As a sports fan you know when a game is over. It can be your team, or it can be a team you have no rooting interest in at all, there just comes a point when there is obviously no way back into the game. These games happen countless times every single sporting weekend all over the world, but sports being sports there is always that faint glimmer of hope, that inner feeling that we can cling to.
There is always the comeback.
Comebacks can start in so many different ways. Maybe a refereeing decision goes a team’s way for the first time all day. Maybe the superstar player finally wakes up and lives up to his billing, while maybe a unheralded substitute or late round pick comes up huge in ways never thought possible. Maybe a coaching decision to switch defenses or focus on attacking one area of the field works even better than the coach himself imagined.
All these ways however have something in common and that is a dramatic shift in momentum. Momentum is a funny thing in sports, just as it is in life. A team can go from being down and out and almost giving up, to riding on the crest of a wave almost instantly if they pick up their momentum from somewhere. Obviously this is felt more keenly at home. Here fans can turn from booing, unhappy masses, to cheering at decibel shattering levels to urge on the comeback IF their players give them a reason to do so.
If we are honest the comeback is one of the reasons we watch sports, especially as neutral. It is why you watch 28 point NFL routs into the fourth quarter just because you don’t want to be the guy at the water cooler the next day that missed something which was epic and never likely to be seen again. Not until the next epic come back at least.
Speaking of epic, here are 10 of the most classic comebacks of all time.
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10 Indiana Pacers vs. New York Knicks – Game 1, 1995 Eastern Conference Semifinals
In what would become known through the years as “the Reggie Miller game” the New York Knicks totally imploded down the stretch allowing the Pacers to take Game 1 of the series. The Knicks were up six with 18.7 seconds left when Miller took over. He drained a three off of an inbounds pass before stealing the ball after Greg Anthony fell down, dribbled back behind the three-point line, and buried another basket. Two Knicks missed free throws later, followed by a foul sent Miller to the line to make two himself and nine seconds after the New York club were up six they were suddenly down by two. This is one of those comebacks on a rival floor where you can see and hear the disbelief in the crowd matching that of the players on the floor. Simply incredible.
9 Europe vs. USA – 2012 Ryder Cup
It can be argued that the Ryder Cup is the most unique event in sports. For one weekend the most individualistic and gentlemanly sport of all, golf, becomes a team driven, raucous event of nation versus continent. In 2012 the US team required just 4.5 points of the 12 available on the final day to win the trophy. Instead European after European played the best rounds of their career and what started as an inevitable march toward an American win became one of the most stunning comebacks in sports history. The final word here goes to European captain Jose Maria Olazabal who said, "I don't know how heaven feels, but it must be close to this."
8 Liverpool vs. AC Milan – 2005 UEFA Champions League Final
Liverpool was simply dead and buried at halftime in the 2005 UEFA Champions League Final. The scrappy English side had only got to Istanbul with mighty efforts in the earlier rounds and Italian giants AC Milan were turning on the style with a comfortable 3-0 lead.
A tactical change at halftime however saw the reds come out with a stronger midfield. This paid immediate dividends as Liverpool rattled off three goals in a six minute second half spell to tie the game back up and force it into extra time. While the extra period was something of a stalemate, Liverpool did enough to take the Italians to penalties where they reversed the famous English tradition of losing on spot kicks and took the European Cup/Champions League trophy back to Anfield for the fifth time.
7 Plano East Panthers vs. John Tyler Lions – 1994 Texas High School Football
Officially this should be the top choice on a list of almost comebacks, but the game is so great and the comeback attempt so valiant that it just has to be on this list. Plano East was down 41-17 with a little over three minutes left in this game and the contest was over. That is until the Panthers suddenly became the greatest executors of the onside kick in the history of football, recovering no less than three of them over the next two and a half minutes to somehow, improbably take the lead 44-41.
All that was needed now was to play out the final 24 seconds and the greatest comeback of all time would be theirs.One 97-yard kickoff return touchdown later though the Panthers had somehow blown the greatest comeback of all time with a 48-44 loss.
The almost five minute YouTube video of the final minutes of this game is a must for anyone who considers themselves a sports fan.
6 Michael Jordan’s First Comeback - 1995
This sort of comeback may not be exactly what you would expect on this kind of list, but Jordan’s first NBA comeback is something the likes of which has never been seen before or since. Jordan was away from the game, playing baseball, for 17 months, which is a lifetime in NBA terms. Leaving a sport while on top is hard, doing so after winning three straight titles and being the face of the league is even harder. For Jordan to basically jump back in right where he left off, leading the Bulls to another three-peat starting with his first full season back is actually just ridiculous. Most comeback stories can be replicated given time, this one never will be.
5 Indianapolis Colts vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers – 2003 Regular Season
Coming back from a 28-7 fourth-quarter deficit is not going to be easy at the best of times. Add in that this Colts comeback came against the reigning Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the final five minutes of a Monday Night Football game and then you have a concept which on its own seems completely impossible. What you would need in this situation of course is a guy who is arguably the greatest quarterback of all time getting into the zone as only he knows how.
The Colts somehow rallied back from 35-14 down with 4:15 to play, beating the Bucs in overtime as Manning and Marvin Harrison had one of the best ever games together. Manning went on to have one of the greatest careers in the history of the league, while the Bucs have never really recovered from this loss.
4 Boston Red Sox – 2004 ALCS
The Evil Empire versus The Nation deserves a high spot on any list of great comebacks. The Red Sox were down 3-0 in the 2004 ALCS, but this comeback is more about decades of losing to a hated rival than it is about one single series. This was the series that finally pushed the Red Sox past their hated rivals and into the World Series. It is for every game lost, for every player the Yankees beat the Red Sox to sign (Alex Rodriguez specifically) and for every title claimed.
The series itself was pure Hollywood. It attracted a casual audience back to baseball which hadn’t been there since the last labor strike. It had Johnny Damon crushing a grand slam to put the final nail in the Yankees coffin. It was the essence of pure sporting drama.
3 Manchester United vs. Bayern Munich - 1999 Champions League Final
The 1999 Champions League final in Barcelona had one of the greatest finishes to a soccer match of all time. In a game which pitted together two of the biggest clubs in Europe, playing for the greatest prize in club soccer, there was more theater than Shakespeare.
Bayern had taken a six-minute lead and were trying their best to hold on against an increasingly heavy United onslaught. With the 90 minutes up and injury time being played a David Beckham corner was swung into to Munich box. With even goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel in the box attacking the ball it somehow fell to substitute Teddy Sheringham to sweep the ball into the net and level the scores. Somehow United were able to win another corner and with just seconds remaining another super-sub, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer turned in the winner. The aftermath of this sudden change of events is one of the most joyous, and one of the most heartbreaking, you will ever see.
2 Alex Zanardi – Indycar
This is without doubt the bravest comeback on this, or any other, list. Alex Zanardi is a two time CART Indycar world champion and former Formula 1 driver who came about as close to dying as you possibly can in an accident in 2001. Zanardi was leading the race when exiting pit road, spinning out of control onto the track and right into the path of the oncoming Alex Taglianai at something close to 2000 mph. Zanardi lost two thirds of the blood in his body and had to have both legs amputated in order to save his life.
This would be enough for most people to step back and give up. That however is not in Zanardi’s makeup. He came back to finish the final laps of the race just two years later in a car with specially adapted hand controls on the circuit which nearly took his life. He then raced competitively in European and World Touring Car Championships, winning races all the way up until his retirement in 2009.
Oh, and since then all he has done is win two golds and a silver in the handbiking races at the 2012 Paralympics in London. Zanardi’s story is the most inspiring comeback of all time.
1 Buffalo Bills vs. Houston Oilers – 1992-93 AFC Wildcard Playoffs
The ingredients for this comeback included a third straight Super Bowl appearance on the line and a backup quarterback in the game replacing the best signal caller in the history of a franchise.
With Frank Reich stepping in for Jim Kelly the Bills looked done and dusted in the third quarter when a Reich pass was picked off and returned for a touchdown to put the Oilers up by a massive 32 points. With the score at 35-3 however improbable things started to happen. A wind change in the stadium caused the Oilers kickoff to be a short squib which the Bills recovered at midfield, giving great field position to score. Later a Don Beebe touchdown was allowed to stand despite Bebee having run out of bounds with one foot before making the catch. The play should have been ruled an illegal touch, but instead it was a 38-yard touchdown pass. With all these strange goings on the Bills were able to rattle off the next 28 points in the third quarter, eventually tying the game before winning in overtime.
This is the largest comeback in NFL history. The game itself is simply known as “The Comeback”, so there was no doubt that it would find its way to the top spot on our list.
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