The 10 biggest sports choke jobs of the decade

Matt Ryan and the Atlanta Falcons engineered the most infamous collapse of the decade in Super Bowl LI against the New England Patriots. (Focus on Sport/Getty Images)

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The end of a decade is a time for celebration. In sports, for us and around the internet, that means reflections on great teams and players. On moments and successful franchises and influential figures. On the many things and people we’ll remember for their positive impacts on the games they play and the fans who watch them.

But for every triumph, there is a failure. For every jolt of happiness, there is deflation. Sports are two-sided, with the most dramatic defeats often more overwhelming than the achievements. So we here at Yahoo Sports decided to reflect on them, too, by ranking the 10 biggest choke jobs of the 2010s.

(Michael Wagstaffe/Yahoo Sports illustration)

As for the criteria? The size of a choke job is a function of improbability and stage size. The Atlanta Falcons are the ultimate example. They were playing for the biggest prize in American sports. Their win probability in Super Bowl LI had crept above 99 percent. Then 111 million people watched them throw it away. In both categories, the magnitude of their failure was unparalleled. So you can probably guess where they land on this list.

But behind them, things get murky and debatable. Because there is no mathematical formula. We asked our staff to consider. Nothing beyond the 28-3 Falcons was unanimous.

Here’s what we came up with, via democratic process … without further ado, in descending order, the decade’s 10 worst, most ignominious failures:

10. 2010 Boston Bruins

There were 330 seven-game series contested in major American sports this past decade. Three hundred and thirty opportunities, therefore, for one team to take a 3-0 lead and blow it. How many did?

Just two. And neither was the 73-win Golden State Warriors. Neither was the infamously collapse-prone Los Angeles Dodgers. The worst of the two was the Boston Bruins, who coughed up not one but two 3-0 leads to the Philadelphia Flyers in the 2010 Eastern Conference semis. First in the series, and then in Game 7 at home. The Flyers came all the way back to win both 4-3. The Garden was stunned. The Bruins became the third NHL team, and first since 1975, to blow a 3-0 series advantage. (The San Jose Sharks, a few years later, became the fourth.)

9. Clayton Kershaw

Consider this a lifetime achievement award. There isn’t one specific Kershaw choke that’d land him on this list. But the improbability of baseball’s best pitcher imploding again and again and again in October is staggering. His ERA in elimination games is 5.77, the second-worst of qualifying pitchers all-time. His greatest hits – er, the opposite of that – include:

At times, the narrative felt unfair to the three-time Cy Young winner. But his ill-fated relief appearance this past October cemented it. Kershaw himself even copped to it. “Everything people say is true right now about the postseason,” he told reporters after the Game 5 loss. It remains one of the most inexplicable trends in sports.

8. 2018 Houston Rockets

There was never any shame in losing to the Splash Brother Warriors. Especially not after Kevin Durant joined them in 2016. But the 2017-18 Houston Rockets played themselves into an exception. They concocted the most prolific 3-point offense ever. They won 65 games en route to a No. 1 seed and a home-court Game 7 in the conference finals. And once there, they jumped out to a double-digit first-half lead … only to stage one of the most excruciating collapses in NBA history.

James Harden missed a 3 with 6:15 remaining in the second quarter. He and his teammates proceeded to miss 26 more in a row.

By the time they finished laying bricks, their 15-point advantage had become a 13-point deficit, and eventually a soul-crushing loss. The probability of 27 straight misses from a team that shot 36.2 percent from deep that season? Around 0.0006 percent.

7. 2015 Michigan football

Nine of our 10 moments occurred in postseasons or major tournaments. The 10th was so absurd, so far-fetched, so frenzied that we couldn’t exclude it.

So much had to go wrong for Michigan – up 23-21, with the ball, 4th and 2 past midfield, 10 seconds left – to lose to Michigan State in 2015. There were so many opportunities to avoid infamy. If only the offense had stayed on the field. If only the snap hadn’t wobbled. If only punter Blake O’Neill had caught it.

If only O’Neill had fallen on the ball. If only he hadn’t tried so frantically to get a kick off nonetheless. If only Michigan’s protection had been slightly better and allowed him to.

If only the ball hadn’t popped straight into Jalen Watts-Jackson’s hands. If only the Spartans had made one fewer block. If only Watts-Jackson had been tackled one yard sooner.

If any one of those many things happens, Michigan wins; you don’t know O’Neill’s name; and college football’s regular season marches on. But none of them did. Instead, this happened:

6. 2019 NFC Championship Game refs

At their core, these rankings are about human error. They’re about remarkable, high-profile, unexplainable underperformance from the very best in a given field. And all of that applies to Bill Vinovich and the NFL officiating crew that oversaw the 2019 NFC Championship Game between the Rams and Saints.

Several months later, they’d be rated the best in the league. They were working late into January for a reason. But late in the fourth quarter, they missed a 95th-percentile blatant pass interference call and cost New Orleans a trip to the Super Bowl.

Their error provoked a rule change, still infuriates an entire fan base, and will forever be a reminder that zebras choke too.

5. Jordan Spieth at the 2016 Masters

Jordan Spieth stood on the 12th tee at Augusta in 2016, in the midst of the most impressive run in Masters history and just seven holes from a second straight green jacket. For the second year in a row, he’d led the Masters wire to wire. He was standing on the edge of Tiger Woods territory … and then it all went horribly wrong

Spieth put his tee shot into Rae’s Creek, then dunked another. His fifth shot, after penalties, flew over the green. He finally tapped in for a quadruple-bogey 7, but the damage was done. He’d led by five strokes at the turn, and now he’d thrown that second green jacket into the creek. He’s played in 15 majors since then, and he’s recorded only one win and three top-5 finishes — fewer than the total he’d amassed in 2015 alone. Rae’s Creek may not have destroyed Spieth’s career, but it sure threw up a huge roadblock. — Jay Busbee

4. 2017 USMNT

The United States men’s national team flew to Trinidad on October 7, 2017, nearing the end of its worst World Cup qualification cycle of the 21st century. And yet, despite the disintegration in Costa Rica, despite losing a final-round home qualifier to Mexico for the first time ever, despite anemic displays in Panama and Honduras, the Yanks seemed as sure a bet for Russia 2018 as could be.

There were 27 scenarios entering the final night of qualifying, and only one of them would eliminate the U.S. The Americans, who’d just smashed Panama 4-0, had to fall to lowly Trinidad and Tobago. Honduras had to win in Mexico. And Panama had to topple Costa Rica. With T&T, a country of 1.3 million, having lost eight of nine, mathematical models had the USMNT’s qualification odds around 94 percent. When Trinidad, devoid of incentive, rolled out a B-team, those odds likely rose.

And then, in a mostly empty stadium, on a hard-to-find channel, a slow-motion train wreck transpired before hundreds of thousands of eyes. Americans in attendance liken it to living the Twilight Zone. They collapsed. Cried, inconsolably. The U.S. lost, and for the first time since the 1980s – since a majority of the country didn’t even know what soccer was – failed to qualify for a World Cup.

3. 2018 Virginia basketball

Prior to the night of March 16, 2018, No. 1 seeds in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament had taken courts across America for 135 Round of 64 games. They’d won 135 of them, almost always by double digits, often without breaking a metaphorical sweat. Then along came Virginia and UMBC, each ready to make history.

The Cavaliers were the best team in college basketball, the ACC champion by four games over Duke and North Carolina, the top overall seed. They entered their game against the 16th-seeded Retrievers a 20.5-point favorite. They exited a 20-point loser, with jerseys over faces and tears streaming down cheeks.

There was, 12-and-a-half months later, a happy ending, in part because Virginia owned its failure and harnessed it for good. But the 2018 flop remains colossal.

2. 2016 Warriors

Hey, did you know the Warriors blew a 3-1 lead in the 2016 Finals?

Of course you do. Because no sporting collapse has ever become an unrelenting meme quite the way Golden State’s did that summer. It showed up on College Gameday signs and at LeBron’s Halloween party. The three-straight losses themselves weren’t that improbable, but the lore surrounding them makes this the second-biggest choke job of the decade.

It also changed the NBA. Those Warriors, at the time, were widely considered the best NBA team ever. Yet nobody will remember them as such. Nobody will remember the 73 regular-season wins. Everybody will remember their memeable downfall. Their backwards legacy takes Ringz Culture to a new extreme. And we wonder why nobody cares about the regular season anymore ...

1. 2017 Falcons

Super Bowl LI was the ultimate choke job because it was a grotesque blend of every choke job prototype. It had the massive lead. Had the on-field mistakes, but also the baffling coaching decisions. Had individual dips in performance on one side, and ridiculous plays on the other, but also mechanical, customary, predictable-yet-still-so-improbable second-half dominance.

And it was so gut-wrenching because the vast majority of the 111 million people watching were on the wrong side of it. Not because they were actual Falcons fans, but because they spent three hours thinking, believing, convinced that the Falcons had spared them another New England Patriots championship ... only to suffer through exactly that in the most excruciating fashion possible. From 28-3 to 34-28, Atlanta’s demise was one-of-a-kind.

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Henry Bushnell is a features writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at henrydbushnell@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell, and on Facebook.