With the game on the line, with the team and the crowd and the fans and the city on the edge of their collective seat and waiting with their collective bated breath, who do we usually turn to?
We know the familiar names—guys like Joe Montana, Michael Jordan, Derek Jeter and Wayne Gretzky.
While these players have certainly had their share of magic moments, when considering the greatest game-winning plays of all time, every now and then players who aren't so famous that our mothers know their names get their moments of glory—guys like Kirk Gibson, Warren Morris, Tate George, Bryce Drew and Shawn Bates.
Because at the end of the day, when the game must be won, sometimes right place, right time is good enough.
Here is a look at the top 50 game-winning plays of all time.
Perhaps one of the most amazing and dynamic game-ending plays in sports history, DeSean Jackson's electrifying game-winning punt return to beat the New York Giants in 2010 is only an honorable mention on this list for a variety of reasons.
First, the Giants never should have punted the ball to Jackson—one of the most lethal punt returners in football.
Second, the fantastic finish obscured a poorly played game by the Eagles and portended a flat end to what had been a season full of promise.
Third, it happened in the regular season, which—on a list like this—makes it meaningless.
Let's get going.
Speaking of quintessential plays, this one begins with what must be considered the greatest lateral of all time.
Frank Wycheck's toss to Kevin Dyson, which led to Dyson's scamper down the sideline, was a perfect lateral. While certainly not a backward pass, replay after replay—and computer simulations even—fail to provide clear and convincing evidence that the pass was anything other than perfectly lateral.
WNBA Action: It's Fantastic.
From time to time.
This list features an array of quintessential plays: quintessential buzzer-beaters, touchdown tosses, home runs and goals.
Look up "open-field tackle" in the dictionary, and you will find this play.
The quintessential open-field tackle that sent the St. Louis Rams to victory in Super Bowl XXXIV.
This play came in one of those classic "Great play; don't ever do it again" situations.
If what Tyus Edney did had not worked, UCLA fans would have wondered forever why Edney did not just pass the damn ball.
All's well that ends well.
For decades, this was the only great play in Saints history.
On the one hand, yes, Dempsey had a crazy shoe that turned his foot into a cannon.
On the other hand, he was kicking straight-on, a method later revealed to be wildly inaccurate and ineffective.
The quintessential "Don't count your chickens before they hatch" play.
Afterward, astonished LSU quarterback Marcus Randall stated that he did not know he could throw the ball that far.
If Michael Crabtree had not made this play in the waning moments of Texas Tech's matchup against the University of Texas, maybe he does not hold out until late October of his 2009 rookie season and then follow that up with a disappointing 2010 year, his first full season.
Maybe he shows up for camp, works hard and becomes an NFL star.
Nice play though.
The WNBA: where winning a championship series in Game 2 happens.
The 1969 NBA Finals, a classic clash between the Celtics and Lakers, went the full seven games, with the Celtics winning the title on the Lakers' home court under a bevy of balloons that read "World Champion Lakers."
That Game 7 probably never happens if not for this buzzer-beater by Celtic Sam Jones, which saved the Celtics from going down 3-1 in the series.
The BYU Cougars went into the fourth quarter of the 1980 Holiday Bowl trailing the SMU Mustangs by a score of 38-19.
But BYU staged a rampaging comeback, capped by this Hail Mary from Jim McMahon to Clay Brown as time expired.
Historically, this feat was meaningless, as the Indiana Pacers did not do anything of significance after this performance.
But in a vacuum, one of the most amazing feats of all time.
Valparaiso enjoyed a memorable Sweet 16 run in the 1998 NCAA Tournament, and none of it would have been possible without this improbable buzzer-beater against fourth-seeded Ole Miss in the first round.
No, the 1954 World Series did not end after Willie Mays' famous "The Catch" of Vic Wertz's long fly ball in Game 1 of the Series.
The Giants actually needed a walk-off home run from Dusty Rhodes to take the first game of what would go on to be a series sweep.
One year after winning the BCS championship, LSU became the first BCS champion to lose a non-BCS bowl the following season on this last-second miracle by Iowa quarterback Drew Tate and wide receiver Warren Holloway.
The original Hail Mary.
Apparently, Roger Staubach, one of the great underrated quarterbacks in NFL history and a devout Catholic, said after the game that he just closed his eyes and said a Hail Mary.
Ozzie Smith enjoyed seven different seasons in which he failed to hit a single home run. So when he came up in the bottom of the ninth in Game 5 of the 1985 NLCS and promptly hit the game-winning home run, Jack Buck was right to suggest that we "go crazy, folks, go crazy."
You've never heard of Barton College. You've never heard of Anthony Atkinson.
Hear of them now, because this is an incredible video.
Quintessential composure, by the way, to miss the game-tying free throw and still come back to win the game.
Lakers. Celtics. Magic Johnson. Larry Bird. The Garden.
The play that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar invented and taught to his young understudy.
Maybe the most overrated play in the history of baseball.
In the 2001 World Series, the New York Yankees won Games 4 and 5 at home after hitting dramatic game-tying home runs in the bottom of the ninth of each game.
But no one remembers that, because the Yankees eventually lost the series back in Arizona.
How it is that no one ever seems to recall that the Red Sox lost the 1975 World Series the day after Fisk's amazing Game 6 winning home run off the foul pole is beyond me.
Like the Reggie Miller sequence, an incredible feat in a vacuum that ultimately amounted to a hill of beans historically.
We'll put Adam Vinatieri beating the heavily favored St. Louis Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI here, but we could have used any number of great Vinatieri game-winners, because he has had more than his share.
An incredible moment for USC haters and for college football fans in general.
Before this play, Vince Young is a late second-round pick in the NFL draft. This play convinced the football world that he was the next NFL superstar.
This is a great video clip because of three things:
First, Jordan's jumper—the first highlight in a career of highlights.
Second, the unreal moment where, Jordan just having made the go-ahead basket, Georgetown simply inbounds the ball and brings it up the court. No timeout. This simply does not happen anymore. In modern basketball, after a go-ahead basket with time running down, referees don't even look to the sidelines any more; they just stop the clock. That is how foregone the calling of a timeout is.
Third, the awful moment (subsequently erased from our collective consciousness by Chris Webber's infamous timeout) in which Georgetown guard Fred Brown throws the ball to North Carolina forward James Worthy in the waning moments—one of the biggest gaffes in sports history.
Unlike Carlton Fisk's Red Sox, the Twins actually made this Game 6 game-winner count, coming back the next night and winning the World Series in dramatic Game 7 extra-inning fashion.
Best part of the video:
Part One: Warren Morris touching home plate and then literally disappearing under a cloud of teammates, displaying the thrill of victory.
Part Two: Alex Cora collapsed in a heap on the field, personifying the agony of defeat.
An entire generation of sports fans knows this play but does not actually know the context. We've seen it a million times and embedded it into our collective memory, but rarely are we told what was going on:
Game 7, 1965 Eastern Conference finals. This play clinched the Celtics' ninth straight trip to the NBA Finals.
"Best game? Perhaps not. But for the sheer voltage that one athletic moment can deliver, you would be hard-pressed to find another in the last generation of college football. A lightning bolt struck Michigan Stadium, and while no one died, give or take the Wolverines career of head coach Gary Moeller (he resigned the following spring), the surge of electricity lit that memory for perpetuity.
"Think of it all: the magic of Colorado quarterback Kordell Stewart's 64-yard touchdown pass to Michael Westbrook after time expired, the call of ABC legend Keith Jackson as gravity did to Westbrook what Michigan defensive backs Ty Law and Chuck Winters could not and the quiet that draped over the sellout crowd as surely as if someone had sealed the rim of the Big House with a giant Tupperware lid."
We put this play ahead of Stewart's Hail Mary because...well...Flutie's freaking 5'9", that's why.
The throw in and of itself had a high level of difficulty even for a Hail Mary. Flutie was very nearly sacked as he scrambled to his right and then threw the football into 30 mile-per-hour winds from from his own 37-yard line.
Did we mention he was 5'9"?
Is Robert Horry the Adam Vinatieri of the NBA?
Rather than simply use his memorable season-saving three-pointer to top the Sacramento Kings in Game 4 of the 2002 Western Conference Finals, we include an entire reel of Horry buzzer-beaters.
Here's food for thought: Is Robert Horry an NBA Hall of Famer?
If not, why?
In the 1990 NCAA tournament, UConn was many people's prohibitive favorite to win the whole thing.
Yet with one second left, Clemson had it beat.
Until Tate George saved the day—and the season.
Poor Elden Campbell.
Call this one quintessentially improbable.
With the Celtics about to lose Game 5 of the 1987 Eastern Conference finals at home against the juggernaut Detroit Pistons, Isiah Thomas threw a lazy pass to Bill Laimbeer, which Larry Bird stole before quickly dishing to Dennis Johnson, who hit the lane for the game-winning layup.
Ask yourself: Did you expect this shot to be higher?
Because we did. But at the same time, is there a chance we make too much out of this play?
After all, it was the first round of the playoffs. Against the Cavaliers. And Craig Ehlo.
And the Bulls did lose the Eastern Conference finals that year.
Call this one quintessentially iconic.
Keep in mind, this play was set up by one of the craziest plays in one of the craziest games in college football history. With 18 seconds remaining in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl, Boise State was facing 4th-and-18.
With Oklahoma in a prevent defense, quarterback Jared Zabransky passed for 15 yards to Drisan James, who flipped the ball to Jerard Rabb, who was crossing in the exact opposite direction and managed to get around the entire Oklahoma defense, running the ball along the left sideline an additional 35 yards for a touchdown.
Boise State then won the game on, of all things, this Statue of Liberty play.
With a trip to the 1992 NCAA Final Four hanging in the balance, Kentucky took a 102-101 lead over Duke on a Sean Woods runner in the lane with 2.1 seconds left on the clock.
The game seemed to be over to everyone except Duke's coach and players, who drew up this play to win the game.
As Kentucky's players and fans looked on in disbelief, Duke players couldn't believe what they'd just seen.
Can you get a shot off in 0.4 seconds?
Apparently you can.
Surprised to see Kirk Gibson's home run this low?
Do not be. After all, this is quintessentially an "in a vacuum" moment.
Yes, it was bottom of the ninth, two outs, Dennis Eckersley on the mound, Dodgers trailing by one. Yes, Gibson had two injured knees.
It was one of the most improbable and amazing home runs of all time.
But it was also Game 1 of the World Series—a World Series in which the Dodgers had home-field advantage, and in which the A's folded, losing to the Dodgers in five games.
This was a great moment, no doubt, but the stakes weren't as great as the remaining moments on this list.
Three seconds, down by one, two free throws.
Forget the tie—let's go home now.
The only one of the 49ers' Super Bowl victories that was ever in doubt.
Joe Montana did not often have to prove that he could lead a team from behind.
But during the rare times that he needed to, he certainly did.
On August 11, 1951, the New York Giants trailed the Brooklyn Dodgers by 13 games in the National League. Six weeks later, the two teams were tied and played a tie-breaking three-game set to decide the pennant.
Going into the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 3 of the set, the Giants trailed the Dodgers 4-1 and looked beat. But the Giants strung together two singles and a double to draw the score to 4-2 with two men on and one out when Bobby Thomson stepped to the plate and put the Giants in the World Series.
This shot by Keith Smart gave the Indiana Hoosiers the 1987 NCAA championship by a score of 74-73 over Syracuse.
Give all the credit in the world to Keith Smart; this play is either poorly drawn up or busted, and one can positively sense the panic coming from Smart shortly before he launches his jumper.
Rarely does every single player on a team playing for the final shot give off the "I don't want it, you take it" vibe like the Hoosiers as the clock is winding down.
Spain defeated the Netherlands 1-0 on an extra-time goal by Andrés Iniesta.
Extra-time goals to win World Cups: quintessentially soccer.
There is a chance that the only way this play makes the top 10 is if we put a Saints fan in charge of putting together the list.
We are willing to live with that chance.
One of the great, magical, wonderful, iconic moments in the history of sports—and it just happened to come in women's soccer.
We'll let Brandi Chastain take you through the play...
Just five years into their existence, the Florida Marlins topped the Cleveland Indians in this dramatic Game 7 moment, which was the beginning of Edgar Renteria's career as a postseason drama deliverer.
Jack Buck may have uttered the infamous "Go crazy, folks, go crazy!" call after Ozzie Smith's home run in 1985, but it is Joe Carter who truly embodies the concept of going crazy after a home run as he loses his stuff after this World Series winner in Game 6 in 1993.
The Push-Off That Never Happened.
Call this moment the quintessential superstar posterity moment: a moment in which we were all so in love with the idea of Michael Jordan going out by hitting a championship-winning jumper that we all pretended not to notice as he casually knocked Bryon Russell out of the way before hitting said jumper.
Game 7 of the 2001 World Series, bottom of the ninth, down by one, Mariano Rivera on the mound.
On any other night, this series is over, and the Yankees are the champions.
But not on this night. On this night, Luis Gonzalez and the Arizona Diamondbacks had other ideas.
Perhaps the most iconic image in the history of hockey. The image of Orr parallel to the ground after scoring this championship-winning goal happens shockingly fast, and after the fact, in full speed.
It might seem crazy to put this home run over all of the other tremendous game-winning plays in sports history. But we do, and here's why.
First of all, how truly great is a game-winning field goal? Think about every game-winning field goal you have ever seen: The offense conservatively drives down the field, managing clock and field position. The quarterback does not ask too much of himself—just enough to get the ball to where it needs to be. Then, the clock is milked so that there is just enough time to kick the ball as time expires. Finally, the kicker—the least athletic figure in sports—comes out and does the only thing we ask of him.
Second of all, how amazing is it when Joe Montana or Derek Jeter or Michael Jordan or Wayne Gretzky delivers with the game on the line? These guys are superhuman; they're better than the rest of us. We get it. And the 49ers, the Yankees, the Bulls, the Celtics, the Lakers, the Oilers—they are super teams. The best players, the best coaches, the best franchises, the best fans.
Now, imagine, if you will: in one corner, the New York Yankees, the greatest franchise in the history of professional sports. You know the roster even if you don't know you know it: Roger Maris, Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, Elston Howard, Whitey Ford, Bob Turley, Bobby Shantz, Casey effing Stengel!
It is 1960. It is October. This is the Yankees' time, Pinstripe Power, the Bronx Bombers.
In the other corner, the Pittsburgh Pirates: a team that has not been to the playoffs in 33 years. Just happy to be there, to have the honor of losing to the best team in sports.
Coming into Game 7 of the 1960 World Series, the Yankees had outscored the Pirates by a shocking score of 46-17 yet had split the six games of the series. Coming into the bottom of the eighth inning of Game 7, the Pirates trailed the Yankees 7-4 but scored five runs to take a 9-7 lead—only to allow the Yankees to tie the game at 9-9 going into the bottom of the ninth.
And so it was that in that bottom of the ninth inning, Bill Mazeroski—the tiniest and unlikeliest hero of them all—delivered the biggest home run in sports history to topple the mighty New York Yankees (for one year at least) and deliver the underdog Pirates the unlikeliest championship of all.