Superbowl LI and other classic comebacks

Harry Dean compares the Patriots' comeback to win the Superbowl with other memorable sporting comebacks.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The comeback is a key aspect of sport that transcends all corners of this genre. The possibility of pulling off a come-from-behind victory is what provides hope for those fans who find their team trailing in sporting fixtures, no matter how futile their situation may appear, whilst also ensuring that teams who find themselves leading can’t ever get complacent.

The beauty of comebacks is that although pundits, fans, and players of all sports know they occur, predicting when and where they will take place is simply impossible. If you were one of the countless individuals (myself included) who decided when the Atlanta Falcons increased their lead over the New England Patriots to 28-3 in Superbowl LI to turn off and attempt to salvage a decent night’s sleep and in doing so missed perhaps the greatest comeback in NFL history, you will know all too well the brutal unpredictability of this phenomena. The art of the comeback is something however that pervades all sport, so in light of the Patriots’ stunning comeback last week, here is a list of some of the most famous comebacks the world of sport has ever witnessed.

2005 UEFA Champions League Final, Liverpool vs AC Milan:

Although statistically there have been larger comebacks in football history, it is the context of this one having taken place in the final of the Champions League, the biggest fixture in club football, that sets it apart. Prior to the game, a star-studded AC Milan side was largely expected to sweep aside a flawed Liverpool team that had finished a disappointing 5th in the Premier League that season and were perceived to have been fortunate to even make it to the final in Istanbul.

At halftime in this fixture, the pregame predictions appeared to be spot on, with AC Milan leading 3-0 having barely broken sweat. Then, in the space of six incredible minutes early in the second half, goals from Steven Gerrard, Vladimir Smicer, and Xabi Alonso pulled the underdogs level. The match was eventually decided by penalties where Liverpool held their nerve against a shellshocked Milan side. The story of “that night in Istanbul” has subsequently become the stuff of legend on Merseyside and most Liverpool fans will agree that this one magical night has made these last 25 years of underachievement worthwhile. Milan would get their revenge though, beating Liverpool in the same fixture two years later.

2016 ICC World Twenty20 Final, West Indies vs England:

The slow-burning nature of most cricket matches usually ensures that comebacks in this sport lack a degree of spontaneity and therefore some would argue are less memorable than other sports. However, if you are looking for an example of the emotions of a team switching so dramatically in such a short space of time, then look no further than this epic.

Having batted first and posted an impressive 155 runs, England then proceeded to control the game for the entirety of the West Indian innings prior to the final over. Needing a highly improbable 19 runs off the last six balls, Carlos Brathwaite, a player with limited batting pedigree, contrived to do the unimaginable. Facing Ben Stokes, one of the most respected bowlers in international cricket, Brathwaite smashed four consecutive sixes to seal the World Twenty20 Cup for his delirious West Indies side while leaving England, and Stokes in particular, disconsolate.

2016 NBA Finals, Cleveland Cavaliers vs Golden State Warriors:

This comeback is the only one here to have taken place within the context of a series of games. Although overturning a 3-1 deficit in a best-of-seven games series isn’t unprecedented in NBA history, the scenario of this having taken place against the Warriors, who had posted an all-time-best season record of 73-9 throughout the regular season, stands out. What’s also significant is that the Cavaliers had never won an NBA franchise and the city of Cleveland itself was famous for sporting failure; it had been 52 years since any Cleveland sports franchise had claimed a Championship.

In game five of the series, fuelled by 41 points each from Kyrie Irving and LeBron James, the Cavaliers easily saw off the Warriors before doing so again in game six three days later in front of their home crowd. Still, though, with the deciding game to be played at the home of the Warriors, the accepted logic was that they would surge to the title while the Cavaliers would choke under the overwhelming weight of history they faced. However, Cleveland rose to the occasion magnificently, holding Golden State to a series-low 89 points and eventually winning by 4 in an unbearably tense finish, in doing so becoming the first ever team in the history of the NBA Finals to overturn a 3-1 deficit to triumph.

2012 Ryder Cup:

As ever in sport, there are always two sides to a comeback. As jubilant as the victors may be at having salvaged triumph from the jaws of defeat, there are always the losers, who forever have to live with the fact that they couldn’t finish the job, despite appearing almost certain to do so. This was the reality that the US golf team had to face after what the US media framed as an unbelievable capitulation on the final day of the 2012 Ryder Cup at the Medinah Country Club in Illinois. As much as the American media attempted to frame this as a choke on the part of the US, there can be no denying the incredible belief and resolve by Team Europe to make probably the greatest comeback in the history of team golf a reality.

Trailing by an overwhelming 10-4 margin on day two of the three-day tournament, the Europeans, captained by Spaniard Jose Maria Olazabal, pulled back two points in the final two afternoon fourball games played that day. However, they did still face a daunting challenge on the final day; only once in Ryder Cup history had a team ever come back from this scoreline to seal the trophy and that was in 1999, when the victorious American team had the advantage of the home crowd. However, Europe raced out of the blocks on the final day, winning the first five singles matches, and never looked back. It was Martin Kaymer who sunk the winning putt, ensuring that Europe ultimately retained the title by just a single point and thus extended their winning streak over the Americans in the most remarkable fashion.

Superbowl LI, New England Patriots vs Atlanta Falcons:

It’s the storyline we’ve all become accustomed to but even to look back on it now it still seems too incredible to be true. With 8 minutes and 39 seconds left in the 3rd quarter of Superbowl LI, the Patriots trailed the Falcons by a huge 25-point margin. To put that in some context, the biggest previous deficit a team had overcome to win a Superbowl was ten points. At this point, the Patriots needed to play a near-perfect game to win their fifth Superbowl title and they did pretty much that.

The comeback was started with a touchdown from James White and from there they caught fire. Danny Amendola and White added 2 more touchdowns in the 4th quarter and along with two successful extra point attempts and a field goal they managed to remarkably tie the game at 28 points and trigger the first overtime game in Superbowl history. The Patriots wasted no time, though, driving down the field and clinching the winning score courtesy once again of White. Quarterback Tom Brady, who threw for a massive 466 yards, was influential as always alongside legendary Head Coach Bill Belichick. But this was very much a team effort, one in which every player contributed, something that is necessary to pull off a comeback of this magnitude. In winning this game when they had absolutely no right to, the Patriots once again proved just why they are the premier team in the NFL today.


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