I’ve seen a lot of great games as a sports fan. I picked my top ten favorites earlier this week in a column, and choosing those brought many smiles to my face. Today’s ranking wasn’t so cheerful of a chore.
Today, I’m selecting the ten greatest games that I never saw. The catch — they have to be games I could’ve watched (happening after I became a sports fan) and did not. As I said in my prior column, I take quality of play, excitement, memorability, depth of feeling and greater importance as the most important factors. In addition to those factors, this list considers one more — how much pain it causes me in retrospect to have not watched it. I hope you learn the lessons I learned without the sheer agony it took me to learn them.
1. Giants vs Patriots, Super Bowl XLII
It’s the most magnanimous of upsets in my time as a sports fan. The Patriots had become the first team to win all 16 regular season games, then steamrolled their way through the Jaguars and Chargers (a young, sad John was watching). Quarterback Tom Brady led an unstoppable offense and broke the single-season record for touchdown passes with 50, while receiver Randy Moss, the recipient of many of those passes, broke the record for touchdown receptions in a season. In contrast, the Giants (ironically named given the matchup’s frequent comparisons to David and Goliath) were surprise teams to be in the playoffs, let alone the Super Bowl, and already had to play the role of huge underdog in road games against Dallas and Green Bay. And the Giants won.
The game wasn’t pretty and was light on scoring, but the matchup between Brady and the New York pass rush was a fascinating chess match. It also had possibly the most picture-perfect catch in NFL history — the unheralded David Tyree pinning the ball against his helmet on an improbable third down miracle heave.
I was halfway through first grade at the time, so I didn’t stay up for the game, but this could’ve had major implications on me. Though I’d been a Redskins fan during the season (Todd Collins was the GOAT for about four games), my family was rooting for the underdog Giants and it would’ve been astounding to see it play out with a win. Who knows? Maybe if the Giants win in my first Super Bowl, I switch from the Redskins to the Giants and never buy the Tony Romo jersey that converts me to a Cowboys fan. I’m happy with how things turned out, obviously, but as a huge NFL fan now, not being able to see this monumental game leaves a black hole of a void.
2. Texas-USC, Rose Bowl 2006/National Championship 2005
True, Texas-USC was a little bit before my time (my first college football game was the 2009 SEC Championship), but it was pretty close to when I started watching football and is considered by many the greatest college football game of all-time. The pictures of the game, from USC’s dynamic Reggie Bush to the late-game heroics of Texas quarterback Vince Young, appeared in the magazines and books I read and the highlight tapes still play today.
#1 USC was college football’s dynasty at the time, and in the conversation for the best dynasty in sports at the time (sorry New England). Standing in their way of glory in Pasadena was the #2 ranked Texas Longhorns, led by Davey O’Brien award winner Vince Young and also undefeated. The battle of the titans featured five lead changes and was capped off by a 12-point Texas comeback, with Young rushing in his third touchdown of the day with just 19 seconds remaining to give the Longhorns the edge.
The 41-38 Texas win couldn’t have had greater implications. Young became a college football legend, while Texas proved it could be a national champion and USC proved fallible. This is the one game that I can guarantee would be in my top three greatest games if I had watched it, and it would’ve made a great impact on a young, impressionable five-year-old kid.
3. Heat vs Spurs, NBA Finals Game 6
Every time I watch the NBA Finals, I hope to see glimpses that was the greatness of this game, and every time it comes up short. Sure, Warriors-Cavs Game 7 actually ended the series and gave Cleveland its first title and forever, and Kawhi Leonard hit a more suspenseful shot in the 2019 playoffs, but Ray Allen’s sure three-pointer from the corner was a must-watch moment. I missed it.
The LeBron-led Heat were in their third NBA Finals in their first three years together and in probably their most menacing year together as a team, while the Spurs, powered by an aging core of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker, survived the West for the first time in almost a decade.
It didn’t seem to be much of a contest, but the Spurs took a 3-2 series lead and held a 5-point advantage with just 28 ticks left in Game 6. James made a three pointer to cut the lead to two, then a young Kawhi Leonard went 1 for 2 from the free throw line to bump it to a 3-point lead. With 7 seconds left, James launched a three-pointer that clanked off the rim, only for Big Threemate Chris Bosh to rebound, have the presence of mind to dish it to all-time 3-point leader Ray Allen in the right corner. Then Allen had the presence of mind to jump back and set his feet behind the three-point line without even looking, and then the accuracy to sink the trey with five seconds left. It is the greatest shot of the 21st century, requiring mastery all around, and it was enough to send the game to overtime. The Heat won by three in OT, then won the decisive Game 7 to complete a wild series.
Game 7 (which I did watch) was close, but it lacked the intrigue as well as iconic shot that elevated Game 6 to legendary status. The shot served as the highlight of Ray Allen’s career, and arguably the greatest moment of the Big 3 era.
4. Alabama vs Auburn, Iron Bowl 2013
As I said in my previous column, I’m not an Auburn fan, with the exception of when they take on Alabama in the Iron Bowl rivalry. My excuse for the most memorable chapter in the rivalry’s storied history? Watching Ender’s Game in the movie theater. My family tuned in on the radio during the car ride over, but when Chris Davis made a highlight for the ages, I was probably watching Harrison Ford teaching Asa Butterfield to float through space.
Basically, the matchup between these two archrivals, #1 ranked Alabama and #4 ranked Auburn, came down to one wild quarter of play. Alabama’s Amari Cooper scored on a 99-yard touchdown to put the Crimson Tide up 28-21 with 10 minutes left, and after an Alabama field goal was blocked a couple series later, Auburn’s Nick Marshall found Sammie Coates for 39 yards and the game-tying score with just 32 seconds left. Two T.J. Yeldon rushes set Alabama up in Auburn territory after a replay review showed Yeldon stepped out of bounds with fractions of a second left on the clock, and kicker Adam Griffith lined up for a 57-yard field goal to give Alabama the win. The attempt was short, and Auburn’s Chris Davis caught the kick in the end zone, veered to his left, and rode down the sideline untouched to give the Tigers a stunning victory.
The emotion of the home Auburn fans explained just how much the moment meant. A miracle touchdown earlier in the season proved that the Tigers had something special, but a win in this fashion was a whole different story. I would’ve loved to see the top-seeded Crimson Tide fall, and the moments of disbelief that defy description don’t come around all that often.
5. Giants vs Rangers, World Series Game 6
This explanation is going to be short and to the point, because this game lives in baseball lore for one reason (technically, two). The Rangers, traditionally a cellar dweller of a baseball team, were one strike away from winning the World Series twice, yet blew both and then lost Game 7 to lose the entire series.
On one hand, I would’ve hated watching this game as I wanted nothing more than for the San Francisco Giants to fall and the Rangers to bring their first title to Arlington. On the other hand, the Rangers were one strike away twice. How many times out of 100 do the Cardinals pull off that comeback? 1? ½? I don’t know how a championship result could be as disparaging for one team as the Rangers’ was and I would’ve been kicking myself over it as a bandwagon fan, but such resiliency in that situation made it a classic game for the ages.
6. Kansas vs Memphis, NCAA Championship 2008
This game happened well after I became a football fan, but a while before I started filling out brackets and a long time before I was staying up for games. But like the Texas-USC game, this college championship matchup pitted two powerhouses and saw its images reprinted in magazine after magazine.
Both top seeds with legendary coaches, the Kansas Jayhawks and Memphis Tigers were made for an epic clash in the title game. Neither team could pull away early on, as the score was tied at half. But the Derrick Rose-led Tigers build a solid lead in the second half and were up by nine with two minutes remaining. Kansas responded with a 9-2 run to close the gap to 62-60, and, needing two free throws to make it a two-possession game, Rose and Chris Douglas-Roberts combined to go 1-for-4 from the stripe. Still, Memphis was 10 seconds away from a title and needed just one defensive stop to hold on.
Kansas guard Mario Chalmers (who also appeared in #2 on this list) had other plans. Kansas guard Sherron Collins powered up court, then tossed to Chalmers rounding the three point line just before Collins lost the ball. Chalmers kept his forward momentum going for a second, then with four ticks remaining, elevated and launched a shot inches above Rose’s fingertips. The shot swished, and Kansas routed Memphis in overtime to claim the title.
This game might not have been Villanova-UNC, but the combination of its massive implications and picture-perfect finish made for a great game. If Memphis wins that game, does coach John Calipari leave for Kentucky? Does he perfect the one-and-done style of recruiting? Does Kansas keep its blue-blood status, or falter as Memphis did? Because of Chalmers’ shot, we’ll never know, but basketball fans outside of Tennessee seemed pretty satisfied with an incredible result.
7. Ravens vs 49ers, Super Bowl XLVII
After many Januaries that ended too soon and one too many errant field goals, the Ravens finally made it past the Patriots and onto Super Bowl XLVII. I was there when Ray Lewis won his final home game in the Wild Card Round against the Colts, when Joe Flacco found Jacoby Jones for the Mile High Miracle (my favorite sports moment ever), and when John Harbaugh’s team went into Foxborough and exacted revenge on the Patriots in convincing fashion. The run was so rewarding because nobody outside of Ravens Nation believed in Baltimore, counting us out against Denver, New England and San Francisco (and even some experts called for an upset to a rookie Andrew Luck and the Colts). The great thing was, the players and the fans just knew it.
But whether it was the fact that I was in sixth grade (always a weird time) or the pure shock of seeing my team playing in February, I botched the Super Bowl experience at nearly every step.
First off, I decided to have pancakes for the party. Poor decision. Second, I decided not to have a party, instead only inviting my friend Ben (an avid Giants and Ravens fan). Now I love Ben, and I enjoy his presence when I’m watching games, but Ben decided to be a 49ers fan for the day for a reason neither of us can probably think of to this day, and it created a feeling of betrayal in my stomach that can usually be leveled out by the bustle of a party (I can’t blame him — middle school was a weird time).
Still, almost everything went right for the Ravens in the first half, and when playoff hero Jacoby Jones returned the second-half kickoff to the house to make the score 28-6, it looked like the Ravens would have another Super Bowl in the fashion of the first (a 34-7 beatdown of the Giants in 2000 — my first Super Bowl party).
Then the power outage happened — over 30 minutes of a delay that prevented Baltimore from running up the score further. It made a day I’d already made weird (pancakes, remember) even more surreal and harder to enjoy and savor, and the 49ers used the break to catapult themselves back within a touchdown of the lead.
Now, you may remember the title of this column — best games I wish I saw. And you may be wondering, “hasn’t he clearly seen this game?” and “surely this breaks some rule!” Well, after San Fran scored on Colin Kaepernick’s 15-yard scamper to close the gap to 31-29, I turned off the TV. I went to bed. On my team. To be fair, I had to wake up for school at 5:50 the next day and the blackout had really pushed things back, but this was my team. This was our year. Whether or not I thought they’d blow the lead for good, this was our moment. And I went to bed.
The Ravens won the game, which I found out in the most bizarre (a common theme for the night) of ways. I randomly woke up at 2 AM and realized that an NFL champion had been crowned, so I turned on my Kindle Fire, which had last been set to viewing the NFL Store webpage. I fully expected to see 49ers championship gear on display, but instead… Ravens? I fist-pumped with as much emotion one can muster half-awake at 2 in the morning, then went to sleep with a smile on my face.
But if I’d watched the last quarter live? Then seen the purple streamers flow down from the rafters of the Superdome as John Harbaugh accepts the Lombardi Trophy? That would’ve been the ultimate culmination of my years as a Ravens fan. I can’t even start to imagine how it would’ve felt. Instead, it was condensed into one fleeting moment at 2 AM and warped by a Super Bowl party in which pancakes were on the menu. Watching on tape delay the next morning could never do it justice. Since I did see ¾ of the game, this game isn’t number one, but it’s probably the one in which I’m kicking myself the most.
Note: I also did not stay up for the 2018 draft, in which the Ravens selected franchise savior and 2019 MVP Lamar Jackson. I also learned of this via, of all sources, my Kindle Fire the next morning. If that selection was a game, it very well might have been on this list.
8. Cardinals vs Packers, Divisional Round Playoffs
Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers is known for two things: being a great NFL quarterback and being the best Hail Mary thrower in NFL history. In one playoff game, he connected on two Hail Mary desperation heaves in one game. Not only in one game either — in the same drive. And the Packers still lost!
In this divisional matchup between the Packers and the Cardinals, the ending couldn’t have been wilder. Facing fourth and 20 and with only 20 seconds on the clock, Rodgers found little-known receiver Jeff Janis for a 60-yard gain. Two plays later, Rodgers tried his luck again on the final play of regulation and his pass was caught by a leaping Janis in the end zone. The Cardinals received possession first in overtime, and on the first play, quarterback Carson Palmer found the ageless Larry Fitzgerald (my third-favorite athlete all-time) for a short gain, only for Fitz to break it open and take the reception for 75 yards. Two plays later, Palmer went to Fitz again on a short shovel pass and Larry Legend went in for the score and the win.
The Cardinals went on to get obliterated by the Panthers in the next round, but that six play sequence might have been the craziest in playoff history and I was sleeping. No SportsCenter highlight reel can recreate the energy and awesomeness of that finish.
9. Steph Curry takes on March Madness and Georgetown, 2008
Stephen Curry made Davidson the ultimate Cinderella in 2008, reaching the Elite Eight before dropping out to Kansas. Remember, this happened before he became a two-time MVP and a three-time champion— scouts didn’t even know if his skills would transfer to the professional level (the Timberwolves selected two point guards in the slots before Curry). I witnessed the hype in magazines after it was already over, but if I’d seen Curry put the “mad” in March Madness in his Elite Eight run?
To narrow down the Cinderella story down to one game, I’d go with Davidson’s upset of blue blood Georgetown. Davidson, the 10 seed, was up against the 2nd seeded Hoyas. The talent advantage started to show early, but the Wildcats came back from down 17 points thanks to Curry’s 30 points. The bracket breaker launched Curry’s career and one of the greatest Cinderella runs of our time.
The game, which was the closest of any of Davidson’s victories that March, had massive implications. Would Curry be the star he is today without that March Madness run? Even if his skills translated, where would he fall in the draft without that impressive postseason resume? And even for my own viewing and rooting experiences — maybe I could’ve jumped on the Curry train then after watching him live, and then stayed on it while he racked up trophies with Golden State. Oh well.
10. Matthew Centrowitz’s Olympic Mile, 2016
As a high school track runner with a specialty in the mile, I really should’ve tuned in to watch this race to see the American star who literally ran in the state meet against my team during his high school days. That was a mistake itself. But that mistake compounded when Centrowitz became the first American since 1908 to win the event, and in shocking fashion. Centro led wire-to-wire, but the strategy and guts required to lead the race and stave off challengers in the final stretch is the stuff of legends.
When I asked my coach later about the race, she said that she cried. And maybe I would have, too, but I was watching a movie in the basement at the time. Unless that movie was The Sandlot, which it was not, the decision wouldn’t be worth it. Unlike multi-hour commitments required from the other games on this list, the race, technically a 1500-meter, lasted less than four minutes! When Rohann Asfaw makes the Olympics in 2032, I’ll make sure to put that on my big screen.
Honorable Mentions: Jon Lester’s No-Hitter vs KC Royals 2008; Oklahoma vs Georgia, College Football Playoff; Michael Phelps’ Comeback Race, 2008; Clemson-Alabama, College Football Playoff 2017; Cubs vs Nationals, NLDS Game 5, 2017; Gordon-LaVine duel in Slam Dunk Contest, 2016