Super Bowl LI happened yesterday. The Atlanta Falcons held a 28-3 lead in the third quarter and blew it, falling 34-28 to the New England Patriots in overtime. It was an epic “choke job” or “collapse” in the closing moments. Was it the worst in sports history?
There’s really one NFL debacle in the discussion. That’s the AFC Wildcard Game between Houston and Buffalo in January of 1993. The Oilers took a 35-3 lead over the Bills after a pick-six in the third quarter. Buffalo, with Jim Kelly injured, came back to win 41-38 in overtime. It was momentous enough to be known as “The Comeback.”
The Oilers blew the bigger lead. New England was not starting Jimmy Garoppolo. That said, it was on the road in a cold weather game at Buffalo. One must also dock some points for not being in the Super Bowl itself. Houston did not have the championship slip away from its grasp.
College Football has produced its share of incredible mid-game sea-changes. There is a much larger volume of games. But, if we’re limiting it to games that affected the title in the “Championship” era, there is not one that sticks out. The biggest is probably Auburn losing after leading FSU 21-3 in the second quarter. The Seminoles were back in that game by halftime.
There isn’t a strong contender for the NBA. Portland blew a 15-point lead in Game 7 of the 2000 Western Conference Finals. But, that’s hardly unheard of in an NBA game. The 1981 Philadelphia 76ers went up 3-1 over the Celtics and blew late leads in the final three games. The NBA has never had a 3-0 comeback. Yes, the Golden State Warriors blew a 3-1 lead against Cleveland.
Same for the NHL. There have been 3-0 comebacks. The closest in a championship spot is probably the 1942 Stanley Cup Finals. The Red Wings were up 3-0 in the series. They held leads of 2-0 and 3-2 in Game 4 in Detroit. They lost 4-2 and lost the final three games of the series. There’s no defining collapse like that in a pivotal spot.
MLB can put forward the 2004 ALCS. The Yankees held a 3-0 lead on the Red Sox. They had a 2-1 lead in the bottom of the 9th in Game 4 with Mariano Rivera on the mound. They went on to lose the series. This was more momentous and resonant, given the past history and the Red Sox World Series drought. That’s probably still a “bigger” moment for Boston fans. But, there wasn’t any one part of this win that defied the odds. It also wasn’t the World Series.
Soccer has one that should be in the discussion. AC Milan scored in the first minute against Liverpool in the 2005 Champions League Final. The Rossoneri took a 3-0 lead into halftime. Liverpool was down to 188-1 to come back and win that match. They scored three quick goals in the second half and lifted the trophy after winning on penalties. Though, as important as the Champions League is, that Liverpool team finished 37 points behind leaders Chelsea in the EPL.
Then there’s the question of whether one should count individual sports. Greg Norman blowing a six-stroke lead on the final day of the 1996 Masters and Jean van de Velde not getting the double-bogey he needed on the 18th tee at the British Open would certainly qualify.
Accounting for all the evidence, we’d still give it to Atlanta, at least in the team sport bracket. It’s hard to top the moment and the self-inflicted nature of the turnaround. While others were victims of great comebacks and cruel momentum swings, the Falcons just blew it.