The 23 Most Epic Wins And Losses In Sports This Year

Atlantic writers and staffers pick the most memorable sports events of the year, from the Super Bowl to Olympic table tennis.

From TheAtlantic – shaping the national debate on the most critical issues of our times, from politics, business, and the economy, to technology, arts, and culture.

Men's Tennis: Lukas Rosol beats Rafael Nadal in the second round of Wimbledon

Football: The New York Giants defeat the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI, 21-17

February 5, 2012

When the New England Patriots earned a Super Bowl rematch with the New York Giants, the team that just four years prior had upset them in Super Bowl XLII (spoiling their chance to become the second NFL franchise ever to record an undefeated season), the Patriots found themselves in position to avenge that loss and further augment the legacies of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady.

On paper, the Patriots seemed superior. They had compiled a much better regular season record behind a dynamic offence featuring one of the best tight-end combos ever seen in professional football. But the Giants entered the game undaunted, scoring first and keeping the Patriots offence in check. New England eventually gained the lead and held it heading into the fourth quarter.

But in the dramatic fashion that has come to define this burgeoning rivalry, Giants quarterback Eli Manning led a game-winning drive that started with a nearly unfathomable 38-yard pass to unheralded receiver Mario Manningham, and ended with the game winning touchdown. With the win, the Giants became the first NFL franchise to finish a regular season 9-7 and still win the Super Bowl.

--Kevin Craft, contributor

Men's Table Tennis: South Korea beats North Korea 3-1

Aug 4, 2012

In one sense, the most politically charged event of the London games was a sublime expression of the Olympic ideal. The two Koreas are technically at war and share the world's most heavily-armed border. You might think the mere fact that they played ping-pong in London is a positive sign. Not so much. That's because they played against each other, which shows just how bad inter-Korean relations have become.

As recently as 1991, the Koreas unified on the same side of the net, playing as one country to win the World Championships over powerhouse China. Last May, a popular film about that 1991 team reignited hopes that the nations might play as one in London. It wasn't to be. A scheduled reunion of the 1991 team was canceled earlier this year, around the same time that North Korea decided to conduct a missile test. That effectively signaled that the nations would once more compete under different flags.

--Hampton Stevens, contributor

Men's Golf: Europe defeats U.S. in Ryder Cup, 14.5-13.5

September 30, 2012

This was either 'a historic win' or 'a historic collapse' depending on your accent. The Americans stormed out to an early lead at the Ryder Cup and expanded their advantage over their European opponents on the second-to-last day. fuelled by the pro-U.S. crowd at Medinah Country Club in Illinois, the U.S. took a commanding 10-6 lead into the final day, with 12 singles matches ahead. Europe had to win eight of the 12 matches to retain the Cup, a feat only the 1999 U.S. squad had accomplished.

But as the final day wore on, the U.S. came up short again and again and again on the closing holes. Four Americans--Webb Simpson, Phil Mickelson, Jim Furyk, and Steve Stricker--arrived at the 17th hole of their match tied or 1-up. All four lost, and the Europeans jubilantly celebrated a stunning upset and a re-affirmation of their overall superiority in match play golf.

--Jake Simpson, contributor

Men's Basketball: Kansas beats Missouri in Allen Field House

February 25, 2012

There is no sports rivalry more vicious than Kansas versus Missouri. Not Auburn and Alabama, or North Carolina versus Duke. Those schools never fought on opposite sides of the bloodiest conflict in American history. With the Jayhawks and Tigers both in the top 10, this game was bound to be thrilling. It was, with KU roaring back from 19 points down in the second half to force overtime and eventually win, 87-86.

But this game had implications off the court, too, encapsulating the good news/bad news dichotomy of modern college sports. That's because Mizzou had already announced they were leaving the Big 12 for the SEC, effectively ending the oldest sports rivalry west of the Mississippi River for the foreseeable future.

The good news is that the rise of super-conferences could bring much-needed change. Mega-conferences could become powerful enough to simply ignore the NCAA's unenforceable rules and so pay players a stipend. The bad news is that traditional rivalries clearly don't matter when TV networks are buying broadcast rights. The other bad news, at least if you like basketball, is that hoops scarcely matters either. Just ask the Big East. Or ask anyone sorry to see one of the oldest, best rivalries in college sports end.

Men's Tennis: Andy Murray defeats Novak Djokovic to win the U.S. Open

Women's Swimming: Missy Franklin captures five Olympic medals and the heart of pretty much every living American (and then decides not to go pro)

Football: Denver Broncos beat the Pittsburgh Steelers in the NFL Wildcard playoff game

January 8, 2012

Remember when 'Tebowing' was the meme that wouldn't go away? Remember when everyone was talking about the then Denver Broncos quarterback who couldn't pass straight but seemed to be winning games? Remember when a decent percentage of Americans believed his success was the result of divine intervention? It all culminated on January 8, 2012 when the Tebow-lead Broncos faced the Pittsburgh Steelers in a wildcard playoff game in Denver.

The game went into overtime. Tebow, who has a frustratingly inaccurate arm, connected with Demaryius Thomas on a thrilling 80-yard touchdown pass on the first play of OT. The Broncos won, and Tebow seemed to be more popular than anyone alive. But then it was over. Tebow was horrendous in the next playoff game against the New England Patriots. Less than a year later, playing for the New York Jets, Tebow has become a benchwarmer who can't unseat Mark Sanchez, one of worst QBs in the NFL. The Broncos, meanwhile, are contending for a Super Bowl.

--Gary Andrew Poole, contributor

Women's Boxing: Katie Taylor wins gold in women's lightweight boxing at the Olympics

Men's Basketball: Miami Heat beat the Boston Celtics in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals, 98-79

Boston, June 7, 2012

It was a must-win game for the Miami Heat. As importantly, it was a must-win for LeBron James--a brilliant player who had developed a reputation for become passive in big games. His many critics said he did not have the guts of the true greats, that he was the most gifted role player on the planet. Remember when he had gone on national television to forsake his home-state team, the Cleveland Cavaliers, for the star-studded Miami Heat? People had come to love to hate him. We like our heroes to show grace under pressure, and James had never quite had.

But Game 6 changed him, and our view of him. He dominated the Celtics, scoring 45 points. 'I felt like I was aggressive from the opening tip,

Baseball: The Chicago Cubs beat the Pittsburgh Pirates, 5-4

October 3, 2012

On the last day of the MLB regular season, teams were jockeying for playoff position at ballparks across the country. Except at Wrigley Field. That's where the Cubs and Astros played a game that meant almost nothing. There was no chance of the game impacting the playoffs and no big postseason awards on the line. That was the beauty of it.

Despite being virtually meaningless, the game had an announced attendance of 27,606, and there is something delightfully obsessive about 27,000 people showing up to watch a pair of teams with a 100-losses compete. A good portion of them stayed for the whole three hours and four minutes it took to play the game, too. Those who did saw the Cubs' Bryan LaHair hit a walk-off RBI single in the bottom of the 9th to give Chicago a 5-4 win--and no doubt give Cubs' fans visions of making the playoffs next year.

--Hampton Stevens, contributor

Women's Tennis: Serena Williams beats Victoria Azarenka in the U.S. Open singles final

Women's Gymnastics: McKayla Maroney wins the silver medal in women's individual vault at the Summer Olympics

August 5, 2012

There's a certain protocol for silver medalists at the Olympics: Accept graciously, congratulate the gold medalist, clench your teeth and smile aggressively to hold back the tears, then deal with the I-was-so-close disappointment in the privacy of your own home.

McKayla Maroney, though, wasn't really having that.

Maroney, widely considered the best female vaulter in the world, was heavily favoured to win the gold in the women's individual vault event at the Summer Olympics in London. And she was cruising toward it--until her last vault in the final round, at which point Maroney failed to stick the crucial two-footed landing. Instead, she plopped down awkwardly in a sitting position on the mat.

If you've taken a leisurely jaunt through the Internet anytime in the last four months, you may have a pretty good idea of what happened next. Maroney received a silver medal, and she stood slumped and scowling on the second level of the podium during the medal ceremony.

Should she have sucked it up and grinned for the cameras? Maybe. But it's easy to forget that even in a youthful, poised, determinedly cheery sport like women's gymnastics, losing hurts--and Maroney's podium antics offered a raw, uncensored reminder that when you're 16 and the nation's expecting you to finish first, finishing second does momentarily feel awful.

--Ashley Fetters, editorial fellow

College Football: Alabama beats Georgia for the SEC Championship, 32-28

December 1, 2012

The college football game of the year was decided in the final seconds, the way a great game is supposed to end. The Alabama Crimson Tide, ranked second in the nation and the Georgia Bulldogs, third, played for the top spot in the toughest conference in the country (an SEC team has won the national title for six years in a row and for seven of the last 10). The game was a heart stopper that saw six lead changes and nearly 1000 yards in total offence.

Alabama, the defending national champ, battled back from an 11-point deficit after a third-quarter field goal attempt was blocked by the Bulldogs and run back for a touchdown. The Tide then rolled relentlessly on two long scoring drives only to see Georgia bounce back again. Late in the fourth quarter, a 45-yard TD pass from A.J. McCarron to freshman wideout Amari Cooper gave Alabama a 32-28 lead.

But the Dawgs weren't through. They staged a final, valiant drive that died at the Alabama 5-yard line as time expired. After such heroics, don't be surprised if the BCS championship game on January 7 between Alabama and Notre Dame is anticlimactic.

--Allen Barra

Men's Tennis: Novak Djokovic beats Rafael Nadal in Australian Open final

January 29, 2012

Djokovic and Nadal, both of whom play tennis like it's tackle football, had met in the finals of the 2011 Wimbledon and U.S. Open and would play again in the French Open final in June. But they saved by far their best for a brutal, exhausting, and scintillating Australian Open final, won by Djokovic 5-7, 6-4, 6-2, 6-7 (5), 7-5 in 353 gruelling minutes. After Nadal came back from the dead in the fourth set to level the match at two sets all, the two men bludgeoned one furious groundstroke after another towards each other on the unforgiving Melbourne hard court.

When the match finally ended with a Djokovic forehand winner, the two had played 55 games over nearly six hours of mano-a-mano combat. It was a courageous victory for Djokovic, who collapsed on his back after the match, then rose and ripped off his shirt with a primal scream. And it was one of the most physical showdowns in tennis history.

--Jake Simpson, contributor

Men's Swimming: Michael Phelps wins four gold medals and two silver medals at the Summer Olympics

July 28--August 4, 2012

It wasn't all that long ago that Michael Phelps winning a gold medal was a foregone conclusion. In the summer of 2008, Phelps placed first in all eight of the events he'd competed in; by round six or so, my then-boyfriend and I had taken to only betting on who'd take silver and bronze.

So when Phelps opened his 2012 Olympics campaign with a lackluster fourth-place finish in the 400-meter individual medley, I panicked. He couldn't do it, I thought. His star had faded. He'd been surpassed, rendered tragically obsolete at the age of 27. I was totally crushed.

But as his team's silver medal in the 4x100 free relay would prove just 24 hours later, Michael Phelps wasn't finished. He just wasn't invincible anymore--and the fact that Phelps had to bounce back after a demoralizing defeat made this year's Olympics even more fun to watch than his run of unparalleled dominance. Suddenly, now that both Phelps and America at large knew he might actually lose this race, the cheering felt more urgent; the release felt all the more exhilarating when Phelps slapped the water or bellowed in celebration.

Watching Phelps win four gold medals and two silvers in seven tries was far more satisfying than watching him win eight golds in eight tries. Victory was so much sweeter after a loss.

--Ashley Fetters, editorial fellow

Baseball: St. Louis Cardinals defeat the Washington Nationals in Game 5 of the NLDS, 9-7

October 12

This game was far too gruelling for me to fully process in real time, standing over the batter's eye in a Nationals Park that seemed to become 10 degrees colder by the inning. But in the days after a ruined weekend (alas, Saditude fell on a Friday), Nationals closer Drew Storen's ninth inning Pitch F/X readout told me exactly what had happened. It's not that Storen had appreciably less speed or control than usual: his fastballs were fast, his curve balls were curving, his off-speed pitches crowded the upper and lower axes of the spin vs. speed chart, as they should. But the Cards just weren't going to be beat, and they faced Storen as a team that understood that their season depended on not being fooled.

And they weren't. Their plate discipline was unreal in the ninth. Down 7-5 with three outs left in their World Series defence, St. Louis played with no hint of desperation or doubt. For batter after batter, they stood and watched balls fade out of the strike zone, forcing Storen, one of the National League's most dominant closers, to try to beat them on his own. He couldn't do it. Then again, Danny Espinosa couldn't handle a Pete Kozma laser to the centerfield gap, and manager Davey Johnson didn't have the presence of mind in a 7-7 game to intentionally walk the Cardinals' No. 8 batter, who had enjoyed uncommon success against the Nats' vaunted pitching staff. In one of the uglier knife-twists in an inning that was full of them, the Nats' last out of a historic 98-win season came against pitcher Jason Motte, who had three career plate appearances to his name. It has taken me months to come to grips with this-- months--but Washington may have gotten exactly what it deserved.

My brother texted me minutes after the game ended to tell me that for most of the previous three hours he had been convinced the Nationals were going to the World Series. From the sounds of it, so were most of the 45,000 fans at the ballpark. And why not--the home team held a 6-0 lead after two innings, and was up 7-5 after eight. In that scarring ninth inning, when, for five pitches, the Nats were one strike away from facing the Giants in the National League Championship Series, many of the people in the section in front of me had their smart phones out, eagerly recording the greatest moment in franchise history, which we all expected to lie just beyond a few intervening seconds of unbearable tension. But as Alexander Hemon once wrote, a great soccer match (or in this case, baseball game) can exist on a plane higher than mere tragedy.

--Armin Rosen, editorial fellow

Women's Basketball: Baylor's Lady Bears beat the Florida Gators, 76-57

March 20, 2012

Truth be told, it was kind of a lackluster win for Baylor's Lady Bears, as they knocked out the Florida Gators in the second round of the NCAA tournament. But thanks to the Baylor's peerless Brittney Griner, the matchup produced one of the most casually badass replays of the year. Early in the second half, the 6'8

Women's Heptathalon: Jessica Ennis wins gold in the heptathalon at the Olympics

Men's Boxing: Juan Manuel Marquez knocks out Manny Pacquiao

December 8

I will never forget watching Manny Pacquiao fall flat on his face in the dying seconds of the sixth round against Juan Manuel Marquez. Marquez and Pacquiao were in their fourth fight against each other: Pacquiao had won two of the previous bouts and they had boxed to a draw in the other one. Each match had been very close and very controversial, but the fourth would turn out to be the best fight of their rivalry and of the year.

Pacquiao went down in the third round, and then Marquez went down in the fifth round, one of the most exciting rounds that I have ever witnessed ringside. In round six, Pacquiao seemed to start dominating, but then, after a missed punch, Marquez feinted left and hit Pacquiao with a devastating right.

I had clear line of sight on the punch. I saw Pacquiao--considered with Floyd Mayweather Jr. the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world--fall. I have seen a lot of KOs. This one was different. I thought Pacquiao was dead. His wife, Jinkee, was hysterical. It took Pacquiao almost two minutes to regain consciousness. Pacquiao, who is a Congressman in his native Philippines and a much obsessed-about cultural icon, had become vincible. And an era in boxing was over.

--Gary Andrew Poole, contributor

Women's Gymnastics: Gabby Douglas wins gold in women's individual all-around artistic gymnastics at the Olympics

Men's Soccer: Real Betis Sevilla beats FC Barcelona, 1-2

December 9, 2012

With his fluid passing, running off the ball, and prolific scoring, Lionel Messi is the best soccer player of his generation--and maybe ever. His team, FC Barcelona, is packed with superstars, and they play even harder and more beautifully because playing with Messi is like playing with Pele or Michael Jordan. Watching that team--and Messi's part within it--is a joy not only because its players are skilled but because they are thinking so many steps ahead of the other team.

I have often wondered why they are making a certain pass because it seems so illogical, but then after several more touches of the ball I will realise the intuition at work. Messi is at the middle of the music: It all flows from him. You could see all of this on December 9, when Messi scored his 86th goal, for both Barcelona and the Argentine national team. That number beat an international calendar-year scoring record that had been on the books for 40 years. Like I said, he's once in a generation.

--Gary Andrew Poole, contributor

Women's Soccer: Team USA beats Japan for gold at the Olympics, 2-1

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