Misery Loves Company: A Look at 50 Point Margins of Victory

by Jeeves

The Lakers’ spanking of the Cavs, last night, got me thinking, not about the newest bit of schadenfreude courtesy of Lebron (see Nate’s take of LBJ’s tweet), but rather about the sheer size of the margin of victory.

Quick anecdote time: I saw the 112-57 margin of victory on SI and pointed it out to my girlfriend. She seemed unperturbed by the 55 point thrashing and after a few seconds asked, “Is that a lot?” I responded, “In any [of the mainstream] professional sport[s] a 50 point margin is huuuge, whether it’s basketball or football or well, I guess in either of those two sports.” As she digested that comment, my mind quickly flitted to the relative difficulty of achieving a 50 point margin in those  sports and then to the frequency of such a feat.

So I thought today we could take a quick look into those two questions.

Higher Degree of Difficulty, Basketball or Football?

Before I spoil the ending, let’s first take a quick look at the factors that add to the degree of difficulty in each sport. First and foremost, it’s hard to score 50 points in the NFL, let alone win by that margin. Since the merger, the NFL has seen a score of at least 50 points on 84 separate occasions, including two overtime games. Two teams have never scored 50 points in the same game, if you wondering. It goes without saying that an offensive outburst like that is an uncommon sight, but as cliche as it sounds, it takes a team effort to win a game…by 50. The defense can’t just sit back and relax as the offense lights up the scoreboard. The fact that the most points scored in the post-merger NFL is 62 means that the defense has a small margin for error.

Depending on how you view these things, either strategy or the “unwritten rules” of football can also trip up a team on its path to a 50 point victory. Generally speaking, a team winning by an absurd margin will start to run the ball to bleed the clock, unless of course that team is the 2007 Patriots. Some teams do this so that they don’t show up the other team, while others do this due to sheer strategy. Either way the clock will definitely work against a team on its quest to a 50 point margin of victory.

A 50 point margin seems a little more reasonable in the NBA, at least in theory. A team scoring, say, 124 points doesn’t seem to be too absurd; heck, 26 teams have done that this year alone. A team holding the opposition to, say, 74 points doesn’t seem too ridiculous, either; that feat has happened 17 times this season. It’s just a matter of combining those two feats into one complete game.

The ability to score the necessary amount isn’t the largest obstacle for basketball teams. Without any statistical analysis or research, I would say that stretching the lead from a rather large 30 point cushion to the absurd reaches of 50+ is where the largest degree of difficulty resides. Teams will begin to sit their starters and stars when up by a large enough margin, say 30 points, which then puts the onus on the bench to finish the job. Yes, the losing team may begin to rest some of their players, but there is still a sense of urgency to not be fully embarrassed so the dregs of their bench may not actually see the floor.

So to answer my question, I would guess that it is harder to win by 50 in the NFL than in the the NBA.

The Payoff: Frequency of 50+ Point Margins

This now brings us to the the actual proof. Since the merger, there have been 9 games with a 50 point margin of victory. In the NBA, (according to this list) there have been 10 games (after including the Lakers-Cavs game). It seems that it is actually nearly as difficult to pull it off in either sport, with the caveat that there are 82 games in the NBA vs 16 in the NFL, so account for that as you wish.

Some additional fun facts:

  • The largest margin of victory in the NFL is 59 points, accomplished by the 2009 Patriots against the Titans and by the LA Rams against the Falcons. Both teams pitched 59-0 shutouts…ouch
  • The largest margin of victory in the NBA is 68 points by – well, I’ll put it this way, if this game some how was replicated this season, Cleveland would combust due to sheer happiness – the Cavs over the Miami Heat in 1991
  • The all-time offensive slap fest in the NBA, since 1986, occurred in 2000 when the Charlotte Hornets triumphed, if you allow me to use the term loosely, over the Miami Heat 65-56
  • I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that there will be a 50+ margin of victory in the NFL in 2019. The basis for my oddly specific prediction is the fact that since the merger there has been such a game in 1979, 1989 (twice actually), and 2009.

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