Comebacks. Everybody loves them except those on the losing end. Nothing devastates a fan base more than a losing a sure handed win, and nothing moves a fan base to tears like overcoming a deficit that seemed insurmountable. I’m sure you can recall a comeback or two off the top of your head. They’re have been many in sports history. But how do you arrange them in ascending order? I could be subjective about this and list the comebacks that I deem to be the greatest of all time based on my perception of that comeback. But a more accurate picture can be achieved if we were to analyze the comebacks in terms of the probability of the comeback occurring. There’s also the issue of including games and best of seven series into account. Which ones should make the list?
I tried breaking down the list by probability but there wasn’t enough data for all the comebacks. I was objective as possible but I had to use my personal judgment a bit to make sense of it all. Take for example the weight of the comeback, was it in the regular season or was it in the playoffs? The game’s or the series’ importance would have to be subjective because how can we judge whether a certain playoff game in the NFL is better than a basketball game in the NCAA tourney? We also have to consider what the team eventually accomplished that season. How important was the victory to the team’s success? Did they eventually go all the way? Did the game break certain comeback records? All of these questions are important to ask before we delve into the list.
Taking these factors into consideration, I’ve arranged the list so that it is a sampling of the greatest comebacks in sports history with explanations of why they made my list. I’m sure I left off some that you think should have made it, so be sure to sound off below!
10 Michigan St. Spartans Vs. Northwestern Wildcats
Week 7 of the 2006 season
This one makes it on the list for being the greatest comeback in NCAA Division 1-A history. Michigan St. trailed by 35 points in the third quarter. The comeback began when Michigan St. quarterback Drew Stanton led a nine play, 65-yard drive that ended with an 18-yard touchdown pass. After a Northwestern punt, Michigan St. scored again, finishing an eight play, 53-yard drive with a 4-yard touchdown run. The quarter ended with Michigan St. down 38-17, a 21-point deficit.
Stanton later was knocked out on a late hit and was replaced by Brian Hoyer for a series. The game was deemed over when Hoyer was intercepted a minute into the drive. However, on the ensuing Wildcat possession, after a failed third down attempt, the punt was blocked and returned for a touchdown. Score: 38-24. Northwestern’s next two drives ended in punts and the two ensuing Michigan St. drives led to a touchdowns. The game was tied. Northwestern had the ball with 3:32 left in the game. After an interception, The Spartan’s kicker Bret Swenson made a 28-yard field goal to give Michigan St. the lead. Final score: 41-38.
9 New Orleans Saints vs. New England Patriots
Week 6 of the 2013 Season
The Saints visited Foxborough in week six with matching records of 5-1. The Saints took a 24-23 lead with 3:29 remaining when Drew Brees threw a 34-yard touchdown pass to Kenny Stills. Tom Brady threw an interception on the next drive and the defense held the Saints to a field goal with 2:24 remaining, the score being 27-23. Brady started at the 30-yard line with no timeouts and drove the ball all the way to the Saints 26-yard line. After missing Julian Edelmen on a pass with 30 seconds left, the probability of the Saints winning the game was 99%. The game was statistically over. After a few more completions they ended up at the Saints 17-yard line with 11 seconds left. The win probability for the saints was still 78%. Then Tom Brady hit Kendrall Thompkins for a 17-yard touchdown pass and the Patriots finished off the Saints with 5 seconds left.
The biggest reason that this game made the list was because the Patriots’ chance of winning was extremely low. They had a 1 percent chance at a certain point.
8 Philadelphia Flyers vs Boston Bruins
2010 NHL Eastern Conference Semi-Finals
The Philadelphia Flyers dug themselves into a 3-0 deficit in the 2010 NHL Eastern Conference Semi-Finals. They would end up winning the series 4-3 but not after some close calls and near losses. Down 3-0 and facing elimination, the Flyers took a 3-1 lead over the Bruins only to see it melt away by giving away two goals. The Flyers took 4-3 lead in the game, but the Bruins scored with 20 seconds left in the game forcing overtime. Simon Gagne scored at 14:40 in overtime to keep the Flyers alive. The Flyers dominated in Game 5, winning 4-0 in Boston. The Flyers won Game 6, 2-1. With one game to go, the Flyers' incredible rally was nearly complete.
The Bruins went up 3-0 in Game 7 and the Flyers' James van Riemsdyk, who had not registered a goal in the playoffs until that point, scored to make it 3–1. The Flyers would redeem themselves in the second period by scoring two goals to tie the game up at 3–3. The Bruins got called for a bench penalty and Simon Gagne scored to give the Flyers a 4-3 lead, which they wouldn't relinquish.
The Flyers joined the 1942 Toronto Maple Leafs, the 1975 New York Islanders, and the 2004 Boston Red Sox as the only sports teams to win a playoff series after trailing 3-0.
7 Scott Jurek vs. Himself/Heat
The 2005 Badwater Ultramarathon
This makes the list because of its ridiculousness and the marvelous feat that Scott Jurek accomplished. The Badwater Ultramarathon, according to the organizers: “is the word’s toughest foot race.” It’s a 135-mile course starting at 282 feet below sea level in the Badwater Basin, in California’s Death Valley, and ending at an elevation of 8360 feet at Whitney Portal, the trailhead to Mount Whitney. Check out the video here. It takes place annually in mid-July, when the heat is the most extreme with temperatures over 120 degrees °F. This is why the race it so difficult and very few people, even ultramarathoners, are able to finish the race.
The particular race we’re talking about took place took place between July 11-13, 2005. Scott Jurek, an ultramarathoner, was seventy miles into the 135-mile race, when the heat knocked him out and he collapsed to the ground, shaking and puking. He didn't move for 10 minutes (Read more). He would eventually get up and speedily run the remaining 65 miles, destroying the course record by more than half an hour! Props to Scott Jurek.
6 Los Angeles Lakers vs. Boston Celtics
Game 4 of the 2008 NBA Finals
This makes the list because of the importance of the game and the record it holds as the largest comeback in NBA Finals history. The game was at the Staples Center and it was the fourth game in the best of seven. The Lakers jumped out to a 35-14 lead after the first quarter, which also was the biggest first quarter lead in the history of the NBA finals. The Lakers would continue to hold the lead for most of the third quarter, leading as much as 24 points.
The Celtics went on a 21-3 run to the end the third, cutting the deficit to two points. The game was 73-71 with 4:07 left in the fourth, the Celtics took their first lead in the game when Eddie House made a jumper. With his shot, the Celtics never trailed again. The Celtics’ victory was the largest comeback in NBA Finals history since 1971 when Oscar Roberston’s Milwaukee Bucks swept the Baltimore Bullets.
5 Gary Player
1978 Masters Tournament
Gary Player is a South African professional golfer who’s widely regarded as one of the greatest players in the history of golf.
Player had won The Masters twice before the 1978 tournament, his last being in 1974. He got off to a bad start in the 1978 Masters. After the third day, he was trailing the leader Tom Watson by an overwhelming deficit of seven strokes and was in 10th place. Watson won the tournament the year before and was in the driver’s seat for another green jacket, but Player wasn't ready to give up just yet. With Watson, Rod Funseth, and Hurbet Green pressuring him on the final day, Player started the comeback at two under par and buried six birdies in the final nine holes to take the lead and won by one stroke with a surprising score of 64.
4 A.C. Milan vs. Liverpool F.C.
2005 UEFA Champions League Final
The UEFA Champions League Final is the final match of the UEFA Champions League, the biggest primary club football competition in Europe. The 2005 final was between Liverpool and Milan.
Milan was the favorite to win the match and took the lead in the first minute when Paolo Maldini scored. Herman Crespo scored two more goals before halftime to make it 3-0. Liverpool came roaring back in the second half, scoring three goals in a six-minute span to tie the game. The score remained tied through extra time and the game went to a penalty shootout.
The penalty score was 3-2, with Liverpool leading when Andriy Shevchenko's shot was saved by Liverpool goalkeeper Jerzy Dudek. Liverpool won their fifth European Cup.
3 Illinois Fighting Illini vs. Arizona Wildcats
2005 NCAA Basketball Tournament
Deron WilliamsConsidered to be one of the most exciting Elite Eight games in NCAA Tournament history, the top seeded Illinois Fighting Illini were trailing the 3-seeded Arizona Wildcats by 15 points with four minutes left in the game. Illinois went on a 20-5 run to force overtime after hit a monstrous three to tie the game at 80-80 with 39 seconds to go. The game is remembered as one of the most exciting NCAA basketball games ever because of how Illinois came back to eventually beat Arizona in overtime. Williams hit three more 3 pointers in overtime. But the game wasn't over until Arizona’s Hassan Adams, who had scored five points to get the Wildcats within a point, missed a rushed shot just before the final buzzer.
Illinois ended up going to the National Championship that year, losing to North Carolina 75-70. But the sting of that loss did not overshadow the memory of the game and Deron Williams is still considered a legend in Illinois for how he played in it.
2 Houston Oilers vs. Buffalo Bills
1992 AFC Wild Card Game
The Houston Oilers faced the Buffalo Bills in the 1992 AFC Wild Card game, quickly building a 28-3 halftime lead with Warren Moon throwing four touchdown passes.
The game was considered over when just moments into the second half, Houston’s Bubba McDowell intercepted a pass and ran it in for a 58 yard touchdown.
But Frank Reich, the backup quarterback for the Bills, filled in for Jim Kelly and orchestrated play after play and drive after drive to bring the Bills back. Buffalo began with a one-yard TD run by Kenneth Davis. The Bills would recover the ensuing onside kick and from there Reich three four touchdown passes, one to Don Beebe and three to Andre Reed. The Bills led 38-35 with a little under 3 minutes left in the game. With seconds left, the Oilers’ tied up the game with a 26-yard field goal to force overtime. Early on in overtime, cornerback Nate Odomes intercepted Warren Moon and set up Steve Christie, the Bills’ kicker, for an attempt to win the game. Christie made the 36-yard field goal and the greatest comeback in NFL history game was over and the Bills had won.
The Bills would make it to the Super Bowl that year where they got crushed by the Dallas Cowboys 52-17.
1 Boston Red Sox vs. New York Yankees
2004 American League Championship Series
Everyone knows what happened but a quick recap for those who forgot. This comeback happened during the 2004 American League Championship Series. The Red Sox would become the only team in MLB history to go down 3-0 and come back to win the series. The Red Sox were an AL wild card and had beaten the Anaheim Angels in the series before. The Yankees won the AL East and had defeated the Minnesota Twins the series before.
In Game 1, the Red Sox recovered from an eight-run deficit to get within one run before eventually losing 10-7. Game 2 was a 3-1 victory for the Yankees, with the Red Sox rallying in the eighth but eventually losing again. Game 3 was in Boston and the Red Sox were destroyed 19-8. Game 4 went into extra innings. David Ortiz started the fire with a walk-off home run in the 12th inning, giving the Red Sox a 6-4 victory. David Ortiz was at it again in Game 5 with a single in the fourteenth inning giving the Red Sox a 5-4 victory. The game broke the record for the longest postseason game at 5 hours and 49 minutes. Game 6 was the bloody sock game, where Curt Schilling pitched seven innings with his sock stained with blood. Game 7 was 10-3 victory by the Red Sox. Riots broke out in Boston and resulted in one death. Unfortunate as that was, it was an epic comeback and one for the ages.
One last personal note: the series was happening during Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of fasting, that year and I started going to the mosque to pray for the Red Sox. I started this on the night of Game 4. I missed Games 4, 5, & 6 because I thought I would “take one for the team” and try to will the Red Sox to victory with spiritual devotion. There probably was no correlation, but I was a freshman in high school and would have tried anything to change the outcome of the series. Praying never hurt anyone.