Patriots’ comeback win in Super Bowl LI caps off an epic year of pro sports championships
The best ever?
After the first overtime in Super Bowl history on Sunday night, the championship rounds in North America’s four major sports were never better than in the 2016 athletic year.
There were historic seven-game series in the NBA Finals and World Series, a taut six-game Stanley Cup Final and, finally, a rip-roaring Super Bowl. No year, not 1955—the only year with three championship seven-game series—’58, ’62 or 2011 could match the drama and historical significance of what took place in ’16 (and early ’17).
Going back to 1947, with what is considered the first NBA Finals, here are the 10 best years for championship rounds judged by competitive series and historic import.
The ’75 World Series between the Cincinnati Reds and Boston Red Sox was a classic: A legendary Game 6 ended by Carlton Fisk’s 12th-inning home run; the Reds rallying from three runs down to win Game 7 4–3 on Joe Morgan’s ninth-inning single. It was Cincinnati’s first championship in 35 years.
After years of dull Super Bowls, the 10th version went down to the wire with the Pittsburgh Steelers holding off the Dallas Cowboys 21–17 thanks to acrobatic wide receiver Lynn Swann, the game’s MVP.
The Philadelphia Flyers topped the Buffalo Sabers in six games for their second straight Stanley Cup, a series highlighted by a descending fog over the ice in Game 3. The combination of unusually warm May weather in Buffalo and the lack of air conditioning in the Sabers’ arena brought play to a standstill. Flyers goalie Bernie Parent earned his second straight Conn Smythe Trophy as MVP.
However, the weak link to the 1975 championship roster was the Golden State Warriors’ four-game sweep of the Washington Bullets in the NBA Finals.
Thirteen years before his heroics Sunday, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady earned MVP honors at Super Bowl XXXVIII, also in Houston, by passing for 354 yards, three touchdowns and setting up Adam Vinatieri’s 41-yard field goal for a 32–29 New England victory over Carolina. A Super Bowl record 37 points were scored in the fourth quarter.
The Stanley Cup Final also was thriller with the New Jersey Devils outlasting the Anaheim Ducks in seven games as Jamie Langenbrunner and Scott Neidermayer led all scorers.
New bested old in the World Series when the Florida Marlins, who had stunned the Chicago Cubs in the NLCS, rallied from a 2-1 deficit in games to upset the New York Yankees in six games. Young right-hander Josh Beckett blanked the Yanks on five hits as Florida won the clincher 2-0.
The NBA Finals weren’t quite as dramatic as the San Antonio Spurs outclassed the New Jersey Nets in six games. Tim Duncan won his second Finals MVP award with 21 points, 20 rebounds and 10 assists in Game Six while Hall of Famer David Robinson retired a champion with 13 points and 17 rebounds in his final game.
The Steelers-Cowboys squaring off in Super Bowl X was captivating, but Super Bowl XIII three years later, also held in Miami, took the rivalry to another level. In pro football’s version of Ali vs. Frazier, the two NFL heavyweights threw haymaker after haymaker. Pittsburgh finally prevailed 35–31 behind 318 yards passing and four TD tosses from Terry Bradshaw as the Steelers became the first three-time Super Bowl winner.
The 44-win Washington Bullets became the last NBA team for 38 years to win a Game 7 on the road by stunning the Seattle SuperSonics in front of their rabid fans 105–99 behind 19 points apiece from Bobby Dandridge and Charles Johnson.
The World Series was nearly as exciting as the Yankees dropped the first two games to the Los Angeles Dodgers. But Craig Nettles’ defense in Game 3 and Lou Piniella’s 10th-inning single in Game 4 tied matters. The Yankees, who had trailed the Red Sox by 14 games in mid-July, outscored L.A. 19–4 over the final two games to win their second straight championship.
The Stanley Cup Final seemed tame by comparison with Montreal winning a third straight title, in six games over the Boston Bruins. Defenseman Larry Robinson and winger Guy Lafleur shared the Conn Smythe Trophy.
Bill Mazeroski’s ninth-inning home run in Game 7 of the World Series to lead the Pittsburgh Pirates over the Yankees is alone enough of a reason to salute 1960 but there were other thrills. The Boston Celtics needed seven games to dispose of the St. Louis Hawks and Bob Pettit (25.7 points, 14.9 rebounds per game) thanks to scoring from Tom Heinsohn, Bill Sharman and Frank Ramsey, rebounding from Bill Russell (nearly 25 boards per game) and the deft ball-handling of Bob Cousy (10 assists per game).
The last NFL title game to be played on a Monday (due to Christmas falling on a Sunday) saw the Philadelphia Eagles hand the Vince Lombardi-led Green Bay Packers their only playoff defeat, 17–13. The game ended with the ball on the Philly 10 yard-line as Eagles captain Chuck Bednarik sat on Packers running back Jim Taylor just long enough for time to run out. “You can get up now, Jim,” Bednarik cracked. The Eagles have yet to win another NFL crown.
Why doesn’t 1960 rank higher? There wasn’t much excitement in Montreal’s four-game sweep over Toronto in the Stanley Cup Final, although it did give the Canadiens a record fifth straight NHL championship.
Want drama? The winning score in the World Series and the Super Bowl came on the final play. Luis Gonzalez provided the coup de grace for the Arizona Diamondbacks, lifting a soft single off ace Yankees closer Mariano Rivera over the draw-in infield in the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 7 for a 3–2 D-backs victory. Earlier, the Yankees had tied Games 4 and 5 on two-out home runs in the bottom of the ninth.
The legend of Tom Brady was born in Super Bowl XXXVI in New Orleans when the second-year quarterback led the 14-point underdog Patriots 53 yards in the game’s final 90 seconds to set up Adam Vinatieri’s game-winning 47-yard field goal for a 20–17 victory.
The Stanley Cup Final also lasted seven games with the Colorado Avalanche rallying from a 2–3 deficit to top the New Jersey Devils. Veteran Colorado goalie Patrick Roy held the Devils to one goal over the final two games and longtime defenseman Ray Bourque finally won a Stanley Cup after 21 seasons.
The NBA Finals, however, were lackluster with the Lakers of Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant stomping the Philadelphia 76ers and Allen Iverson in five games. The Lakers finished the playoffs with only one defeat.
During the Boston Celtics’ run of eight straight NBA titles (1959–66) the closest the C’s came to losing was Game 7 of the 1962 NBA Finals to the Los Angeles Lakers. With the score tied nearing the end of regulation, L.A.’s Frank Selvy put up a 10-foot jumper from the baseline. The shot hit the rim—and bounced away. The Celtics prevailed in overtime 110–107 as Bill Russell grabbed 40 rebounds. Nearly forgotten were an NBA Finals record 61 points by the Lakers’ Elgin Baylor in Game 5.
The World Series also saw another dynasty nearly derailed as the New York Yankees held a 1–0 lead in Game 7 in the bottom of the ninth. But a two-out bunt single by Matty Alou and Willie Mays’ double to the right-field corner—skillfully dug out by Roger Maris—put the tying and winning runs on base. Willie McCovey lashed a sinking line drive–but directly at second baseman Bobby Richardson. The Yankees had their 20th championship.
In hockey, the Toronto Maple Leafs dethroned the Chicago Black Hawks in six games despite a playoff record 21 points from the Hawks’ Stan Mikita.
Horrid weather prevented the ’62 NFL title game from matching the quality of the other final rounds. The defending champion Green Bay Packers and New York Giants battled temperatures in the teens and howling winds of 35 mph at Yankee Stadium, producing a defensive struggle with the Pack winning 16–7. However, the frightful conditions did spark discussion about holding the NFL’s premier game in a warmer setting at a neutral site—and idea that bore fruit four years later with the first Super Bowl.
There’s only been one year in which the championship rounds in hockey, basketball and baseball have all reached a Game 7—in 1955.
In a Stanley Cup Final that featured the home team winning every game, the Detroit Red Wings and Gordie Howe (a record 20 playoff points) prevailed over the Montreal Canadiens 3–1 in Game 7 for their fourth championship in six years—and last until 1997.
The Syracuse Nats (later the Philadelphia 76ers) became the first racially integrated team to win an NBA crown. Black players Earl Lloyd and Jim Tucker joined white stars Dolph Schayes and Red Kerr to rally the Nats to victories in Games 6 and 7 over the Fort Wayne Pistons in the Finals. Syracuse trailed 41-24 in the second quarter of Game 7 before switching gears to win 92–91.
Baseball history also was made as the Brooklyn Dodgers won their only World Series, topping the hated Yankees. Johnny Podres scattered eight hits in Game 7 and Sandy Amoros’ spectacular catch in front of the left-field wall helped preserve Brooklyn’s 2–0 lead. Three years later the Dodgers became the Los Angeles Dodgers.
But 1955 doesn’t rank higher due to a blowout NFL title game. Playing his final game, Browns Hall of Fame quarterback Otto Graham threw two TDs and ran for two more as Cleveland routed the Los Angeles Rams, 38–14. It was the Browns’ third NFL championship in six years. They’ve won only one since.
The champions in all four sports trailed at one point, none more precariously than the St. Louis Cardinals in Game 6 of the World Series. Two times, in the ninth inning and again in the 10th, the Cards were down to their final out against the Texas Rangers. David Freese’s two-run triple bailed out St. Louis in the ninth and Lance Berkman’s two-strike single did likewise in the 10th. Freese’ homer won the game in the 11th inning, and St. Louis cruised to a 6–2 victory in Game 7.
The Boston Bruins also were one game from elimination in the Stanley Cup Final vs. the Vancouver Canucks but scored four goals in 4 minutes 14 seconds to take over Game 6. In Game 7 Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand each scored twice as Boston cruised 4–0 for the B’s first Stanley Cup since the Bobby Orr era 39 years earlier.
In the NBA Finals, the Dallas Mavericks trailed the Miami Heat and their potent triple threat of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh two games to one. Matters worsened when Miami led by nine points early in the fourth quarter of Game 4 but Dallas rallied for an 86-83 victory. Finals MVP Dirk Nowitzki (26 points per game) and Jason Terry (18 points) took care of the offense in the final two games as the Mavs won their first championship.
In Super Bowl XLVI in Indianapolis, the favored New England Patriots led the New York Giants (9–7 in the regular season) by eight points midway through the third quarter. But the Giants rallied, taking a 21–17 lead on Ahmad Bradshaw’s six-yard run with 57 seconds left. The Pats made Giants fans shudder when Tom Brady’s final pass nearly found a diving Rob Gronkowski in the end zone.
Fifty-three years earlier, the Giants weren’t so lucky in the championship game, but the team did help make history. For the first time, two NFL teams battled into overtime before the Baltimore Colts and their 25-year-old quarterback John Unitas prevailed 23–17 on Alan Ameche’s one-yard run at Yankee Stadium. Pro football was on its way to becoming the nation’s most popular sport.
Two months before, the stadium’s main tenant, the Yankees, made their own history becoming the first American League team to win a best-of-seven World Series after trailing three games to one. Yankees skipper Casey Stengel was at his best in finding the right combinations while the Milwaukee Braves’ Fred Haney horribly mismanaged his pitching staff. With Game 7 tied 2–2 in the bottom of the eighth inning, Haney allowed a tiring Lew Burdette, pitching on two days’ rest, to stay in the game. Four straight Yankees hits, including Bill Skowron’s three-run homer gave the Yankees a 6–2 victory and Stengel’s record-tying seventh championship.
Bill Russell lost only one NBA Finals and that was to a star of nearly the same magnitude: the St. Louis Hawks’ Bob Pettit. Yes, Russell injured an ankle but Pettit was magnificent. He averaged nearly 30 points for the series and scored 50 points in the clinching Game 6, including 18 of St. Louis’ final 21 points, as St. Louis won 110–109. The Hawks, who moved to Atlanta a decade later, were the last all-white team to win an NBA title.
The 1958 Stanley Cup Final found Montreal and Boston tied 2–2 in games with the Game 5 winner likely to win the Cup. Maurice “The Rocket” Richard’s overtime goal gave Montreal a 3–2 victory, and Les Canadiens won their third straight NHL title three nights later.
A year when the city of Cleveland wins its first major pro championship in 52 years, when the Chicago Cubs win their first World Series in 108 years and also sees the first overtime Super Bowl is not simply historic—it’s legendary.
No team had ever trailed an NBA Finals 3–1 and won. The Cleveland Cavaliers did, thanks to the awesome all-around skills of LeBron James (29.7 points, 11.3 rebounds, 8.3 assists per game) and Kyrie Irving’s three-point shot with 53 seconds left for a 93–89 victory in Game 7 against the record-setting Golden State Warriors, whose 73 regular-season were an NBA best.
The Cubs also trailed 3–1 in games to the Cleveland Indians. Even after winning Game 5 at Wrigley Field, the Cubs faced the challenge of becoming the first visiting team to win Games 6 and 7 of a World Series since the 1979 Pirates. Chicago handled business 9–3 in Game 6 then survived blowing a three-run eighth-inning lead—and a 17-minute rain delay—to win Game 7 in 10 innings 8–7 on RBI hits by Series MVP Ben Zobrist and Miguel Montero.
Super Bowl LI in Houston saw the Patriots overcome a 25-point deficit behind Tom Brady’s record 466 yards passing to defeat the Atlanta Falcons 34–28 when James White scored on a two-yard run in the first series of overtime. As with the Colts’ Ameche, White is a former Wisconsin Badger. Brady and Bill Belichick are the first quarterback and coach, respectively, to win five Super Bowl titles.
Oh, yes, the Stanley Cup Final was pretty good, too, with the Pittsburgh Penguins topping the San Jose Sharks in six games, all decided by two goals or less and with two games going into overtime.
For good measure, Villanova’s buzzer-beater over North Carolina for the 2016 NCAA basketball title and Clemson’s last-second victory over Alabama for the College Football Playoff crown rank among the best championship games in the history of collegiate sports.
Not a bad year.