There was this gnawing feeling, when the ball bounced off Denver’s Tony Carter and set up New England’s game-winning overtime field goal, that this was a lousy way for such a great game to end. The Patriots and Broncos played an epic game Sunday night. The Patriots looked bewildered at first and trailed 24-0 at the half. The Broncos seemed helpless in the cold and watched Tom Brady and New England score 31 unanswered points. Peyton Manning then led Denver on a halting, gutsy, penalty-ridden 80-yard touchdown drive to tie the game. Then neither team could drive the ball into winning position for a while. The game was raw and sloppy and thrilling and splendid, and it did not seem right to have it decided by a bad bounce and a undrafted NFL journeyman who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
But, if you think about it in a different way, that might be EXACTLY how the game should have ended.
The greatest football game I’ve ever seen was probably the 1982 playoff game between the San Diego Chargers and Miami Dolphins. That game had everything: comebacks (the Dolphins trailed 24-0 after only one quarter); amazing plays (including the greatest hook-and-ladder play in NFL history from Don Strock to Duriel Harris to Tony Nathan); valiant performances (who could forget Kellen Winslow so exhausted he had to be carried from the field?).
But do you know what made that game legendary? Mistakes. Loads of mistakes. At the end of the game, Strock’s pass was intercepted by Willie Buchanon, who promptly fumbled it right back to Miami, who drove down the field only to have kicker Uwe Von Schamann’s 43-yard field goal blocked by the irrepressible Winslow. That ended regulation. The Chargers got the ball to start overtime, drove right down the field, and set up Rolf Benirschke’s 27-yard field goal. But the snap was lousy and the kick went wide. Back to Miami, who drove down the field and set up a 34-yard field goal for Von Schamann. This one was blocked too. An interception, a fumble and three missed field goals.
Only then did San Diego drive the ball back into field goal range and win on Benirschke’s 29-yarder.
How about Game 7 of the 2001 World Series. Amazing game. But how did it end? The Yankees led the Diamondbacks 2-1 going in the ninth with Mariano Rivera on the mound, the greatest closer in the history of the game. Rivera proceeded to give up a leadoff single and throw away a sacrifice bunt attempt by Damian Miller. Arizona’s Jay Bell then put down a poor bunt, forcing the runner at third. Rivera then gave up a double to Tony Womack (he of the career 72 OPS+), then hit Craig Counsell (he of the career 79 OPS+) and then gave up a broken bat single to Luis Gonzalez that clinched the game.
People tend to remember Jerry West’s 63-foot shot at the end of regulation that tied Game 3 of the 1970 NBA Finals without remembering that his Lakers lost that game to the Knicks in a mostly uninteresting overtime period. The famed greatest game ever played — the 1958 championship game between the Colts and Giants — might have only continued because of a bad spot (Frank Gifford still believes he clearly got the first down that would have put the game away). Jack Morris’ legendary 1991 World Series Game 7 shutout might have gone a different way if Atlanta’s speedy, but clumsy Lonnie Smith hadn't stopped on a hit-and-run and scored from first on Terry Pendleton’s double (there are those who say Smith was duped by the Twins infielders who faked a double play; of course there are also those who say Pendleton should have been called out on strikes before he hit the double).
You can go on and on like this. The most amazing sporting events almost never end perfectly. And that’s the best part. In a way, this is what separates real sports from the movies and books. I often wonder why fictional sports often seem so stilted and contrived and unnatural. I often wonder why real sports stories seem so much more vibrant and fascinating and dramatic than the stuff people make up. After all, in a fictional account you can do whatever you want. You can have Roy Hobbs hit a baseball that explodes the lights. You can have Rocky Balboa and Apollo Creed go to the canvas at the same time so that it’s a race to see who gets up first. You can have Harry Potter chase the snitch while a bewitched bludger chases madly after in an effort to kill him. The only limitations are those of imagination.
But that’s the point: In the end we ARE limited by imagination. And real sports are not. There’s always something slightly predictable about fictional sports endings because, one way or another, they have to complete the story. You can’t end a thrilling sports movie with a boring 1-2-3 inning on three routine groundouts to short. Well, you CAN, but then you are trying to say something. That’s it. The story might be inspirational, it might be tragic, it might be supernatural, it might be comedy. But somehow, some way, the game has to end in a way that completes the story. Maybe the boxer will die. Maybe the French crowd will rush onto the field in defiance of the Nazis. Maybe the pool hustler will find himself banned from every pool hall. Whatever happens, there will be something to get out of it because there’s a reason the inventor made it that way.
But in real sports, there are no limitations. There are no overarching reasons or lessons or plot points. Should Sunday night’s game have ended with Tom Brady or Peyton Manning leading his team on a riveting overtime drive? It depends on what you mean by “should have.” Would Brady or Manning heroics have been more poetic? Yes. Of course.
But sports isn’t really about poetry. There is poetry in there, but that’s not at the heart. At the heart is effort and skill and randomness. You have this exciting game featuring two of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history. Then, when everyone is exhausted, a left-footed punter sends a high kick into a spirited wind. A smallish 27-year-old man named Tony Carter, who is in the NFL mostly because he refuses not to be in the NFL, tries to block special teamers because this is the main way he collects a paycheck. Denver returner Wes Welker and others do not do a good enough job warning him and everyone else to get away from the ball. The ball almost hits Carter on the fly, then bounces up and does hit him. The Patriots recover. The Patriots win.
You would never write that ending. And that, in its own weird way, is what makes it so great.