took a 17% dip when one or both of the duo did not play. In the one game (Game 5) that Draymond was suspended for, Bogut played 7:35 before leaving with a knee injury for the rest of the series. I am not saying that these absences caused or even explain the Warriors’ losses to the Cavaliers. All I’m saying is that these factors should mitigate the odds that the Warriors would have won (they still should have).
The only significant factor that I can come up with for the Cleveland Indians is Jason Kipnis’ freak ankle sprain while celebrating the Game 5 victory against the Toronto Blue Jays. This may or may not have resulted in three World Series errors, leaving his WS fielding percentage at .889 as compared to his regular season percentage of .981 (I know I have bashed fielding percentage in the past, but for a small sample size of seven games, it is decently reliable). However, regardless of the cause for his uptick in errors, Kipnis’ mishandles only led to one Chicago Cubs’ run in Game 2, a 5-1 Indians loss.
As with every political race, there is always a plethora of other factors. It would be pointless to explore all possible factors and explain or reason their impact on the race itself. Instead, I’m going to boldly (and potentially too generally) state that any factors that may have shifted the race, were either accounted for in the polls or counterbalanced by factors on the other side.
The Super Bowl, surprisingly, had very few, if any, other factors. A major setback for the Patriots was the loss of their star tight end Rob Gronkowski. However, they had played the entire playoffs without him and the gameplan for the Falcons probably didn’t change much from the NFC Championship to the Super Bowl.
These calculations rank the other factors as follows: Atlanta Falcons, Hillary Clinton, Cleveland Indians, Golden State Warriors.
The Final Call
I have decided to separate the four categories above into two super-categories. Odds and Precedence, I believe, are more heavily weighted than Home Field Advantage and Other Factors. If we add up the rankings (with lower being a bigger collapse), we see that the Warriors and the Falcons are tied in the O+P supercategory. When we take it to the tiebreaker supercategory of HFA+OF, the Falcons eek out the “victory” in terms of the season’s biggest collapse. For third and fourth place, the O+P supercategory places Hillary just above the Indians, leaving the final ranking at Atlanta Falcons, Golden State Warriors, Hillary Clinton, Cleveland Indians.
Before all the hate mail comes flying in, I’ll try to clarify my rankings one last time.
The Atlanta Falcons’ season pretty much came down to one half of football. With a 25 point lead and 30 minutes to go in the single most important game in maybe every Atlanta player’s life, they squandered away what was, statistically speaking, a sure thing. Sure you can argue that the Indians and Warriors had three chances to win one game, but individually, each of those games was extremely losable. The Patriots had no business scoring three times in fourth quarter, let alone converting 2 two point conversions as well. In the biggest game of the season, the Falcons choked and not even Matty Ice could Heimlich them out of this disaster of a Super Bowl.
The Golden State Warriors would have been number one on this list if the Falcons were only up by 18 instead of 25. As the favorite to win the championship almost from day one, there were and are no excuses. I know I mentioned injuries and suspensions in the Other Factors section, but the truth of the matter was that the Warriors straight up collapsed. This second ranking is more of a default than a rank, simply because the Falcons had a historic meltdown.
When I first thought of this article, I didn’t think Hillary was going to crack the top three (I know this is out of four). But after looking at the numbers, this truly was a collapse of epic proportions. I only rank her below the Warriors because of the fluctuations and secrecies of politics and polls. For all we know, Trump was the frontrunner the whole time, and the FiveThirtyEight model was just looking in all the wrong places. Nonetheless, it appeared to be an easy victory, and the parallels to the 1948 election gave Hillary’s breakdown the edge over the Indians.
As bad as the Indians looked blowing a 3-1 lead, I’m pretty sure that everyone outside of Cleveland knew deep down that the Cubs were going to win. Chicago was the frontrunner from the start and even after going down 3-1, they still had the players and the confidence to win it all. They just seemed too talented and Cleveland seemed too lucky for it to go any other way. Regardless, it was a great series and perhaps the best Game 7 I’ve ever seen, but it just seemed more like a Chicago comeback and less like an Indians choke.
So that’s it. The worst collapses of this past year of sports (and politics) are, in order from worst to least worst (I’m not calling it best): Atlanta Falcons, Golden State Warriors, Hillary Clinton, Cleveland Indians.