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The Biggest Momentum Shifting Moments in Sports

Zack PumerantzAnalyst IIIJanuary 16, 2017

The Biggest Momentum Shifting Moments in Sports

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    Emotional shifts are the essence of sports bouts. As the pendulum swings back and forth between smiles and cries, players can only truck forward in hopes of victory. Those who have miraculously conquered adversity and thrived in the most unlikely situations have given us the greatest moments in sports, moments that have defined careers and stimulated childhoods.

    Momentum is the key to it all. 

    Here are the arousing plays that sparked the most historical comebacks in history. And changed franchises forever.

20. 1982 NFC Championship Game

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    As leads in the '82 NFC Championship Game swung back and forth like accusations during a brutal divorce, it was clear the upstart Niners and powerhouse Cowboys were destined for a breathtaking finish.

    Trailing 27-21 at their own 11-yard line, the Niners followed Joe Montana's clutch gene to victory. Montana's under-pressure, third-and-three laser to tight end Dwight Clark not only became iconic gridiron imagery, but it also signaled the end of one dynasty and the start of another.

    Pivotal Moment: The catch.

19. 1996 Masters

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    After three rounds of Greg Norman domination, only a disastrous breakdown could possibly relinquish a six-shot lead. But in response to legendary broadcaster Al Michaels, Nick Faldo believed in miracles.

    Norman, seemingly fit for the green jacket before the tournament, quickly crumbled. Three straight bogeys and two water-bound shots (at the 12th and the 16th) essentially sealed the deal. Faldo's 15-foot putt on the 18th served as laminate on a memorable comeback.

    Pivotal Moment: Norman's shot in the bunker at the start of the final day sets the tone for disaster.

18. 1953 FA Cup Final

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    Blackpool was making its third FA Cup appearance in six years, having lost the final twice. The Bolton Wanderers were simply enjoying a 3-2 lead, with a victory mere seconds away.

    But thanks to Stanley Matthews' masterful work on the pitch and Stan Mortensen's three goals—the only player ever to have scored an FA Cup Final hat-trick at the original Wembley Stadium—Blackpool made the seemingly impossible comeback with two goals in the final minutes. The match was properly scripted the Matthews final.

    Pivotal Moment: Matthews' cross from the right wing allows Mortensen's first goal, slicing the lead to 3-2.

17. 1972 AFC Divisional Game

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    After Raiders quarterback Ken Stabler scored on a 30-yard run with just over a minute left to take a 7-6 lead over the Steelers in the '72 AFC Divisional Game, it seemed like same old Pittsburgh once again; four decades of mediocrity defined. But on fourth-and-10 on their own 40-yard line with 22 seconds and no timeouts left, the flavor of football was defined.

    Franco Harris' impossible reception, iconically named after the immaculate conception, changed the fate of a storied franchise for good. The Terry Bradshaw-led Steelers would win four Super Bowls by the end of the decade. 

    Pivotal Moment: The Immaculate reception sets the tone for a historic future.

16. Tracy McGrady Unleashes on the Spurs

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    Tracy McGrady, once dubbed the next George Gervin, truly displayed his otherworldly abilities during a seemingly meaningless 2007 game against the immortal Spurs. Owning a 74-64 lead with under a minute remaining, a San Antonio victory was all but assured.

    But 13 points in 33 seconds from McGrady would make the fans who left early regret every second of their drive home. The inspired Rockets win 81-80.

    Pivotal Moment: McGrady's four-point play demoralizes Spurs.

15. 1972 NFL Divisonal Game

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    Thanks to the heavy running of San Francisco's Larry Schreiber and the artless play of Dallas quarterback Craig Morton, the Niners built a 28-13 lead entering the fourth quarter.

    But despite missing most of the season with a separated shoulder, promising hurler Roger Staubach replaced Morton in the fourth quarter to lead a ferocious comeback. Eventually nicknamed Captain Comeback, Staubach would toss two touchdown passes with under two minutes left in the game to secure the 'Boys 30-28 victory.

    Pivotal Moment: Mel Renfro's onside kick recovery following Staubach's first touchdown pass.

14. 1999 Rugby World Cup Semifinal

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    In 1999, the prestigious New Zealand All Blacks were William Webb Ellis trophy favorites. France wasn't even breathed a shot before the semifinal match. But like any true underdog story, France stormed back from a 24-10 deficit with 33 points to just seven from the All Blacks to secure a remarkable upset.

    Christophe Lamaison, who only cracked the starting lineup because of an injury to Thomas Castaignede, was the shining star, not missing a single kick all match. France scores 26 unanswered to win 43-31. 

    Pivotal Moment: Lamaison's quick two drop-goals and two penalties to cut the score to 24-22.

13. Miracle on Manchester

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    With the '82 postseason best-of-five series between the Kings and Oilers tied at one game apiece, the Great One-led Oilers seemed destined to take over. And they did in Game 3, as they raced to a 5-0 lead entering the third period.

    But a soft shot from 30 feet out past obstructed Oilers goalie Grant Fuhr rejuvenated a shocked Los Angeles crowd. Four more goals and one in overtime would secure a 6-5 victory, the largest comeback in NHL playoff history.

    Pivotal Moment: Defenseman Randy Gregg hits Fuhr's leg, allowing Charlie Simmer's shot to slide over the goal line, bringing the Oilers within two.

12. 1988 World Series

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    The 1988 Series matched the underdog Dodgers against the powerhouse Athletics, led by the McGwire-Canseco Bash Brothers.

    Game 1 went as expected, with legendary closer Dennis Eckersley nearly closing the game out. With two outs, following a walk to Mike Davis, a hobbled Kirk Gibson, who wasn't expected to play at all, got the call to pinch hit. With a 3-2 count, Gibson connected on the most historic arm-pumping, base-limping four-bagger in Dodgers history. Tides change, Dodgers win the series in five games.

    Pivotal Moment: With Dave Anderson on deck, Eckersley walked the powerful Davis, giving Gibson a chance.

11. 1978 Masters

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    During his legendary time on the professional pitch, Gary Player won three Masters tournaments. But in 1978, the South African icon needed a ferocious comeback to even have a shot. 

    He would evidently tempt the fates.

    Trailing by seven strokes entering the final round, Player would epically drill birdies in seven of the last 10 holes to win by one stroke over Rod Funseth, Hubert Green and defending champ Tom Watson. 

    Pivotal Moment: 15-foot putt on the 18th hole for a birdie seals the deal.

10. 1942 Stanley Cup Finals

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    Having finished fifth in the seven-team league, with a losing record, the Hockeytown Red Wings were afterthoughts in the 1942 playoffs. Like any Cinderella story, they'd even trounce the favored Maple Leafs for the first three games of the Stanley Cup finals for a 3-0 series lead, yearning for the unlikely sweep.

    But Don Metz and his Toronto brethren weren't eager to be on the wrong end of history. Behind Metz's three goals in a 4-3 Game 4 victory, the Leafs stormed back to win the series, one of only two NHL teams ever to come back from 3-0 to win the championship.

    Pivotal Moment: Metz's hat trick in Game 4 sends series back to Toronto. Rejuvenated Leafs script a riveting performance.

9. 2002 Australian Open Final

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    After falling behind 4-6, 0-4 to Martina Hingis in the final of the '02 Australian Open, Jennifer Capriati somehow spurned four championship points in the second set to keep her hopes alive.

    She went on to win 4–6, 7–6(7), 6–2 for her third and final Grand Slam title.

    Pivotal Moment: Capriati battling away four match points, which seemingly destroyed Hingis' confidence and swagger.

8. 1984 French Open

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    In 1984, John McEnroe completed a record-breaking 82-3 season, the best in the Open Era. The latest of the three losses carved a deep hole in an otherwise legendary rock of a career.

    After winning the first two sets against Ivan Lendl in the French Open, fatigue and frustration began to flood McEnroe's repertoire. He went up 4-2 in the fourth, with a chance to secure victory, but crumbled like a stale cracker in the Atacama desert. The dramatic five-set loss ended a 42-match winning streak for McEnroe, and was the closest he ever came to winning the French Open.

    Pivotal Moment: McEnroe's famous outburst leads to a slammed racket. And a tarnished confidence.

7. 1999 Ryder Cup

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    The '99 Ryder Cup team featured Tiger Woods, David Duval, Phil Mickelson and Tom Lehman, and faced a world of doubt when entering the final round down 10-6 to the European side. And while no team in 33 previous Ryder Cups had ever eclipsed more than a two-point deficit to win, U.S. captain Ben Crenshaw knew this was a special year.

    But on Sunday, the Americans won their first six matches of the day to gain the lead. Justin Leonard's 45-foot putt for birdie on the 17th hole served as mortar on a heroic comeback. An impending frenzy of excited Americans on the pitch tainted an otherwise immaculate final-day performance.

    Pivotal Moment: Crenshaw's tearful "I believe in fate" speech before the final round.

6. 1986 World Series

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    Bottom of the tenth, two outs, a World Series berth seemingly moments away for the "cursed" Sox. With the Mets clinging to life, back-to-back-to-back singles from Gary Carter, Kevin Mitchell and Ray Knight sparked a historic rally.

    Following a wild pitch that allowed the third-base runner to tie the game, Mookie Wilson faced a 3-2 count and a chance to silence the critics. And he did.

    With the tenth pitch of the at-bat, Wilson hit a dribbler to first that fondly slipped between the legs and underneath the glove of first baseman Bill Buckner. Mets go on to win Game 7 and the World Series.

    Pivotal Moment: Manager John McNamara's decision to leave bad-ankled Buckner in over defensive wiz Dave Stapleton. Although, we'll never know.

5. Michigan State Spartans vs. Northwestern Wildcats, 2006

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    The 2006 matchup between Northwestern and Michigan State not only featured the biggest comeback in NCAA history, but also may have saved the job of former Spartans head coach John L. Smith. Michigan State, considered Big Ten title favorites, suddenly found themselves down 38-3 with less than 10 minutes remaining in the third quarter.

    And then suddenly, like mosquitoes in hot grease, the Spartans received a jolt. Behind Drew Stanton's new focus and a rejuvenated defense, Michigan State roared back with 38 unanswered points to win 41-38.

    Definitive Moment: Wildcats punt blocked by Devin Thomas and returned for a touchdown by Ashton Henderson. Next two Northwestern drives end in punts, while next two Michigan State drives end it touchdowns.

4. 2011 World Series

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    David Freese's .545 average in the NLCS was only a slight appetizer to a meal of playoff heroism in 2011. The promising third baseman truly won over St. Louis hearts when he single-handedly defined the term comeback, twice.

    In Game 6 of the World Series, with the Rangers leading three games to two, Freese came to bat in the bottom of the ninth with two outs and two on. With two strikes on him, Freese hit a two-run triple to send the game to extras. In the 11th inning, still with a two-strike count, Freese struck again with a lead-off, walk-off home run to force a Game 7. 

    The Cardinals would win Game 7 and the title.

    Pivotal Moment: Freese's two-run triple off Neftali Feliz in the bottom of the ninth with two outs paves the way for a historic St. Louis robbery.

3. 2005 NCAA Regional Final

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    This game had it all; drama, heartbreak, even some cowbell. All it needed was Gus Johnson.

    Entering the final four minutes of the 2005 NCAA Regional Final in the Windy City, Channing Frye and his Wildcats built a deafening 75-60 lead over Illinois. But the Fighting Illini, looking for its first Final Four appearance since 1989, tore back with a 20-5 run behind the earth, wind and fire of Luther Head, Dee Brown and Deron Williams.

    A Williams layup with 39 seconds left would send the game to overtime, where a demoralized Wildcats club would allow a quick 90-84 lead. Although Arizona would cut the lead to one following five straight scores, Hassan Adams' three-point miss at the horn would complete the Illinois comeback.

    Pivotal Moment: Arizona inbound pass is tipped to Luther Head and dished to Deron Williams, who hits the three to tie.

2. 1993 NFL Wild Card

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    Warren Moon's four touchdowns and injuries to Buffalo stars Jim Kelly, Cornelius Bennett and Thurman Thomas made overcoming a 35-3 deficit in the third quarter less likely than a pelican stealing a peace of bread and using it to lure fish for the depleted Bills.

    And then Frank Reich found his groove and battled David for the most glorious underdog upset. Five unanswered Reich touchdowns put the Bills up, before the Oilers tied it up with a field goal to send the game to overtime.

    In the extra time, Bills cornerback Nate Odomes' intercepted a Moon pass to set up Steve Christie for a 32-yard game-winning field goal. Buffalo wins 41-38 in miraculous fashion.

    Pivotal Moment: Down 35-10, Buffalo recovers an onside kick. Reich's 38-yard prayer to Don Beebe makes it 35-17 and paves the way for magic.

1. 2004 ALCS

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    With the curse of the Bambino still flourishing, the Pinstripes expectedly took the stricken Red Sox to the brink of elimination in the 2004 ALCS. And following a 19-8 clobbering in Game 3, Boston seemed all but couch-bound.

    But thanks to a David Ortiz walk-off home run in the 12th of Game 4, an umpire-reversed dinger from Mark Bellhorn in Game 6 and a thrilling Game 7 thrashing, the Sox pulled off the impossible, coming back from a 3-0 series deficit. Curse closed.

    Pivotal Moment: After Kevin Millar drew a walk off Mariano Rivera in the ninth, Dave Roberts (who replaced him as pinch runner) stole second to get in scoring position. He'd score on a single by Bill Mueller.


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