One of sports’ greatest debates revolves around the best way to lose. Kind of like the semi-serious, jokingly morbid discussions on preferred methods of death.
Would you rather fall behind quickly and slide onto the wrong side of a blowout, your mind drifting off as the clock winds down, like you swallowed a bottle of sleeping pills?
Or is the choice a taut, competitive contest with lead changes and mood swings throughout, until at the very end you lose in a flash, like a bullet to the temple?
Such deliberations are unnecessary for the victors. The best way to win is “all of the above:” running away early; pulling away late; and seesawing in a nail-biter that’s decided on the last play.
Overcoming or blowing a huge lead seems to occupy a separate category of joy and pain. It contains all the drama of a back-and-forth affair, but it doesn’t start dispensing the tension until we’re convinced none is coming.
Then it’s like an IV drip that was clogged but suddenly opened at full bore.
Sports has delivered an overdose recently.
The Atlanta Falcons were cruising to the franchise’s first Super Bowl victory Sunday, taking a 19-point lead into the fourth quarter. When New England scored a field goal, cutting the deficit to 16 points with 9:44 left, ESPN pegged the Patriots’ win probability at .4 percent. But after New England’s game-tying two-point conversion with less than a minute left in regulation, the game was a 50-50 proposition.
Unofficially, the Patriots’ probability of winning was 99.9 percent once they won the overtime toss and gave Tom Brady the ball. He proceeded to be Tom Brady, along the way producing an unbelievable rally.
Such comebacks have become a bit commonplace of late.
Baseball’s feel-good story was on life support a few months ago. The Cubs, Chicago’s lovable losers who owned the majors’ best record last season, reached the World Series for the first time since 1945. With a chance to win their first championship since 1908, they fell behind the Cleveland Indians, three games to one.
Dating to 1925, when baseball established the 2-3-2 format for the Fall Classic, 31 teams faced the same deficit. Only two staved off elimination and eventually won the series. The Cubs pulled off the feat by winning Games 6 and 7 – on the road – with the clincher going 10 innings.
Blowing a 3-1 World Series lead over the course of several days, doesn’t compare to blowing a 25-point lead midway through the third quarter. Atlanta watched its offense implode quicker than it took Lady Gaga to be lowered for halftime. The Falcons failed to gain a first down on three of their six possessions following intermission, including the crippling three-and-out after New England’s failed onside kick.
As horrible as the Falcons and their fans must feel, it’s nothing when measured against Golden State’s dizzying and depth-defying ride last summer after a record 73-win NBA season.
The Warriors turned near-certain defeat into sweet victory by overcoming a 3-1 deficit against Oklahoma City in the Western Conference finals. Only nine teams in league history had accomplished the feat previously. Much to the Warriors’ chagrin and everyone else’s shock, the Cleveland Cavaliers quickly became the 11th team to produce a miracle.
Thirty-two teams had fallen behind 3-1 in the NBA Finals. Only two had forced a Game 7 and none won the title. The history didn’t matter to LeBron James & Co. in a contest – on the road – that featured 20 lead changes and 11 ties. Kyrie Irving hit a 3-pointer over Stephen Curry to snap the last deadlock with 53 seconds left.
Historic comebacks weren’t on the menu in the most-recent major championships for college football and men’s basketball. But both provided the sort of tense, down-to-the-wire action that’s often missing in championship games.
North Carolina overcame a 10-point margin to tie Villanova on a 3-pointer with six seconds remaining last April. That was more than enough time for the Wildcats’ Kris Benson to drain his own three, the ball still in flight when the buzzer sounded.
Clemson outscored Alabama 21-7 in the fourth quarter of the national title game and could’ve forced overtime with a chip-shot field goal with six seconds remaining. Instead, the Tigers risked losing by snapping the ball. Their nerviness was rewarded when Deshaun Watson made an easy 2-yard toss to Hunter Renfrow with a solitary second on the clock.
From the Super Bowl, World Series and NBA Finals, to the Final Four and College Football Playoff, sports has outdone itself lately.
In case anyone forgot why we watch, why live games are unparalleled reality TV, and why adults routinely use sports to convey life lessons to youngsters (keep fighting; don’t give up; finish strong), now you know.
No matter what happens, whether your team cruises or chokes or does anything in between, something can be gleaned from the outcome.
And sometimes, like Sunday, it’s an experience like none ever before.