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Patriots' comeback win in Super Bowl LI caps off an epic year of pro sports championships

A year when the city of Cleveland wins its first major pro championship in 52 years, when the Chicago Cubs win their first World Series in 108 years and also sees the first overtime Super Bowl is not simply historic—it’s legendary.

The best ever?

No doubt.

After the first overtime in Super Bowl history on Sunday night, the championship rounds in North America’s four major sports were never better than in the 2016 athletic year.

There were historic seven-game series in the NBA Finals and World Series, a taut six-game Stanley Cup Final and, finally, a rip-roaring Super Bowl. No year, not 1955—the only year with three championship seven-game series—’58, ’62 or 2011 could match the drama and historical significance of what took place in ’16 (and early ’17). 

Going back to 1947, with what is considered the first NBA Finals, here are the 10 best years for championship rounds judged by competitive series and historic import.

• Pats fans, get your championship gear here | SI's SB51 commemorative package

10. 1975

The ’75 World Series between the Cincinnati Reds and Boston Red Sox was a classic: A legendary Game 6 ended by Carlton Fisk’s 12th-inning home run; the Reds rallying from three runs down to win Game 7 4–3 on Joe Morgan’s ninth-inning single. It was Cincinnati’s first championship in 35 years.  

After years of dull Super Bowls, the 10th version went down to the wire with the Pittsburgh Steelers holding off the Dallas Cowboys 21–17 thanks to acrobatic wide receiver Lynn Swann, the game’s MVP.

The Philadelphia Flyers topped the Buffalo Sabers in six games for their second straight Stanley Cup, a series highlighted by a descending fog over the ice in Game 3. The combination of unusually warm May  weather in Buffalo and the lack of air conditioning in the Sabers’ arena brought play to a standstill. Flyers goalie Bernie Parent earned his second straight Conn Smythe Trophy as MVP.

However, the weak link to the 1975 championship roster was the Golden State Warriors’ four-game sweep of the Washington Bullets in the NBA Finals.

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9. 2003

Thirteen years before his heroics Sunday, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady earned MVP honors at Super Bowl XXXVIII, also in Houston, by passing for 354 yards, three touchdowns and setting up Adam Vinatieri’s 41-yard field goal for a 32–29 New England victory over Carolina. A Super Bowl record 37 points were scored in the fourth quarter.

The Stanley Cup Final also was thriller with the New Jersey Devils outlasting the Anaheim Ducks in seven games as Jamie Langenbrunner and Scott Neidermayer led all scorers.

New bested old in the World Series when the Florida Marlins, who had stunned the Chicago Cubs in the NLCS, rallied from a 2-1 deficit in games to upset the New York Yankees in six games. Young right-hander Josh Beckett blanked the Yanks on five hits as Florida won the clincher 2-0.

The NBA Finals weren’t quite as dramatic as the San Antonio Spurs outclassed the New Jersey Nets in six games. Tim Duncan won his second Finals MVP award with 21 points, 20 rebounds and 10 assists in Game Six while Hall of Famer David Robinson retired a champion with 13 points and 17 rebounds in his final game.

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8. 1978

The Steelers-Cowboys squaring off in Super Bowl X was captivating, but Super Bowl XIII three years later, also held in Miami, took the rivalry to another level. In pro football’s version of Ali vs. Frazier, the two NFL heavyweights threw haymaker after haymaker. Pittsburgh finally prevailed 35–31 behind 318 yards passing and four TD tosses from Terry Bradshaw as the Steelers became the first three-time Super Bowl winner.

The 44-win Washington Bullets became the last NBA team for 38 years to win a Game 7 on the road by stunning the Seattle SuperSonics in front of their rabid fans 105–99 behind 19 points apiece from Bobby Dandridge and Charles Johnson.

The World Series was nearly as exciting as the Yankees dropped the first two games to the Los Angeles Dodgers. But Craig Nettles’ defense in Game 3 and Lou Piniella’s 10th-inning single in Game 4 tied matters. The Yankees, who had trailed the Red Sox by 14 games in mid-July, outscored L.A. 19–4 over the final two games to win their second straight championship.

The Stanley Cup Final seemed tame by comparison with Montreal winning a third straight title, in six games over the Boston Bruins. Defenseman Larry Robinson and winger Guy Lafleur shared the Conn Smythe Trophy.

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7. 1960

Bill Mazeroski’s ninth-inning home run in Game 7 of the World Series to lead the Pittsburgh Pirates over the Yankees is alone enough of a reason to salute 1960 but there were other thrills. The Boston Celtics needed seven games to dispose of the St. Louis Hawks and Bob Pettit (25.7 points, 14.9 rebounds per game) thanks to scoring from Tom Heinsohn, Bill Sharman and Frank Ramsey, rebounding from Bill Russell (nearly 25 boards per game) and the deft ball-handling of Bob Cousy (10 assists per game).

The last NFL title game to be played on a Monday (due to Christmas falling on a Sunday) saw the Philadelphia Eagles hand the Vince Lombardi-led Green Bay Packers their only playoff defeat, 17–13. The game ended with the ball on the Philly 10 yard-line as Eagles captain Chuck Bednarik sat on Packers running back Jim Taylor just long enough for time to run out. “You can get up now, Jim,” Bednarik cracked. The Eagles have yet to win another NFL crown.

Why doesn’t 1960 rank higher? There wasn’t much excitement in Montreal’s four-game sweep over Toronto in the Stanley Cup Final, although it did give the Canadiens a record fifth straight NHL championship.

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6. 2001

Want drama? The winning score in the World Series and the Super Bowl came on the final play. Luis Gonzalez provided the coup de grace for the Arizona Diamondbacks, lifting a soft single off ace Yankees closer Mariano Rivera over the draw-in infield in the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 7 for a 3–2 D-backs victory. Earlier, the Yankees had tied Games 4 and 5 on two-out home runs in the bottom of the ninth.

The legend of Tom Brady was born in Super Bowl XXXVI in New Orleans when the second-year quarterback led the 14-point underdog Patriots 53 yards in the game’s final 90 seconds to set up Adam Vinatieri’s game-winning 47-yard field goal for a 20–17 victory.

The Stanley Cup Final also lasted seven games with the Colorado Avalanche rallying from a 2–3 deficit to top the New Jersey Devils.  Veteran Colorado goalie Patrick Roy held the Devils to one goal over the final two games and longtime defenseman Ray Bourque finally won a Stanley Cup after 21 seasons.

The NBA Finals, however, were lackluster with the Lakers of Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant stomping the Philadelphia 76ers and Allen Iverson in five games. The Lakers finished the playoffs with only one defeat.