The Denver Broncos and the Baltimore Ravens’ double-overtime thriller last weekend was the kind of game where the first comment in any discussion about it is a simultaneous, “That was a great game,” because it undoubtedly was.
By the numbers, it really was not: The winning quarterback completed only 18 of 34 throws; the top rusher notched 131 yards on 30 carries for a pedestrian 4.4 yards per carry; no receiver amassed even 100 yards in the extra-long game; and the defenses both gave up well above their season averages in points. Yes, the record for return yards in a playoff game was broken, but that was a footnote, garnering almost none of the postgame attention.
If it wasn’t record-breaking that made the game great, then what was it? In fact, is there a set of criteria that are common to all great games across different sports?
There absolutely are. A great game, at the least, meets the following five standards.
1. The stakes must be high. That is, the game must be an elimination game or close to it. Not game 74 of the 162-game baseball season.
2. The storyline entering the game must be one of the following two: a) the significant underdog vs. the overwhelming powerhouse, or b) two of the very best squaring off.
3. The game must be close at its end, including either a tie or a lead change. No one, not even those involved, knows what the outcome will be. A play could happen that is so ridiculous that it couldn’t have been scripted; a star can be born.
4. A great player (or more than one) is involved. Sometimes, although this need not be the case, he or she takes over the game. In professional sports, this great player is a perennial all-star. In college or high school sports, this can be a local (or national, these days, I suppose) legend.
5. The decisive play is a product of the players, not the referees.
A great game ought not to be confused with one in which something extraordinary is achieved. A perfect game in baseball is a rare occurrence, but it lacks the back-and-forth drama that we all love in a great game. And, of course, that drama is the reason that we watch sports and that the athletes play them.
After the Ravens defeated the Broncos, Baltimore head coach John Harbaugh said at a press conference, “That football game did football proud.” Given time to heal from the wounds of defeat, I am sure that Broncos head coach John Fox will say the same.
Here’s to hoping that 2013 will hold a few more great games, both in the pros and here at Yale.