A couple of Saturdays ago, I tuned in to one of the greatest rivalries in sports, the Iron Bowl, an annual battle between Auburn and Alabama (often for SEC supremacy). The game didn’t let me down, as each quarter was packed to the brim with exciting moments and breathtaking plays I’d never seen before in the sport. Best of all, Auburn won, knocking perennial power Alabama out of College Football Playoff contention. The result felt great, but there was something special about this rendition of the classic rivalry that made me feel like more than a spectator, and rather a witness to greatness.
On the flipside, there have been many incredible, groundbreaking games in which I could’ve seen and didn’t. One such example was the 2013 Iron Bowl, one of the most iconic finishes of all time and another thrilling Auburn victory (to clarify, my partiality toward Auburn in this rivalry is not based on the Tigers themselves, but my loathing of Alabama). Missing out on that bit of history provided an additional motive to tune in to the 2019 game, whether I realized it or not.
This week, I will rank the ten best games that I’ve seen, as well as the ten best games that I could have seen and did not. Any sports competition, collegiate or professional, is fair game, and the time period is constrained to from when I first watched a bit of sports in the mid-2000s to present day. Part 1, the best games, will serve as the basis for this column, while Part 2 will come later in the week.
What makes a great game is subjective. I tackled the topic while a sports columnist for Wootton High School’s Common Sense newspaper, but to boil it down to several factors, I’d highlight the quality of play, excitement, memorability, depth of feeling and greater importance. Some games, such as the Vikings-Saints in the 2017 NFL playoffs, had fantastic finishes, but given the sluggish play in earlier quarters did not make the cut for the best all-around games.
1. Patriots vs Seahawks, Super Bowl XLIX
Super Bowl XLIX pitted two dynasties against each other, along with two Hall of Fame-level coaching staffs and legendary quarterbacks. The game didn’t disappoint, as both sides brought their A games to Phoenix. For every Pro Bowl talent like Julian Edelman or Richard Sherman who showed up to play, there were breakout performers like Seahawks receiver Chris Matthews and Patriots corner Malcolm Butler who made crucial plays under the sport’s brightest lights.
The aggressiveness of each team heightened the tension of the game and the excitement. Seattle coach Pete Carroll made a forgotten but extremely gutsy call to keep his offense on the field in the waning seconds of the first half. His reward was an 80-yard drive in just 29 seconds that culminated in a touchdown pass from Russell Wilson to Matthews with just two seconds remaining to tie the score. The see-saw affair continued into the second half as the Seahawks jumped out to a 10-point third quarter lead, only to see the Patriots take the lead late in the final quarter. The comeback was tied for the largest deficit overcome in Super Bowl history until a couple years later, when that same New England team battled back from 28-3 to beat the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl LI.
But the greatness of this game was harnessed most in the final Seattle drive. The Hawks, now down 28-24 after Tom Brady’s fourth touchdown pass of the night with just over two minutes remaining, were propelled downfield by two miraculous plays — a 31-yard pass to running back Marshawn Lynch and a 33-yard third down heave to Jermaine Kearse, in which Kearse bobbled multiple times while on his back before corralling the ball. The latter catch set up the Seahawks within five yards of the end zone with 1:06 remaining, and after Lynch picked up four yards, Seattle was a yard away from locking up their second-straight title.
Instead of running up the middle with Lynch, the Seahawks chose to pass, opting for a pick play in which receiver Ricardo Lockette ran a slant route and Wilson fired a quick pass, hoping to catch the Patriots off guard. Corner Malcolm Butler read the play perfectly and jumped into Lockette’s route at the goal line, enabling him to make the game-sealing interception.
The play was so stunning and so iconic that it was all sports fans could talk about for days. My Sunday School class seven days later opened with a breakdown of what went wrong with the play, and the reactions of the players, fans and the media were priceless. It was a fitting ending to a wildly aggressive game.
The Patriots’ 25-point comeback years later overshadows this game now, but it should be remembered that before Super Bowl XLIX, New England hadn’t won the title in a decade. Seattle, on the other hand, had not only become the first team since New England to win a playoff game in the year following a Super Bowl victory, but were almost crowned a dynasty with their second Super Bowl in a row. In the years since, the Patriots have made the Super Bowl in three of the next four seasons, while the Seahawks defense is almost entirely dismantled.
I had no rooting interest in Super Bowl XLIX, but the action was so thrilling, so legendary, that I was on the edge of my seat. I can’t imagine any other game matching this level.
2. Cubs vs Indians, World Series Game 7
A historic baseball game on all accounts. The Cubs, allegedly burdened by the 108-year-old Billy Goat Curse, had closed a 3-1 series deficit to force Game 7 against the Cleveland Indians, who had last won a World Series in 1948. From the pitching staffs to the lineups to the dugouts, these were the best two teams in baseball and, for a sport seemingly losing its grip on the American public, it was finally a game that transcended baseball into the public consciousness.
Despite the menacing presence of Cleveland’s Cy Young winner Corey Kluber, the Cubs jumped out to a 5-1 lead by the fifth inning. Cubs ace and NLCS MVP Jon Lester ran into some turbulence in the bottom of the fifth as two Indian runs scored, but fan favorite David Ross, in his final MLB game, helped boost the lead back up to three with a homer the next inning. Going into the eighth, Chicago was up 6-3 and just six outs away from pandemonium, with fireballer Aroldis Chapman coming up in relief. At this point I had to go to sleep, hoping that my team could hold on and give me something to be excited about while watching the game tape-delay the following morning.
Suffice it to say, the last innings didn’t go to plan. Chapman surrendered an early run on a Brandon Guyer RBI double, then saw the lead evaporate on a two-run homer by Rajai Davis. After a scoreless ninth, the game went into extra innings, with a rain delay providing a brief break from the action and a refresh for both clubs.
Only one team could end their drought, and it was the Cubs and World Series MVP Ben Zobrist who rose to the occasion. Zobrist knocked in the go-ahead run on a double, then backup catcher Miguel Montero added another run of insurance on his own single. The Indians placed runners on the bases in the bottom of the tenth, but a routine grounder that third baseman Kris Bryant nearly mishandled found the glove of first baseman Anthony Rizzo.
The impact from this game is unrivaled, as the Cubs’ World Series parade drew more human beings than any other event in Western Hemisphere history. The title was the stuff of legends, referenced in movies like Back to the Future II, and came together in storybook fashion. It was a game so great that I wouldn’t be surprised if Hollywood has its eye on it as a blockbuster movie. Of course, it would be impossible to top the original.
3. Villanova vs UNC, NCAA Championship 2016
Another championship clash remembered by its iconic finish, Villanova-UNC was the unbelievable finish that a tournament like March Madness deserves. There was no debate that the teams deserved to be on the stage, as the teams combined to win the 2016, 2017 and 2018 titles, and names like Josh Hart, Jalen Brunson and Justin Jackson now populate NBA rosters.
The game was a back-and-forth affair, perhaps best demonstrated by lead changes that went into the double-digits. Villanova continued its hot hand with an astounding 58.3% shooting percentage from the floor, while the physical Tar Heels pounded the boards and outrebounded the Cats by 13 rebounds.
UNC closed a double-digit deficit at 4:42 left in regulation to pull within one on point guard Marcus Paige’s layup with 23 seconds to go. When Hart responded with two made free throws, UNC drew up a play to get Paige the potential game-tying shot. The ball found Paige’s hands just inches outside the grasp of a diving Villanova defender, and Paige set up to throw up a frantic attempt from just behind the three-point line. Another Wildcat came in hot to block Paige’s shot, forcing Paige to pump fake as he was going up in the air, then fire off the shot as gravity was pulling him back to the court. The miracle shot somehow found the bottom of the net, tying the game. The problem — six seconds were left on the clock.
Villanova drew up a play of their own, and hero Ryan Arcidiacono brought the ball up the court for the final possession of the game. Instead of taking the shot, Arcidiacono dished it without hesitation to teammate Kris Jenkins, who launched a three-pointer over UNC defender Kennedy Meeks. Every sports fan who saw that picture-perfect form and the sure arc of the shot knew the result, and the shot was true. Villanova survived to win their first title under coach Jay Wright and established themselves as a true blue blood team.
4. Ravens vs Broncos, AFC Divisional 2012
My favorite game of all-time. This matchup pitted Peyton Manning, in his first year as Broncos quarterback, against the defensive duo of Ray Lewis and Ed Reed in their final year as Ravens. Denver had reeled off 11 consecutive wins, while the Ravens came into Mile High as slumping underdogs. It was the Ravens’ last chance to do something great with the core that made them AFC contenders through the late 2000s to early 2010s, and they couldn’t have faced a much more formidable foe than the freight train that was the 2012 Broncos.
For each punch the Broncos made, the Ravens punched back. The Broncos struck first on a punt return from star Trindon Holliday, but the Ravens responded with a 59-yard touchdown pass to Torrey Smith and a pick-six by Corey Graham to take a 14-7 lead. Manning tosses to former Raven Brandon Stokely and Knowshon Moreno set the score back in Denver’s favor before Smith scored on yet another long touchdown reception to tie the score going into halftime.
The second half continued the trend of the first. Holliday opened up scoring with a 104-yard kickoff return touchdown to start the half, and though the Ravens caught up on a Ray Rice touchdown dive, Manning put the Broncos up by a score with 7:18 remaining in the game. Baltimore’s Joe Flacco threw incomplete on fourth down to give the ball back to the Broncos, but the Ravens had one more chance with 1:09 remaining and 77 yards between them and the end zone.
After an incompletion and short Flacco scamper, the Ravens faced third-and-3 with 41 seconds left. Though I’d clung to irrational hope that this would be Baltimore’s year of destiny to win the Super Bowl, I could only hope for a miracle to keep their hopes alive. Flacco dropped back, then stepped up in the pocket and launched an arcing pass across the field. As the football headed back down to Earth, Denver safety Rahim Moore made an ill-fated leap to knock the ball away, and it instead landed in the waiting arms of the electric Jacoby Jones. Incredibly, the game was tied at 35 and Baltimore had indeed hung on.
After lighting up the scoreboard all game, the offenses went dormant for the overtime period with short, uninspired drives. But Graham, who had run in an interception for a touchdown earlier in the game, played hero once again by intercepting Manning in Denver territory. All the Ravens had to do was get a first down, then watch as rookie Justin Tucker knocked in the 47-yard field goal to lift the Ravens to the AFC title game.
The miraculous win gave Flacco and the Ravens the momentum they needed to go on a Super Bowl run, and in doing so Baltimore beat Denver, New England and San Francisco, three of the best playoff teams in the decade, in a span of a month. Denver would go on to become one of the most prolific offenses in NFL history the following year, but it wouldn’t be until 2015 that they could take the Lombardi Trophy back to the Rockies. Calling it a great game wouldn’t do it justice, and it will live forever in Ravens and NFL lore.
5. Alabama vs Auburn, Iron Bowl 2019
As a relative newbie to the college football landscape, this has been my first real season tuning in to football on Saturdays in addition to Sundays. Yes, Northwestern’s atrocious offense made their games difficult to digest, but the hours of loyal support of my Northwestern paid off in one glorious Saturday, just after Thanksgiving. First, I saw Northwestern win its final game, which happened to be in its storied rivalry against Illinois and its only conference win of the season, but the real treat was the Iron Bowl between Alabama vs Auburn.
While the 2013 Iron Bowl surely takes the cake for the best ending to a college football game (more on that in the next column), its 2019 iteration was the more thoroughly entertaining and breathtaking matchup. Alabama, now without all-world quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, had lost its top rank after losing to SEC rival LSU, but a convincing win over Auburn could put them squarely in the College Football Playoff debate. The host Tigers (ranked 15th) had the chance to knock the Crimson Tide out of contention and put a seismic win on their own resume.
After a low-scoring first quarter that saw Auburn take a 7-3 lead, points started pouring in a second quarter so eventful that spectators could be forgiven for mistaking those 15 minutes for a whole game. Both sides traded double-digit play drives to open the second quarter as the Alabama briefly regained the lead, then allowed Auburn to tie it on a 43-yard field goal. A couple plays later, chaos broke out. Tiger defensive back Smoke Monday snatched an ill-advised pass from Alabama backup quarterback Mac Jones and returned it for a touchdown, only for the Crimson Tide to answer on the very next play with a 98-yard kickoff return to the house. An Auburn fumble on the ensuing drive was turned into six points by Jones’s first touchdown toss of the night. Alabama 24, Auburn 17.
With just over four minutes remaining, the Auburn offense changed back into attack mode and struck with three Bo Nix passes, the last a touchdown that knotted up the score with nearly a minute left. Then it was Alabama’s turn, as Jaylen Waddle, the speedy receiver who had taken a kickoff to the house earlier in the quarter, burst for a 58-yard touchdown reception two plays later.
Auburn advanced to midfield with no timeouts remaining, and when running back JaTarvious Whitlow was tackled in bounds with a second on the clock, it appeared time would expire on the drive. But as the referees huddled to review whether Whitlow was down before the clock expired, Auburn trotted its field goal unit out to kick a field goal whenever the final decision was made — an outcome that could only happen via official stoppage. Tigers kicker Anders Carlson hit the 52-yarder, and a furious Nick Saban, who’d seen it all as the head coach of college football’s dynasty the past decade, finally saw something he, or any football fan in attendance, had ever seen before. And this was the first half.
The scoreboard still lit up in the second half, but for every touchdown, there was an answer and no team held more than a six point lead at any time. Auburn hit the ground running with a field goal and their second interception return touchdown of the day, a 100-yard rumble by Zakoby McClain, but two more Waddle touchdown receptions gave Alabama the 45-40 lead with 13:44 left. But the Tigers wouldn’t give in, putting together an 11-play drive and scoring on a touchdown scamper to go up by three. This time, though, Alabama couldn’t respond. With the chance to tie the game with two minutes left, Alabama kicker Joseph Bulovas messed up his mechanics and blew a 30-yard field goal off the upright. Auburn just needed a first down to close the game, and a sneaky formation that tricked Alabama into leaving 12 men on the field was enough to secure Auburn’s victory.
A narcissist would say that my high placement of this game is because I wanted to see Alabama fall and they did. But anyone who watched the game would agree. Iron Bowl 2019 gave us everything: offensive touchdowns, defensive touchdowns, special teams touchdowns, beautiful throws and catches by unheralded players, a 4-touchdown performance, names like “Smoke Monday,” two Nick Saban outbursts, new loopholes in the rulebook, and a doink to finish it. The game didn’t have the national championship implications of other Iron Bowl classics or even other games on this list, but it meant a lot. To Auburn fans especially.
6. Seahawks vs Packers, NFC Championship 2014
Super Bowl LI, in which the Patriots famously came back from a 28-3 deficit, is often cited as the best comeback in NFL history. Actually, the most impressive comeback came two years prior, in an NFC conference game tilt between the Seattle Seahawks and Green Bay Packers. Once the Patriots started cutting through the Falcons like butter in the second half, any football fan or viewer could feel the sense of inevitability. But in this matchup between two teams that could’ve staked a claim as team of the 2010s, the ending was truly miraculous.
On one side of the matchup stood the Seattle Seahawks, defending Super Bowl champs and a prospective dynasty (you know what happened from game number 1). The visiting Green Bay Packers stood in their path, behind the arm of all-time great quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Either team could’ve gone on to win multiple Super Bowls over the next couple seasons and no one would be surprised, but only one could emerge the victor.
Given the talent of Rodgers and Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, the first half seemed like an episode of the Twilight Zone. The two quarterbacks combined for five picks, plus a Seattle fumble on a kickoff. Only the Packers took advantage, building a 16-0 advantage that didn’t even tell the whole picture of Seattle’s offensive futility. Yet the score was still a two-possession difference, and the Seahawks were too talented on both sides of the ball to be counted out after two dreadful quarters.
When Seattle finally got on the board, it wasn’t even by Wilson’s arm or running back Marshawn Lynch’s powerful legs. Instead, punter Jon Ryan picked up the ball on a trick field goal attempt and floated a pass to big man Gary Gilliam, cutting the deficit to nine points with under five minutes left in the third quarter. The next three Seattle drives: punt, punt, interception. Green Bay could only manage a field goal over the span, but the Seahawks still found themselves down 19-7 with just 3:52 remaining.
Aware of the time remaining and armed with a singular timeout, the Seahawks finally got it going on offense, riding 44 all-purpose yards from Lynch and a touchdown run by Wilson to cut the deficit to 5 with 2:09 left. But with Aaron Rodgers on its other side, just two minutes left and a lead that could only be lost on a touchdown, Green Bay had punched its ticket to Super Bowl XLIX. Or so I mistakenly thought.
Seattle kicker Steven Hauschka lined up for the onside kick (a play that almost never works and typically suggests that a team is down to its last gasp), then hit a kick that arced up into a pack of Packers. Green Bay’s Brandon Bostick reached up to secure it and instead saw it bounce off his facemask and into the waiting hands of the Seahawks.
Game on. Seattle’s running attack came alive, first on a Wilson 15-yard keeper and then on a 24-yard Beast Quake by Marshawn Lynch to give Seattle, inexplicably, a 20-19 edge with 1:25 left. A cross-field throw on the successful two-point conversion only added to the disbelief and put the Hawks up by three. Only a Madden simulation could serve as an explanation for the madness.
Despite all of the momentum, Aaron Rodgers was on the other side. Rodgers hit three receivers and limped for a first down to get the Packers in position for a game-tying field goal, and Mason Crosby’s 48-yard try was true.
He wouldn’t see the field again. In the first drive of overtime, Wilson fully redeemed himself for his four interceptions. Instead of playing it safe, he hit Doug Baldwin along the sideline for 35 yards, then launched a dime to Jermaine Kearse, the same player who had been the target for all four of Wilson’s interceptions, that a leaping Kearse hauled in for the game-sealing touchdown.
The legacy of Seattle-Green Bay may be overshadowed by the thrilling Super Bowl that year, but the game had everything that makes a classic. The comeback was so quick and unlikely that it defied all logic, yet even then Aaron Rodgers put on the drive of his life while nursing a leg injury to send the game to overtime. And if the game went to overtime, who knows? Momentum can make an outcome seem inevitable, but this game proved to be an antithesis to that notion. No matter how many interceptions they’ve thrown or the pain they’re enduring, the best players show on the biggest stages.
7. Raptors vs 76ers, NBA Second Round Game 7
The Eastern Conference has been the weaker of the NBA’s two conferences for decades, but all-in moves in the offseason and trade deadline, along with the departure of LeBron James for the Los Angeles Lakers, turned the East into an arms race between four teams: the Toronto Raptors, Milwaukee Bucks, Philadelphia 76ers and Boston Celtics. All four advanced to the second round, setting up matchups that actually made the NBA playoffs seem like interesting television programming.
The Raptors and 76ers was especially compelling given the teams’ recent moves. Toronto, which had surprisingly fired their head coach days before he received Coach of the Year, made the risky move of acquiring superstar Kawhi Leonard in the final year of his contract. Though Leonard’s workload was closely monitored to keep him fresh for the playoffs, the Raptors put together a strong regular season that positioned them to make noise in the playoffs.
The 76ers doubled down on their own chances by acquiring All Star forwards Tobias Harris and Jimmy Butler at the trade deadline, then tried to mesh Harris, Butler and the team’s young nucleus in a matter of months. The battle between the two teams had no shortage of talent or excitement, and it was only fitting when the back-and-forth affair went to a decisive seventh game.
Toronto had its way in the first half and held over 50% probability to win until halfway through the third quarter. It made sense. Leonard had initiated superstar mode, becoming nearly unguardable on offense and a lockdown defender on the other side. His supporting cast was built perfectly around him, with longtime point guard Kyle Lowry finally playing to his potential in the playoffs and Most Improved Player Pascal Siakam providing another force opposite Leonard. But the Sixers wouldn’t go away, and at one point held a 57-50 lead over their Atlantic Division counterparts.
Leonard came out in the clutch, hitting six of his nine field goals, but Philly’s lauded lineup was too good to be left behind. Over the final four minutes, neither team held more than a four-point lead. J.J. Redick’s and-1 jumper tied the game at 85 with 3:29 remaining, then baskets by Leonard and Siakam pushed the lead back to 4 with a minute left and sent the monochromatic Toronto crowd into euphoria. Butler and Joel Embiid made shots at the free throw line to cut the lead to one, and when Leonard missed his second free throw attempt, Butler, the midseason acquisition, went coast to coast and laid the ball in to tie the game with just four seconds remaining.
What happened next was perhaps the craziest play I’ve seen in basketball (and I once got 97 points in a 30-second pop-a-shot round). All fans, coaches and players knew the ball was going to Leonard on the in-bounds pass post-timeout, and Leonard indeed caught the ball, dribbled to the right corner with point guard Ben Simmons and Embiid in his face, then launched an awkward, off-balance jumper split-seconds before time expired.
The ball hit the front of the rim dejectedly, to which my dad observed, “that’s out.” But the spin allowed the ball to hit again on the rim, then bounce to the other side, then fall in. A crouching Leonard leapt up and with him the entire country on Canada, and even ESPN’s announcing tandem couldn’t express adequate amazement at the moment.
You know what’s next. Toronto toppled MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo in the next round, then dethroned the injury-plagued Warriors to claim their first title. Maybe Kawhi’s miracle shot wasn’t necessary to win the game — the Raptors could’ve won in overtime. And it didn’t push the Raptors past either the Bucks or the Warriors.
But at that moment, in a game so tense and closely matched that only a tie would’ve done it justice, that lucky shot did more than win Toronto the series. It cemented the legacies of the team and Kawhi Leonard, fair or not, as postseason legends and gave them championship swagger, while along the way ripping a whole in the sports space-time continuum of what we thought was possible in sports.
8. Steelers vs Cardinals, Super Bowl XLIII
This game is steeped in as much nostalgia as any other on this list. I’d finished my first season as a football fan, and though neither my Cowboys nor my Ravens could advance to the Super Bowl, I was hyped to watch the Big Game for the first time. A couple weeks before the game, my family and I went to Disney World, somewhat close to the Super Bowl in Tampa, and I had a magazine that I read almost religiously in preparation for the game. I also had my first Super Bowl party with my friends (I cried after getting tackled in flag football) and put on the plastic ring from the Super Bowl cupcakes (a Super Bowl staple).
This is also the only game on this list in which I was truly devastated. My allegiance went to the Arizona Cardinals, who had one of my favorite players in the electric receiver Larry Fitzgerald as well as an all-around good guy in quarterback Kurt Warner. The Cardinals were the team that wasn’t supposed to even be in the playoffs and the most futile franchise in NFL history, while their opponent, the Pittsburgh Steelers, had all the history on their side. The team had won the Super Bowl three years prior and had slayed two great teams in the playoffs in LT’s San Diego Chargers and Ray Lewis’s Baltimore Ravens (another reason I rooted hard for the Cardinals to win).
Unlike the previous year’s underdog matchup, this game was a blast from start to finish, even if I had to watch it the next morning on tape delay. All of the images from that game are seemed into my mind: the uniform matchup with the yellow-and-black “toxic” color scheme of the Steelers against the red “danger” of the Cardinals, the epic event logo, the beautiful night atmosphere.
The plays also stand the test of time. As the Steelers marched out to a 10-0 lead, it looked like they would all be in Pittsburgh’s favor. The Cardinals responded with a touchdown drive, then returned to the red zone at the end of the half and threatened to take the lead.
Then, Warner threw a seemingly open pass that linebacker James Harrison intercepted and rumbled with an entourage of blockers across the length of the field, with just seconds remaining in the half and no Pittsburgh timeouts left. Of all of the members of the Steelers to have a 100-yard touchdown return, Harrison might be one of the least likely, yet the combination of his forward momentum and the blocks of his teammates helped him spring the longest return in Super Bowl history and give the Steelers a commanding 17-7 lead. Over a decade later, I still remember the shocks: Harrison turning the momentum of the game, Larry Fitzgerald showing admirable effort in chasing Harrison down before tumbling with him across the goal line, and Harrison using an oxygen mask. But it was not over, and I knew it.
The Steelers tacked on another field goal in a relatively uneventful third quarter to go up 20-7, but Arizona was ready to unleash the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history to that point. Warner again led a lengthy drive and capped it off with a perfectly-lofted goal-line pass to Fitzgerald that the Pitt product high-pointed and caught in-bounds. Arizona had to punt twice, but a Pittsburgh penalty gave Arizona a safety and possession with 2:53 left.
And it didn’t take long to capitalize— Warner found Fitzgerald splitting between the Pittsburgh Cover 2 defense and Fitzgerald raced to the end zone for a 64-yard score. I was ecstatic, gleaming as the replays showed Fitzgerald watching himself on the big screen during the play. The Cardinals were up by three and just needed to hold off Big Ben Roethlisberger to win their first Super Bowl.
I learned that night that sometimes you just have to take a backseat to history, and I found myself and the Cardinals at the mercy of Big Ben’s arm. Roethlisberger evaded pressure and completed a pass to receiver Santonio Holmes for 14 yards, then Holmes again for a first down, and then connected with Nate Washington to advance the Steelers to midfield with 1:33 remaining. Then another Holmes reception, this one a 40-yard catch-and-sprint, put Pittsburgh on the precipice of not only tying the game but taking the lead.
I felt powerless, never more so than two plays later, as Roethlisberger surveyed the defense for what seemed like ages and pointed to the end zone. He then fired a pass so ridiculous that the chance of completion seemed nil, a laser to the corner of the end zone that just cleared the grasp of three Arizona defensive backs. It found the sure hands of Holmes, who, in fractions of a second, tapped his toes in the end zone and rolled out of bounds. The Steelers took the 27-23 lead with 35 seconds, and despite the prayers of the former Super Bowl MVP Warner, clinched their sixth Super Bowl and denied Arizona its first.
I showed up to school the next day with tears on my cheeks and spent my lunch period spreading the news that the NFL found evidence that Holmes didn’t make the catch. But it wouldn’t overturn the result, and eventually, the play wouldn’t dampen my appreciation for the game. As much as I was forlorn at the Cardinals coming up short, this was always the Super Bowl I stood up for in debates, because it was my first Super Bowl and I’d lived so vividly through its highs and lows.
Pittsburgh didn’t go on to win any titles for the remainder of the Roethlisberger-Tomlin pairing, and Warner played in just one more season before hanging up the cleats. In the long term, it was relatively inconsequential, as the decade’s dynasty, the Patriots, hadn’t even made the playoffs and it didn’t define any legacies in the ways other Super Bowls had (it did, however, lead to the first and only two-person Madden cover ever). The major players in the drama are spread across the league: Roethlisberger and Fitzgerald still play, Pittsburgh receiver Hines Ward coaches for the Bills, Warner is in the Hall of Fame, Pittsburgh safety Ryan Clark is a leading ESPN analyst, and most of the others have been in retirement for years. Despite the 14-point comeback, the 100-yard interception return and the incredulous toe-tapping act of Santonio Holmes, Super Bowl XLIII will probably be a footnote among Super Bowls of its era. But it’s the one I’ll definitely remember.
9. Cavaliers vs Warriors, NBA Finals Game 7
This game certainly goes down as the most important in the history of Cleveland sports, and possibly one of the keynote moments of the 21st century in the sporting world. It also marked the completion of one of the greatest career narratives we’ve ever seen — the ascent, corruption, and redemption of LeBron James as he carried his home state to glory. And all of this happened in Game 7. The context was so great that it could’ve overshadowed the game itself, but thankfully for basketball fans, this culmination of so many storylines lived up to the hype.
LeBron James, a native of Akron, Ohio, was drafted first overall by the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2003 and by 2007, James had brought the previously hapless Cavs to the NBA Finals. Then he bolted for Miami and the superteam Heat, prompting Cleveland fans to burn his jersey. After four Finals appearances, he came back to Cleveland, and though James and his new triomates of Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving failed to win a title in their first year together, Cleveland looked like a championship contender in Year 2.
That was, until the Golden State Warriors finished 73-9 in the regular season, the most wins by a team in NBA history. Though they had to overcome a 3-1 series deficit to defeat Kevin Durant’s OKC Thunder, the high-flying defending champions were heavy favorites against James. The narrative was the greatest team the league had ever seen against the one player in the league who could truly carry a team on its back, and that player looked to be overmatched. I thought it would be no contest.
And for a while, that narrative proved true. The Warriors took a commanding 3-1 series lead, but like the Thunder in the previous round, they started to crumble. James led the Cavaliers to two straight victories to force the decisive Game 7 for a chance to bring Cleveland its first sports title in over 50 years.
The Cavaliers started strong, but behind the masterful strokes of Klay Thompson and Steph Curry and play of forward Draymond Green, the Warriors built a 7-point halftime advantage that looked to expand in the second half. Eight points in a 3-minute span by guard J.R. Smith helped the Cavs tie the game at 54. Neither team could sustain momentum for the rest of the quarter, leaving the score a slim 76-75 halftime lead.
In the fourth, both sides went cold. The Warriors, known for their prolific three-point attack, couldn’t buy a basket, hitting just one of 10 from beyond the arc, but Cleveland couldn’t take advantage. The score locked at 89 with 4:39 to go and stayed there until the final minute, when Kyrie Irving, James’s number one playmaker, sunk a three-pointer over Steph Curry with 53 seconds to go. But James made contributions of his own — his chasedown block of Andre Iguodala will go down in Cleveland lore as one of the greatest images in city history. After Irving hit the three, I realized that the Cavs might actually bring a title to Cleveland, that they could slay the Golden State giant. And when Golden State missed its final three 3-point attempts, including two by Curry, the celebration was on.
Was it beautiful basketball? The fact that neither team scored over 18 points in the final frame suggests otherwise. But to watch the game was to witness history in so many ways. Seeing James, who finished with 27 points, 11 assists, 11 rebounds and 3 blocks, take on Golden State and assert his dominance was breathtaking, and seeing the emotion out of his eyes and the Cleveland fans felt monumental. It was also the first Game 7 I’d ever stayed up to see, and it lived up to its billing.
10. UNC vs Kentucky, Elite Eight 2017
Two of college basketball’s blue bloods met with a trip to the Final Four on the line in a classic clash between youth and experience. For the Tar Heels, who had lost the previous national championship on a last-second 3 (see number 3), it was a chance for their core nucleus to finish on top. John Calipari’s Wildcats, traditionally boosted by the nation’s top-ranking freshmen, trotted out a lineup of future NBA players such as De’Aaron Fox, Bam Adebayo and Malik Monk.
The contrast in playing styles also became apparent as the action unfolded. UNC hit a paltry 20% clip from behind the three-point line, yet used the dominance of their frontcourt to control the boards and stay in control for most of the game and gain a five-point halftime lead. Kentucky crept back in, and with five minutes to go they held a five-point advantage of their own. Then UNC scored 10 straight, and suddenly momentum had swung in the Tar Heels’ favor. Two free throws by Theo Pinson extended the lead to 7 with just 53 seconds left, and anything short of chaos wouldn’t have been enough to turn the tide of the game.
And chaos it was. Kentucky’s Isaiah Briscoe found a wide-open DeAaron Fox in the left corner and Fox swished the three. Following a UNC turnover, Malik Monk pump faked, launched an off-balance three-point attempt, and the take rattled in. One point deficit. Tar Heel Justin Jackson beat the Kentucky press and raced to an easy tip-in to extend the lead to three, only to see Monk, with 10 seconds left, unleash a shot over two defenders that was even uglier than the previous one, and it somehow also fell through. Tie game, seven seconds left.
Pinson weaved through the Kentucky defense in the waning seconds, drove into the paint, and, drawing the attention of Kentucky’s interior defense, dished a pass to backup forward Luke Maye. Maye, standing just inside the three-point line, buried the jumper with 0.3 seconds left. One errant inbound pass and the game was over, with UNC heading on to the Final Four for the second straight year.
UNC-Kentucky might be glossed over because it wasn’t a final or even a semifinal, but it was a legendary game. The matchup between two all-time coaches with championship-caliber teams was an awesome clash, and the frantic finish that made Luke Maye an all-time hero. The Elite Eight matchup was the exact type of game I’d sign up to watch over and over again.
Honorable Mention: Virginia vs Purdue, Elite Eight 2019; Vikings vs Saints, NFC Divisional 2017; Capitals vs Penguins, Stanley Cup Playoffs Second Round 2018; Packers vs Cowboys, 2016; Ravens vs Vikings, 2013