To see this list with pretty pictures, read it on Bleacher Report.
So it seems that, for the last month or so, everyone has been doing their “best of the decade” post-mortems. Seems everyone has forgotten all the hoopla and nonsense about how 2000 wasn’t really the start of a new millennium because there wasn’t really a “Year Zero”. If the new millennium really started with 2001, shouldn’t a new decade start with 2011? But I digress. In any case, it seems an appropriate time to take a look at the best games of the past ten years, even if it is a little late (the Packers and Cardinals already produced a nominee for the next decade just on Sunday), and sure enough last month ESPN presented 25 nominees and asked people to vote for their own best games of the decade, a list of nominees I’ve used as the backbone for this list.
It’s easy for me to say this when I wasn’t around for any of the earlier ages, but this past decade may have been one of the biggest golden ages in American sports, if not for the athleticism (or the legitimacy of it) then for the emotional and captivating games and moments. I started out intending to create a list of just the top ten games of the last decade, a list that would surely be limited to the truly transcendent moments, the cream of the crop, the games and events that would stand the test of time. Yet I found that to truly capture everything that happened in the last decade, to truly capture everything that I wanted to capture, I would have to extend the list to twelve. Even with the two extra spots, I had to do a lot of culling to produce the list you see here. (Sports Illustrated ultimately put together a top 20 list.)
Texas Tech upended Texas in 2008 in a thrilling game won on a tremendous catch and run for a touchdown on the effective final play, a game that ultimately kept Texas out of the Big 12 title game and thus the national title game, a game on par with any of the other great games of that thrilling year, but a game that was not even considered for the list. There is nothing from the NBA, which for most of this decade was in its post-MJ nadir. There is nothing from any sport smaller than tennis, which had to put on a heck of a performance to make the list. There is nothing from the NHL or auto racing. There is no Usain Bolt or Lance Armstrong. Only one baseball game made the list; Grady Little’s decision to leave in Pedro leading to Aaron Boone’s extra inning home run in Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS didn’t make the list, and neither did the 18-inning classic between the Braves and Astros in 2005 won by Roger Clemens coming out of the bullpen. Game 7 of the 2001 World Series, when the Arizona Diamondbacks cracked the great Mariano Rivera to win the series, didn’t make the list. Miami versus Ohio State, the first classic BCS title game, didn’t make the list. Super Bowl XXXIV, which ended one yard short of potentially going into overtime, didn’t make the list. Neither did XXXVIII, a showdown between the Patriots and Panthers with a high-scoring, back-and-forth final quarter many at the time considered one of the greatest Super Bowls ever.
No, to make this list you have to have something more. A great game in sports can involve a number of factors, whether it’s a tight, competitive game that’s only decided in the final seconds or a thrilling comeback against insurmountable odds, whether it’s a game between two unstoppable forces where something has to give or an underdog shocking the world and upsetting the favorite. A great game ideally involves high stakes, such as a championship, and its impact is felt for years to come. To make this list requires some combination of all of those; this list is so exclusive that only the cream of the crop can make it. There is not a single regular season game on this list; only one game, because of college football’s wonky postseason, did not give its winner a shot at the championship, and most of these games were for a championship of some kind. The underdog won most of these games, and even when the favorite won, it was one heck of an uphill climb. Many of these games went to overtime; almost all ended within one score. And pretty much every single one left everyone staring at their TVs in disbelief.
(Note: I consulted Wikipedia in the writing of these entries, so take from that what you will.)
Without further ado, I present to you Morgan Wick’s Top 12 Games of the Last Decade.
AFC Championship Game: Patriots @ Colts (2007)
Peyton Manning couldn’t win the big one. He’d already racked up more stats and records than any other quarterback of his era. But he’d never won a title, because he could never get past Tom Brady and the juggernaut known as the New England Patriots, whenever they met in the playoffs. Peyton Manning couldn’t put together that great, game-winning drive, that great comeback, like Montana and Brady could; instead, he was doomed to be put in the same sentence as Tarkenton or Marino, quarterbacks who had great numbers but could never win a ring. Asante Samuel picked him off 35 yards for a touchdown with nine and a half minutes left in the first half, giving the Patriots a 21-3 lead. Peyton Manning was once again going to collapse when the pressure was strongest and lose the big one. Except he set up Adam Vinatieri, star of so many Patriots championships past, to cut the deficit to 21-6 before the half, and led the Colts on two 76-yard touchdown drives during the first 11 minutes of the second half to tie the game. For the rest of the game, whenever the Patriots scored, the Colts answered. New England scored a touchdown; Indy scored a touchdown. New England kicked a field goal; Indy kicked a field goal. Finally New England kicked another field goal to take a 34-31 lead with 3:53 left. Peyton Manning wasn’t going to make the game-winning drive when he needed to. But that’s what he did, moving the ball 80 yards in just 7 plays to give the Colts a touchdown and their first lead of the game. But he left one minute on the clock; plenty of time for Tom Brady. But this time, Tom Terrific would throw an interception and the Colts could finally celebrate a victory over the Patriots when it mattered most. And two weeks later, Peyton Manning would win the one thing his Hall of Fame resume lacked: a Super Bowl ring.
MCBB National Championship Game: Kansas v. Memphis (2008)
9, 5, 16, 9, 7, 17. In chronological order, those are the last six victory margins in the NCAA Men’s Basketball National Championship Game, which in recent years has not lived up to its status as the culmination of the national month-long phenomenon known as March Madness, instead perennially ending the tournament with an anticlimactic blowout. Only three games this decade had victory margins lower than nine points, two of them being Syracuse’s three-point win over Kansas in 2003 when they were led by Carmelo Anthony, and North Carolina’s 5-point win over Illinois in 2005 that was only close for a few brief periods at the beginning and end of the game. But that 7-point game, delivered by Kansas and Memphis in 2008, was every bit the culmination that the tournament deserves. Kansas would only get that 7-point victory margin in overtime; they were down by nine with 2:12 to play and worked furiously to eliminate that deficit, helped by Memphis’ free-throw shooting woes. Even with all of that, it still took one clutch three-point shot from Mario Chalmers in the final seconds to send the game into overtime. Kansas would dominate the extra session, giving Bill Self his first championship, but Memphis proved once and for all it was worthy of the big boys despite coming from otherwise-weak Conference USA. The game has become rather colored since – you won’t find it in NCAA record books because the game was vacated as a result of NCAA violations at Memphis – but for one year, the tournament had a championship game worthy of the tournament itself.
Super Bowl XLIII: Steelers v. Cardinals (2009)
Super Bowl XLIII didn’t start out much differently from many other Super Bowls. The Steelers took a 10-0 lead a minute into the second quarter, but the Cardinals responded with a touchdown of their own, and late in the first half Kurt Warner, enjoying an unusual career resurgence, drove the Cardinals down to tie or take the lead before the half. And then unsung Steeler linebacker James Harrison picked him off at the goal line and managed to run all 100 yards down the field and 18 seconds off the clock, turning what could have been a tie game or Cardinal lead to a 17-7 Steeler lead, despite Larry Fitzgerald coming close to bringing him down at the one. (Contrary to popular belief, had Fitzgerald been successful the half would not have ended with Harrison’s interception failing to result in points; a look at the video shows the clock only hits zero as Harrison crosses the goal line, and Harrison could still have been brought down at the one with one second left.) That set the tone for what became one of the wildest Super Bowls in history, as Pittsburgh extended the lead to 20-7 by the end of the third period, only to see Warner move the ball 87 yards on only eight plays in less than four minutes, culminating in a pass to Fitzgerald to move within six. Then Pittsburgh was pinned on the one and Ben Roethlisberger appeared to complete a 20-yard pass to Santonio Holmes, only to see it nullified on a flag in the end zone that gave the Cardinals a safety, cutting the lead to four. Then on just the second play of the ensuing drive, Warner completed it to Fitzgerald who sprinted past the defense for a 63-yard touchdown that gave the Cardinals the lead. Then Roethlisberger drove the Steelers 78 yards (really 88 yards because of a holding penalty) in eight plays and two minutes, culminating in Santonio Holmes tapping his toes in the end zone to retake the lead. Then Warner took over hoping his great receivers could give him some late heroics of his own, but had the ball forced out as he attempted to pass, in a play Cardinals fans still think should have been ruled an incompletion, as Roethlisberger was finally able to take a knee to give the Steelers their second championship in four years.
ALCS: Yankees @ Red Sox Game 4 (2004)
The Yankees won the first three games of the series, and by big margins. No team in the history of baseball had ever come back from a 3-0 deficit. Now it was Game 4, and while the Yankees weren’t dominating the Red Sox, only leading 4-3, they had the Hammer of God, Mariano Rivera, the greatest closer of all time, on the mound. No one hits Mariano Rivera; no one scores off of Mariano Rivera; Mariano Rivera does not blow saves, certainly not in the postseason. With just three more outs, the Red Sox were going to be swept out of the ALCS in ignominious fashion, worse than the heartbreak of the year before, and the fabled Curse of the Bambino would continue for one more year as the Red Sox’ World Series futility would have one more chapter written. Then Rivera walked Kevin Millar, and Dave Roberts, in as a pinch-runner, incredibly took off for second, just barely beating the tag. Bill Mueller singled in Roberts, and the game went into extra innings, where David Ortiz would hit a walk-off home run in the twelfth to keep the series alive. The Red Sox were still down 3-1 in the series, still a tall order, but the Yankees were already demoralized, and another Rivera blown save and Ortiz extra-inning heroics sent the series back to New York but with the outcome seemingly a foregone conclusion. Curt Schilling threw seven innings of one-run ball in the “Bloody Sock game” and some controversial calls prevented the Yankees from mounting a long enough rally to win, and Game 7 would prove a blowout. Boston went on to sweep the Cardinals right out of the World Series, a shockingly sudden end to the Curse, and Boston fans still wouldn’t be sure the tables wouldn’t be turned on them until that final out. And for one year, the pendulum in the greatest rivalry in baseball swung to Fenway Park.
Super Bowl XXXVI: Rams v. Patriots (2002)
Members of the Rams declared before the game that it would mark the birth of a dynasty, after winning Super Bowl XXXIV two years before. They were right; they just didn’t play for that dynasty. No one expected the Patriots to win Super Bowl XXXVI against the Rams, considered the most dominant team in football with one of the greatest offenses of all time, known as the “Greatest Show On Turf” with multiple future Hall of Famers or potential Hall of Famers from Kurt Warner to Marshall Faulk to Torry Holt. The Patriots were relying on an unproven rookie quarterback and only escaped their wild card game against the Raiders in the controversial “tuck rule” game. But the New England Patriots were perhaps the perfect team for America to root for in the first Super Bowl since 9/11, especially after the pregame introductions. The Rams had each member of the starting lineup introduced individually, as was then the custom; the Patriots declared their intention to be introduced as a team, as a single unit without egos. The following year would be the final year anyone would be introduced individually. The Patriots stymied the Greatest Show On Turf, only allowing a field goal in the first half and Ty Law returning an interception 47 yards for a touchdown, helping the Patriots take a 14-3 halftime and 17-3 end-of-third-quarter lead. The Rams wouldn’t score any touchdowns until the fourth quarter, scoring two to tie the game with 1:30 left, leaving John Madden to suggest the Patriots play for overtime. Instead, Tom Brady drove the Patriots 53 yards to allow Adam Vinatieri to kick the game-winning field goal on the last play of the game, winning Super Bowl MVP. The Patriots would win two more championships in the next three years; the Rams were never the same, going 0-2 in the divisional round since, and winning the division and posting a winning record once in the succeeding years (in 2003), culminating in a 1-15 record in 2009 that made them the laughingstock of the league. Super Bowl XXXVI was a classic at the time, but rarely has one game shifted the fortunes of two franchises so much.
MCBB Washington Regional Final: George Mason v. Connecticut (2006)
The heart of the NCAA tournament is Cinderella, the underdog that upends the big name school despite not having nearly the name value or prestige. But it’s the big name schools, not the underdogs, that make the Final Four year after year, schools like Florida and UCLA and North Carolina and Duke. It’s not a bunch of kids from a no-name suburban commuter school. In fact, George Mason was a pretty good team that year, as evidenced by the fact they entered the tournament as an at-large despite losing one of their best players, Tony Skinn, to a suspension for the first game. In fact, when they knocked off Michigan State despite being without Skinn, I distinctly remember thinking, “If they could win a game over the 6 seed without Skinn, imagine what they could do with him.” Indeed, the Patriots went on to knock out North Carolina in the second round. But they lucked into another underdog mid-major, Wichita State, in the Sweet 16; surely the winner of that game would serve as little more than the whipping boy for the winner of the battle of Huskies between UConn and Washington. Except it didn’t happen that way. Mason proved once and for all they could play with the big boys, sticking with Connecticut every stage of the game, never giving up even when down substantially. Mason gave up a late lead that allowed the Huskies to hit a buzzer-beater to send the game to overtime, but in the extra session it was Mason that looked like the big name school and Connecticut that looked like the scrappy mid-major that was just happy to be there. Florida blew out Mason in the Final Four, but for one night, a bunch of no-names from a sleepy commuter school in suburban Washington played perhaps the defining game of March Madness.
Wimbledon Men’s Singles Final: Federer v. Nadal (2008)
Roger Federer was the dominant tennis player of the decade, so dominant no one else could challenge him – outside of clay. Rafael Nadal was already one of the greatest clay court players of all time, and had reached the Wimbledon final the year before, but just as Federer couldn’t crack Nadal on clay, so Nadal couldn’t crack Federer on grass. But in 2008, on the most storied court in tennis, Nadal took the first two sets before rain intervened. Federer rallied to take the third set in a tiebreak and rallied from 5-2 down with Nadal serving in the fourth set tiebreak to force a fifth, which was interrupted by another rain delay. Neither man could crack the other’s serve until 7-7, when Nadal picked up a break and went on to win the match only games before it would have been suspended by darkness. Some of the greatest players in the history of the game called it the greatest match they’d ever seen, but it was more important than that. It marked a passing of the torch, signifying that Nadal was now the most dominant player in the game, taking the World No. 1 ranking by the end of the year. Federer would have the more successful 2009 when Nadal was taken out of Roland Garros and Wimbledon by injury, completing the career slam and passing Pete Sampras, but people will always remember the classic Federer and Nadal put on on Centre Court in 2008.
Fiesta Bowl: Boise State v. Oklahoma (2007)
Boise State’s win over Oklahoma in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl has always been a bit overrated. It’s hardly an upset – both major polls had Boise not far behind Oklahoma, and the computers thought highly enough of the Broncos to actually pull them ahead of the Sooners in the BCS standings. Oklahoma was not a world-beater team; they lucked into the Big 12 Title Game when Texas choked down the stretch. But c’mon. It’s Oklahoma – Oklahoma! Oklahoma doesn’t lose to directional schools with weird-colored fields like Boise State! Boise – all the non-BCS schools – were considered unworthy of respect until proven otherwise. Since both teams were mediocre by BCS standards, the Fiesta Bowl was not even all that well-played. But it was certainly one of the wildest games of the decade. Boise would lead much of the game before Oklahoma rallied to tie, then Jared Zabransky surrendered an interception return for a touchdown to give OU the lead. Then Boise pulled out all the stops to come away with the win, starting with the famous hook-and-lateral to force overtime. Oklahoma scored on the first possession, and Boise responded with a relatively normal halfback pass, putting them an extra point away from forcing a second overtime… wait, Chris Peterson is going all-in with a two-point conversion? He’s making it do-or-die for Boise? Zabransky faked the throw while handing off to Ian Johnson – the Statue of Liberty? – and Boise had knocked off one of college football’s most storied programs and Johnson delivered one of the most unforgettable proposals of all time. But more than the excitement of the game itself, the 2007 Fiesta Bowl deserves importance for how it changed college football, doing more than any other single game to make a playoff inevitable by showing that the college football have-nots deserved a seat at the table – and perhaps more importantly, Boise’s trick plays earned the lower-tier schools a reputation for unconventional, entertaining play that turned them into money-makers as well, showing that the have-nots were worth giving a seat at the table to.
Beijing 2008 Olympic Games: 100m Butterfly Final (2008)
Even underdog-friendly America cheers on the favorites sometimes, usually because they’re American, but often, as in the next two entries, because they do something to show how great they are, in a way they can’t when they destroy everyone else. In 2008, Michael Phelps took aim at Mark Spitz’s record of seven Olympic gold medals, in a quest that captivated the nation for the first week of the Games. No one knew he would achieve the feat in quite the dramatic fashion he did. Several races from Phelps’ eight could have been selected to represent his quest in this spot, from Jason Lezak’s hard charge in the 4×100 freestyle to Phelps playing a crucial role in getting his own eighth medal in the 4×100 medley. But the race ESPN picked to represent Phelps’ chase was the one that tied the record. For much of the Games, Phelps’ foil was Ian Crocker, who held the world record in the event, but Serbian Milorad Cavic had shown in the past signs that he could best Phelps in the 100m butterfly, often getting derailed before he could take on Phelps when it counted. Cavic beat Phelps when they competed together in the heats, and swam a faster time in the semifinals. That gave Cavic so much confidence he declared it would be better for swimming for Phelps to fall, giving Phelps plenty of bulletin-board material entering the race. Nonetheless Cavic had the lead at the turn, and Phelps had to mount a heroic comeback to cut the lead down, only to be caught mid-stroke as the wall beckoned, still behind Cavic. With one last, powerful stroke, Phelps powered into the wall as Cavic glided in… and the scoreboard gave him the win, one one-hundredth of a second ahead of Cavic. So unbelievable was the result even Phelps himself, and his mother, had trouble believing it until they saw the scoreboard. The Serbs immediately filed a protest, but it was quickly denied, and less than 24 hours later photos confirmed that Phelps was at the wall as Cavic was just about to touch it. By the slimmest of margins, Phelps’ quest for eight gold medals stayed alive. Crocker would be beaten for the bronze by Australia’s Andrew Lauterstein. By one one-hundredth of a second.
US Open (Golf): Final Round and Playoff (2008)
Before he was known for having a bevy of girlfriends, Tiger Woods was known for being a pretty good golfer. No golfer in the past decade was anywhere near as consistently dominant as Tiger, who ran down Jack Nicklaus’ record with determination. In recent years injuries have hobbled Woods, and after the 2008 Masters Woods had arthroscopic surgery on his knee. Woods was determined not to miss a major, and in his zeal to come back suffered a stress fracture in his tibia. No one outside of Woods’ inner circle knew of the injury as he played in the US Open anyway. But they could see it in the way he hobbled down the course all weekend, going so far as to use his club as a crutch. Still, it’s Tiger Woods. Come on. Tiger was second after two rounds, but continued to struggle and fell behind. But he dazzled the crowd with a chip-in for birdie on 17 and two eagles down the stretch to pick up a one-stroke lead entering the final day, but if ever Tiger was ripe for his streak of majors won when he leads after three rounds to be broken, now was the time. And of all people, it was a 40-year-old journeyman qualifier named Rocco Mediate who seized the opportunity, taking a one-shot lead to the clubhouse as Woods and his playing partner Lee Westwood came to the eighteenth hole. Westwood missed his 15-foot birdie putt to force a playoff, and Woods had one from twelve. Would it go in? It’s Tiger Woods. Come on. Mediate gave Woods everything he had in the eighteen-hole playoff the next day, but he fell behind three strokes after the tenth. Then Tiger started to struggle and Mediate started to come back, taking a one-shot lead after the fifteenth that held entering the final hole. Still, it’s Tiger Woods. Come on. As on the previous day, Woods birdied 18 while Mediate parred, forcing a nineteenth hole, which Woods parred and Mediate bogied. But Mediate would not be forgotten as the man who brought out the best from a hobbled Tiger. Later that week, Woods announced he was ending his season – his injury was too serious – and people realized just how much he had to overcome to win perhaps his greatest major of all.
Rose Bowl: Texas v. USC (2006)
Give this to the BCS: when it works, it works spectacularly. When there are exactly two undefeated teams and both come from BCS conferences, it creates a singular event that, even if both teams escape the playoff unscathed, a playoff might take some of the momentum out of. One game between the two dominant programs in college football, two teams that would simply be wasting time playing anyone else, two teams that went wire-to-wire as the obvious best teams in college football, two teams that, as Wikipedia puts it (and it shouldn’t), would be runaway champions if they weren’t playing in the same year as each other. But they were, and something had to give, and it was natural that that something would be Texas, going up against a USC team with NFL talent all over the field, playing virtually at home, and coming off two straight national championships, to the extent that ESPN ran a series comparing USC not to Texas, but to all the great teams in college football history. As it turned out, it would be ESPN’s “Dewey Defeats Truman” moment, because Vince Young was all Texas needed.
Reggie Bush cast doubt on his Heisman victory with a botched lateral and two controversial plays, including a Young lateral for a touchdown, were not reviewed because of malfunctioning replay equipment, but the real fun ensued late. USC took a 38-26 lead with 6:42 left to play, but Young led the Longhorns on a brisk drive in which he accounted for every yard. USC got a first down but at third down at midfield, saw LenDale White fumble the ball and recovered it two yards short of a first down. For a team in the lead, fourth and two is a punting situation. But Vince Young was as scary as Peyton Manning would be nearly four years later, and the Trojans were a lot further down the field than the Patriots. They handed the ball to White, he came a yard short, and Young accounted for every yard on the ensuing drive, dashing to the end zone on fourth-and-5 from the 9. The Longhorns took a one-point lead, and fittingly, it was Young dashing to the end zone again on the ensuing two-point conversion. There wasn’t enough time for the Trojans to score, and Texas, not USC, were considered the best team in football. USC hasn’t played for a national championship since, but the real long-term impact came in the NFL Draft. After the second Trojan title, Matt Leinart forewent an almost surefire number 1 selection in the NFL Draft to win another. Bush turned into the top Trojan, picked second by the Saints. The Tennessee Titans, with former USC offensive coordinator Norm Chow as OC, picked third, needing a quarterback, and chose Young over Leinart. Leinart fell to 10th before being picked by Arizona. That Pasadena night made all the difference.
Super Bowl XLII: Patriots v. Giants (2008)
Every year, thousands of Americans file into a football stadium, and half of all the TVs in America are turned on, to watch the greatest spectacle in American sports, if not all of sports. After hours and hours of pregame speculation and festivities, the national anthem is sung, the coin is tossed, and the game – no ordinary football game – begins under the bright lights. The most creative commercials of the year air in-between the action, and some of the biggest acts in music perform the biggest, most spectacular concert of the year at halftime. Eventually, the game is over, fireworks explode and confetti falls, and a massive tricked-out stage is brought out to present the trophy. It is the biggest, brightest, longest, and most incredible show of the year, the occasion for a virtual national holiday.
And yet, what happened at Super Bowl XLII in Tempe, Arizona in 2008 managed to transcend all of that. If the NFL had the status of the Arena League, this game would still rank highly on this list. If it happened in high school, the participants and highlights would be all over ESPN, and people would be clamoring for the movie rights.
Maybe Douglas Adams was right. Maybe 42 really is the answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything. Or at least, the number of the greatest Super Bowl of all time.
This wasn’t just a great game; this was a sports movie brought to real life. This kind of story just doesn’t happen in the big money world of professional sports, let alone the NFL. If you pitched this script, it wouldn’t be rejected for being too unbelievable; it would be rejected for being too derivative and corny. The Patriots were the perfect villains. Not only did they never lose a game, everyone was certain all year that they cheated to do so, thanks to Eric Mangini reporting Bill Belichick taping signals the first week of the year in what came to be known as the SpyGate scandal. The Giants, meanwhile, had a put-upon quarterback who would never be as good as his brother, were dogged by the Patriots all year (Patriots-Giants wasn’t just the last game of the playoffs, but the last game of the preseason and regular season as well, and the Giants put up a good effort in the regular-season finale that wasn’t good enough, saving that one great victory for when it mattered most and people were most skeptical), and just barely got into the playoffs as a wild card, and through pluck and spunk, defeated bigger, stronger, more favored teams three times on the road to get to the championship game against a true Goliath, already exceeding all expectations. There were some people who thought the Giants could come away with a win, but the Patriots looked like the best team of all time. How could a wild card team hope to knock off the mighty, undefeated Patriots?
The teams took up the entire opening quarter with their opening drives, resulting in the Patriots taking a 7-3 lead, a score that didn’t change in the next two quarters. But Eli Manning caught fire in the final period. He blistered the Patriot defense for 80 yards in 7 plays to put the Giants in the end zone. Giants 10: Patriots 7. But the Giants were playing Tom Brady, and after an exchange of three-and-outs, he drove the Patriots down the field to retake a 14-10 lead with under three minutes to play. The Giants get the ball on their own 17. They get a couple big gains and a short one on 4th and 1. They move five more yards to their own 44. Manning throws the ball and Asante Samuel drops a potential interception. It would have all but ended the game. Instead the Giants still have the ball on 3rd and 5. Manning drops back to pass but the pocket closes in on him. The Patriots defenders surround him for a certain sack… except it isn’t. Manning improbably escapes out of the grasp of the defenders. At this point, if Manning had just made a pitch-and-catch to a wide-open receiver on the sideline right at the marker, or even if he had taken off for the marker himself, or even if he had just thrown an incompletion (stopping the clock and not losing any yardage), or even if the Giants went on to lose, it would still rank among the greatest plays in NFL history.
Instead, he threw it 32 yards down the field to a well-covered David Tyree. Who? David Tyree, a backup receiver known more for his special teams skills who never had more than 19 catches in a single season, who had only four catches for 35 yards this season, who had caught the touchdown earlier in the quarter but who was the intended receiver on the near-interception the previous play. As in all good sports movies, none of the adversity mattered when it mattered most, because Tyree somehow overshadowed the escape Manning had made seconds earlier, pinning the ball against his helmet as he went to the ground. The only way it could have been better would be if Tyree somehow escaped his defender, stayed on his feet, and sprinted down the field for a touchdown (or if Gus Johnson or at least Al Michaels were calling it instead of Joe Buck). Because Tyree pinned the ball against the side of the helmet facing away from the live game camera, Manning’s escape was actually more noticeable and thus easier to appreciate watching live on TV (I wasn’t even sure the pass was complete until I heard and saw confirmation), but Tyree’s catch would be what everyone would remember, perhaps because it’s easier to capture in a single photograph. It would turn out to be his last catch as a Giant. Four plays later, Manning found Plaxico Burress in the end zone and the Giants re-took the lead. But if there’s one thing Tom Brady is known for, it’s Super Bowl-winning drives, even if he only has 35 seconds to do it. He throws an incompletion and gets sacked, then tries a couple deep throws to Randy Moss downfield; surely one of them is for the game-winning touchdown, it’s Tom Brady, after all. But they both fall incomplete and the Giants stun the nation.
The Giants have not won any other playoff games since the Super Bowl-losing 2000 team. But in retrospect, it was the last night of the Patriots dynasty. Brady was injured in the first game of the next season and missed all year, and while his return presaged a division title in 2009, Belichick seemed to lose his magic touch as team chemistry seemed to disintegrate during mid-season struggles, and the Patriots were unceremoniously dumped at home by the Ravens in the playoffs, the first home playoff game lost in the Belichick era. As with other “great” Super Bowls this past decade, the action did not pick up until the final quarter, but Super Bowl XLII still stands as the undisputed greatest game of the past decade, because while sometimes it’s great to see two unstoppable forces squaring off or a great athlete or team prove it when he or it needs to, people always come back to sports for the scrappy underdog who can show them what dreams are made of.