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In sports, the terms Cinderella, "Cinderella story", and Cinderella team are used to refer to situations in which competitors achieve far greater success than would reasonably have been expected.[1][2] Cinderella stories tend to gain much media and fan attention as they move closer to the championship game at the end of the tournament.[3] The term comes from Cinderella, a well-known European folk tale embodying a myth-element of unjust oppression/triumphant reward. The title character is a woman living in unfortunate circumstances that are suddenly changed to remarkable fortune. In a sporting context the term has been used at least since 1939, but came into widespread usage in 1950, when the Disney movie came out that year, and in reference to City College of New York, the unexpected winners of the NCAA Men's Basketball championship also that year.[4] The term was used by Bill Murray in the 1980 hit movie Caddyshack where he pretends as the announcer to his own golf fantasy: "Cinderella story. Outta nowhere. A former greenskeeper, now, about to become the Masters champion."[5]

Referring somewhat inaccurately to the plot details of the classic Cinderella story, the media will debate whether the given "Cinderella" team or player will "turn into a pumpkin", i.e. fail to win the prize and then return to its former obscurity.[6] In the fairy tale, it was the carriage that turned into a pumpkin at midnight, not Cinderella herself. Another popular term is "strike midnight", when a Cinderella team does finally get beaten.[7]

Prior to the widespread use of "Cinderella" in this way, the more common term for unexpected and dramatic success was "Miracle", as in the "Miracle Braves" of 1914, the "Miracle of Coogan's Bluff" in 1951, the "Miracle Mets" of 1969, and the "Miracle on Ice" in 1980.[8]

Cinderella teams are also referred to as a surprise package or surprise packet, and their success would be termed a fairy-tale run.[9] A related concept is the giant-killer, which refers to a lesser competitor who defeats a favorite, reflecting the story of David and Goliath. The Cinderella anomaly is often used as a plot in sports films, such as Hoosiers.

Examples of "Cinderellas"Edit

Many teams are considered "Cinderella teams" when they seemingly overachieve. For example, the Tampa Bay Rays, and the Arizona Cardinals went all the way to their respective leagues' championships in 2008 only to "turn into a pumpkin" at the end. This list is largely confined to "Cinderella teams" that won championships.

American footballEdit

National Football LeagueEdit

CollegeEdit

  • Northwestern Wildcats (1995) – After 23 consecutive losing seasons, the Wildcats won their first Big Ten Conference title since 1936 and recorded their first 10-win season since 1903. They went to the Rose Bowl for the first time ever, but lost a close game to USC, 41–32.
  • Wake Forest Demon Deacons (2006) – Wake Forest won the Atlantic Coast Conference title after being picked by the media to finish last in their division, and after losing their starting quarterback, starting running back, and starting left offensive tackle to injuries.[18] The team and star linebacker Jon Abbate became the subject of a 2011 feature film, The 5th Quarter.[19] Wake Forest was invited to the Orange Bowl, but lost to Louisville 24-13.
  • Boise State Broncos (2006) – In only their ninth year in Division 1-A (FBS) play, the Broncos staged a last-minute regulation rally and some trick plays to defeat perennial powerhouse Oklahoma Sooners in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl by a score of 43–42.[20][21] The win capped a 13–0 season for the Broncos.

Arena footballEdit

  • Washington Valor (2018) – The Valor finished the regular season with a 2–10 record, leaving themselves in last place among the four teams competing that season, who all advanced to the league's playoffs. The team defeated the Albany Empire 103–97 in a two-game total points series before facing the Baltimore Brigade in ArenaBowl XXXI. With the Valor's 69–55 victory over the Brigade in the championship game, they became the first team with a regular season winning percentage lower than .250 to win a championship in the history of the AFL.[22][23]

Association footballEdit

  • Denmark (Euro 1992) – Denmark won Euro 92 after originally failing to qualify. They qualified for the tournament as a replacement team after Yugoslavia, who had initially won the group, was the subject of United Nations sporting sanctions following its civil war. They advanced from the group stage after winning their last match against France and then through goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel saving a penalty in the semifinal penalty shoot-out from Marco van Basten of defending European champions, the Netherlands. They won the tournament by defeating reigning world champions Germany 2–0 in the final.[24][25]
  • Greece (Euro 2004) – Greece were the second-least favorite in the competition to win, with Latvia being the least favorite. Greece was also considered as outsiders and underdogs and was given odds of 150-1 of winning before the tournament. They were drawn in Group A, ending up with Portugal, Spain, and Russia, a "group of death"; Portugal, hosts and favourites to win, Spain, former European champions, and Russia, who won the first-ever Euro as the Soviet Union. Very few people expected Greece to proceed to the quarterfinals, let alone win the tournament. Greece won the final 1–0, defying odds of 80–1 from the beginning of the tournament, with Angelos Charisteas scoring the winning goal in the 57th minute. While the dedication of the side and the victory were celebrated by their nation, Greece were dubbed by Barry Glendenning of The Guardian as "the only underdogs in history that everyone wants to see get beaten", due to Greece's rough defensive strategy.[26]
  • Leicester City F.C. - (2015–16 Premier League) – Leicester City became 2015–16 Premier League champions, the first in their 132-year history, two seasons after gaining promotion to the Premier League in which they narrowly avoided relegation on their return. Bookmakers had them at 5,000-1 odds to win the title and forced bookmakers to payout £25 million, which is the biggest loss on a sporting event in British history.[27][28]
  • Tai Po FC (2018-19 Hong Kong Premier League) - Tai Po FC secured their first title with a game to spare after a 2-1 win over R&F, which left them 5 points clear at the top of the table. They became the first district team to win a top-flight title since 1963.
  • Western Sydney Wanderers (2012–13 A-League) and (2014 AFC Champions League) - In their first season of the Australian A-League, the Wanderers secured the Premiership with a 3-0 win over the Newcastle Jets. This qualified them for the Asian Champions League, where next year they topped their group, and proceeded to defeat vastly more experienced and resourced clubs, including previous winners Guangzhou Evergrande Taobao F.C., runners up FC Seoul and multi-time champions Al-Hilal FC, whom the Wanderers defeated 1-0 in the final. The Wanderers became the first Australian team to win the competition.

BaseballEdit

Major League BaseballEdit

CollegeEdit

  • Fresno State (2008) – In one of the more improbable Cinderella stories in American sports history, the Bulldogs surmounted a daunting array of obstacles on their way to the NCAA title.[35][36] Fresno State had never won an NCAA championship in any men's sport going into the 2008 tournament. The Bulldogs entered the Western Athletic Conference tournament at 33-27; they would likely not have made the NCAA tournament without winning the WAC tournament, which they did. They subsequently played a total of six elimination games in their NCAA tournament run, winning all six.[37]

BasketballEdit

National Basketball AssociationEdit

  • 1968–69 Boston Celtics — The Boston Celtics were coming off a championship against Jerry West, Elgin Baylor and the Los Angeles Lakers and superstar center Bill Russell was heading into what would be his final year. The aging Celtics had won 10 of the previous 12 NBA Championships, but with offensive powerhouse Wilt Chamberlain joining the already powerful Lakers, it appeared as if the Celtics, who were practically limping into the finals, would easily be taken care of the old squad. The Celtics fell into a quick 3 games to 2 deficit but came back to force a Game 7 in Los Angeles, with Bill Russell calmly stating "One thing the Lakers cannot do, is beat us". With the Lakers preparing balloons and confetti for "when, not if, they win", the Celtics took inspiration from their arrogance and went on to win it with a key circus basket by Don Nelson that bounced high from the back of the rim before sailing through the net. The win sent Russell and fellow hall of famer Sam Jones to retirement as champions, with Russell winning his 11th championship and Jones his tenth.[38]
  • 1994–95 Houston Rockets — The Rockets were the sixth seeded team in the 1995 playoffs and managed to become the champions for the second straight year in the 1995 NBA Finals by sweeping Shaquille O'Neal and the Orlando Magic, setting playoff records for most games won on the road as well as defeating three 60-win teams en route to defending their championship.[38]
  • 1998–99 San Antonio Spurs — Due to a lockout that shortened the NBA's schedule to 50 from the usual 82 games, the Spurs didn't start their season until February 1999. Predicted by many as the worst team during the first half of the season, they began the season slow at 6–8 but had finished the regular season with a win-loss record of 37–13 (a winning percentage of .740) and secured the top seed in the Western Conference playoffs. In the playoffs, the Spurs defeated the Minnesota Timberwolves in 4 games, and swept their next two opponents, the Los Angeles Lakers and Portland Trail Blazers. The Spurs then became the first former American Basketball Association (ABA) team to advance to play in the NBA Finals, defeating the eighth seeded New York Knicks in 5 games to win their first title in franchise history. The Spurs were led by sophomore star Tim Duncan, the top pick in the 1997 draft whom would lead his Spurs to four more titles in the next 15 years. Future Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr also signed with the Spurs that year as he became one of three players (the others being Patrick McCaw and Frank Saul) to win consecutive titles with different teams, and Kerr and Saul are also the only players in the history of the NBA to win 4 straight titles that weren't part of the 1960s Boston Celtics dynasty. The Spurs have never missed the playoffs nor have had a losing record since Duncan's rookie season.
  • 2003–04 Detroit Pistons — The Pistons had just hired Larry Brown as their new head coach (whom had previously led the Philadelphia 76ers to a Finals appearance in 2001) and the year before, drafted Darko Milicic with the second overall pick that they obtained from the Memphis Grizzlies, but used him as a reserve as he played limited minutes off the bench; he would later be regarded as one of the most infamous busts in the history of the NBA. Finishing the regular season with a win-loss record of 54–28 (a winning percentage of .659) and competing as the third seed in the Eastern Conference, the Pistons defeated the Milwaukee Bucks, New Jersey Nets, and Indiana Pacers in the playoffs to reach the NBA Finals against the Los Angeles Lakers, in which the Pistons defeated the Lakers in 5 games and ended a 14-year championship drought. The Pistons would advance to play in the Finals the next year but would lose to the San Antonio Spurs in 7 games. The Pistons also advanced to play in the Eastern Conference Finals for the next 3 years, but lost to the Miami Heat, Cleveland Cavaliers, and Boston Celtics respectively and their 6-season streak of appearing in the Eastern Conference Finals came to an end in the 2008–09 season with a 4-game sweep from the Cleveland Cavaliers in that year's first round.
  • 2010–11 Dallas Mavericks — After 4 years of playoff disappointments (including their 2007 season when they were upset by the eighth seeded Golden State Warriors), the Mavericks, led by Dirk Nowitzki, finished the regular season with a win-loss record of 57–25 (a winning percentage of .695) and qualified for the playoffs as the third seed in the Western Conference. The Mavericks defeated the Portland Trail Blazers, swept the back-to-back defending champion Los Angeles Lakers, and then defeated the Oklahoma City Thunder in five games in the Western Conference finals to reach the Finals against the Miami Heat, whom were led by the superstar trio of LeBron James, Chris Bosh, and Dwyane Wade. With no other All-Stars on the team, the Nowitzki-led Mavericks would defeat the Heat in 6 games, claiming their first title in franchise history. In addition, the Mavericks also defeated five players who have been named MVP at least once in their career; Kobe Bryant of the Lakers (2008), Russell Westbrook (2017), Kevin Durant (2014), and James Harden (2018) of the Thunder, and LeBron James (2009/2010, 2012/2013).
  • 2015–16 Cleveland Cavaliers — In the summer of 2014, superstar LeBron James announced to return to his hometown team via free agency to potentially win them a championship, after several postseason disappointments during his first seven seasons in Cleveland. After James and the Cavaliers lost in the NBA Finals the previous year, the Cavaliers finished the 2016 season with a win-loss record of 57–25 (a winning percentage of .695) and hired assistant Tyronn Lue as their new head coach. The Cavaliers defeated the Detroit Pistons, the Atlanta Hawks, and the Toronto Raptors in the NBA playoffs to advance to play in the Finals against the Golden State Warriors for the second straight year. The Warriors, who had finished with the league's best-ever single season regular season win-loss record of 73–9 (a winning percentage of .890), led the series 3 games to 1. However, the Cavaliers rallied to win the final three games of the series to win their first and only championship in franchise history and ending a 52-year championship drought dating back to the 1964 NFL title won by the Cleveland Browns. This made Cleveland the first team in NBA history to win a championship after overcoming a 3 games to 1 series deficit.
  • 2018-19 Toronto Raptors - During the 2018 offseason, after getting swept by the Cavaliers in the second round for two years in a row, the Raptors began another year of rebuilding, and in a blockbuster trade, sent their franchise player DeMar DeRozan to the San Antonio Spurs in exchange for Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green. Coming off an injury-plagued season in which he played only 9 games and after listing the Los Angeles Lakers as his "top" trade destination, Leonard led the Raptors to a 58-24 record and a 6th straight playoff berth, and had defeated the Orlando Magic, the Philadelphia 76ers in a Game 7 buzzer beater, and the top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks after the Bucks led the series 2-0. In their first NBA Finals appearance, the Raptors defeated the defending back-to-back champion Golden State Warriors in 6 games to win their first title in franchise history and to end a 26-year Canadian championship drought that dated back to the 1993 World Series title won by the MLB's Toronto Blue Jays. Point guard Jeremy Lin became the first Asian-American NBA champion, center Marc Gasol, along with his brother Pau of the Bucks became the first pair of brothers to win championships, and Patrick McCaw became both the first player (since his former Warriors coach Steve Kerr) to win consecutive titles with different teams, and the first to three-peat since Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant from 2000 to the 2002 seasons. Following the season, Leonard signed with his hometown Los Angeles Clippers in free agency.

CollegeEdit

Canadian footballEdit

  • 1989 Saskatchewan Roughriders – The Roughriders finished the season with a 9-9 record and made an improbable run to the 77th Grey Cup. The team went into the playoffs on a three-game losing streak, but upset the 10-8 Calgary Stampeders 33-26 in the West Division Semifinal before upsetting the heavily favoured Edmonton Eskimos (who finished the season with a 16-2 record) in the West Division Final, 32-21. This victory set up the Grey Cup game against the 12-6 Hamilton Tiger-Cats. Dave Ridgway's 26-yard field goal in the final minute gave the Riders a 43-40 victory, along with the franchise's first Grey Cup championship since 1966.[43]

EsportsEdit

Dota 2Edit

  • OG at The International 2018 - OG suffered multiple setbacks during qualifications in which three of its core members left for rival teams. Due to post-deadline roster changes, OG was no longer eligible to be directly invited nor its regional qualifiers and were required to play through the open qualifiers.[44][45] Needing three new members just a few weeks before the qualifiers began, OG quickly signed Topias "Topson" Taavitsainen, a newcomer to the scene who had never performed at a major LAN event prior to the event, Sébastien "Ceb" Debs, who had previously served as the team's coach, and ana, returning to the team from a year-long break after their previous elimination at The International 2017.[44][45][46][47] Finishing outside of the top eight in the Dota Pro Circuit final standings, which granted a direct invite to The International 2018, OG earned theirs by playing through and winning the European-region open qualifiers. Following their win at the European qualifiers, OG were then placed into group A, finishing fourth with a record of 9-7, which seeded them into the upper bracket. There, OG won every series to advance to the grand finals.[48][49][50] Facing the lower bracket winner PSG.LGD in it, whom OG had just defeated in the upper bracket finals, OG won the game one, but lost the next two games.[49] Needing another win to avoid losing the series, OG forced a late-game comeback in game four, and subsequently won game five, making them International champions and winning them over US$11 million in prize money.[44][49][50]

Ice hockeyEdit

National Hockey LeagueEdit

  • 1937–38 Chicago Black Hawks — The Black Hawks would struggle with a 14–25–9 record. However, they earned a playoff spot, and in the first series, took on the Montreal Canadiens. Although they lost the first game of the series, the Hawks would win the next two games, including a shocker 3–2 OT victory at Montreal. Then, they faced the New York Americans. Like the first series, the Hawks would drop the opening game, before winning the next two games. In the Stanley Cup Finals, they took on the Toronto Maple Leafs. The Black Hawks won the first game before dropping the second game. Then the Hawks won the next two games to take home their second Stanley Cup. They are considered the biggest Cinderella story in NHL history and they became the first pro sports team to win a championship with a losing record.[51]
  • 2011–12 Los Angeles Kings — The Kings became the first eight seed of any conference to win the Stanley Cup. The Kings entered the 2012 Stanley Cup playoffs despite finishing with 95 points. In the first round, they defeated the first overall seed and Presidents' Trophy winning Vancouver Canucks in five games. They proceeded to sweep the second seed St. Louis Blues and eliminated the third seed Phoenix Coyotes in five games, going undefeated on the road in all three rounds. They started the finals against the New Jersey Devils by winning the first three games of the series. They lost games four and five to the Devils before winning game six and their first ever Stanley Cup championship in Los Angeles.[52][53][54]
  • 2017–18 Washington Capitals — After years of playoff failure under the leadership of captain Alexander Ovechkin, many expected the Capitals to fail to qualify to play in the 2018 Stanley Cup playoffs. During the off-season, they lost a great amount of talent, including mainstays Karl Alzner, Justin Williams, Marcus Johansson, Kevin Shattenkirk, Nate Schmidt, and many others. After a slow 11–10–1 start, rumors that head coach Barry Trotz would be fired began to circulate. The Capitals rebounded to win the Metropolitan Division championship with 105 points, but they continued to fly under the radar as Stanley Cup contenders.[55] The Capitals endured substantial hardships in the playoffs to reach their first Stanley Cup Finals in 20 years, defying anticipations that they would not survive past the second round like in prior seasons. Through 19 games, they struggled through a fateful 2 games to 0 series deficit against the Columbus Blue Jackets in round one, a limited roster against the defending back-to-back champion Pittsburgh Penguins in round two, and the perils of choking to the heavily favored, conference-leading Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Conference final, to advance to play in the Stanley Cup Finals against the Western Conference champion Vegas Golden Knights, which they had yet to defeat in a game. After dropping the first game of the finals, the Capitals ended their misery with four consecutive wins to defeat the Golden Knights and clinch the franchise's first-ever Stanley Cup. By season's end, Ovechkin had won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the most valuable player of the playoffs, scoring 15 goals in 24 playoff games.[56]
  • 2018–19 St. Louis Blues — The Blues had a dismal start to the 2018–19 season that had them left in last place by the beginning of 2019. Throughout that time, the Blues made some drastic changes to their roster, namely firing head coach Mike Yeo and replacing him with Craig Berube, as well as experimenting with having rookie goaltender Jordan Binnington, fresh from their AHL farm team, the San Antonio Rampage, become the primary goaltender in place of Jake Allen. These decisions led to an unexpected reversal of fortune for the Blues, as Binnington won his first-ever professional start with a 3–0 win over the Philadelphia Flyers on January 7, and the Blues' confidence with his untapped potential eventually ignited an 11-game winning streak late into that month and cemented his place as primary goaltender for the rest of the season. Eventually, the Blues managed to earn 99 regular season points and clinch the position of third seed in the Central Division, qualifying for the Stanley Cup playoffs.[57] The Blues then had to endure a long, difficult and sometimes uncertain playoff run against teams that held home-ice advantage and/or were more heavily favored Cup favorites, but they managed to hold their own against them by developing a mastery in road play, garnering a 10–3 record in visiting games. The Blues got caught in a 2–2 series tie in every round they played, including a potentially dooming 3–2 series hole in the second round, but their resolve to win prevailed, as they defeated their fellow division member Winnipeg Jets, outlasted the upper wild-card Dallas Stars, and avenged a conference finals defeat to the San Jose Sharks from three years prior to advance to play in the Stanley Cup Finals against the Boston Bruins. The Blues defeated the Bruins in seven games to finally win their first Stanley Cup in their 52 years in existence, ending the longest Stanley Cup drought and the longest wait for a first championship for a team in NHL history. In addition to earning his first shutoff win in a playoff game, Jordan Binnington became the first-ever rookie NHL goaltender to achieve the maximum number of wins in a playoff run, and Ryan O'Reilly, whom the Blues had acquired from Buffalo over the off-season, won the Conn Smythe Trophy for the playoff MVP, earning 23 points over 26 playoff games played.

InternationalEdit

  • United States men's national ice hockey team (1980 Winter Olympics) – The American team, consisting entirely of amateur and collegiate players, won the Olympic gold medal. Along the way, they defeated the veteran Soviet Union, considered the best hockey team in the world at the time, by a score of 4-3 in a medal round game, an event known as the Miracle on Ice and widely considered to be the greatest U.S. sports achievement of the 20th century.[58]
  • Finland men's national ice hockey team (2019 World Championship) – The Finnish team consisted of mostly players from European leagues, with only 2 players from the NHL, along with 18 members of the team being tournament debutants, which caused pundits around the world to doubt the Finns' chances. The Finns placed second in their group, which pitted them against a Swedish team with 21 NHL players in the quarterfinals. The Finns eventually beat the Swedes 5-4 in overtime, which was followed up by a 1-0 shutout against a stacked, previously undefeated Russian team in the semifinal. Finally, the Finns defeated Canada 3-1 in the final to secure their third world championship in the most unlikely fashion.

MotorsportEdit

Formula OneEdit

  • Brawn GP – Prior to the 2009 Formula One season, Honda Racing F1 announced their withdrawal from Formula 1. It had been a fully factory supported team that had achieved lacklustre results despite a $300 million budget and staff of 700.[59] A few weeks before the season was about to start, the team was subject to a management buyout by Ross Brawn and chief executive Nick Fry[60] and was subsequently rebranded as Brawn GP.[61] The team were not expected to be competitive following the loss of 270 jobs, necessary to ensure the teams survival[62] and having only three cars available as opposed to eight in better funded teams.[63] The team began its season with Jenson Button and Rubens Barrichello scoring a 1–2 victory respectively[64] with Button starting from pole.[65] The team then won 5 of the 6 following races, all by Button[66][67][68][69][70][71][72] before the well funded and factory supported opposition began to catch-up.[73][74][75][76][77] By the end of the season, two further victories from Barrichello was enough for the team to take the Constructor's Championship. Button won the driver's title.[78]

Rugby unionEdit

Pro12Edit

  • Connacht (2015–16) – Traditionally the "weak sister" of Ireland's four provincial sides, having nearly been shuttered by the Irish Rugby Football Union in 2004 and never finishing higher than seventh in Pro12 prior to 2015–16,[79] Connacht finished the home-and-away season level on points with traditional power Leinster atop the table (with Leinster claiming the top play-off seed on a tiebreaker) and went on to claim their first-ever title with a convincing win over Leinster in the final.[80]

Examples of Cinderellas that did not win the championshipEdit

These Cinderellas made it to the finals/playoffs in their respective leagues, but they were unable to win the championship.

American footballEdit

National Football LeagueEdit

  • 1987 Minnesota Vikings — The Vikings finished the 1987 strike-shortened NFL season with a mediocre 8–7 record and barely qualified for the NFL playoffs as the final seed. They went to New Orleans to play the New Orleans Saints in the first ever playoff game for the Saints, and won the game by a score of 44–10. The next week, the Vikings went to San Francisco to play the number one seeded San Francisco 49ers. Despite being heavy underdogs, the Vikings defeated the 49ers by a score of 36–24, advancing to the NFC Championship Game. However, the Vikings were unable to pull off a third consecutive upset, as they lost to the Washington Redskins by a score of 17–10.
  • 1999 Tennessee Titans — The Titans had just changed their team name from "Oilers" to "Titans" and had finished 13–3 and in second place in the AFC Central, their best record since 1993 when they were based in Houston and their first winning record under Jeff Fisher. In the NFL playoffs, they memorably defeated the Buffalo Bills. The Titans then defeated the 13–3 Indianapolis Colts, led by sophomore quarterback Peyton Manning in the AFC divisional round, and then defeated their division rival Jacksonville Jaguars 33–14 in the AFC Championship Game. With that win, the Titans became the only team to defeat the Jaguars during the season. After many years of playoff disappointments during the club's time as the Houston Oilers, the Titans advanced to play in Super Bowl XXXIV, but their season came to an end with a 23–16 loss to the St. Louis Rams.
  • 2002 Oakland Raiders — A year after they infamously lost to the eventual champion New England Patriots in the Tuck Rule Game in last year's Divisional Round, the Raiders hired their offensive coordinator, Bill Callahan as their new head coach. The Raiders had started the season 4–0, but the team's hot start would be followed by a 4-game losing streak; the team's 4–4 record stunned many onlookers. Oakland, however, redeemed itself by winning seven of its final eight contests. In the third quarter of Oakland's 26–20 win on Monday Night Football over the New York Jets, wide receiver Tim Brown (whom had been with the Raiders since they were based in Los Angeles) became the third player in NFL history with 1,000 career catches. Finishing 11–5 and winning the AFC West division title for the third consecutive year, the Raiders defeated the Jets and the Titans to advance to play in Super Bowl XXXVIII against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, whom were led by their former coach, Jon Gruden. It was the Raiders' first Super Bowl since Super Bowl XVIII when they were based in Los Angeles. However, Oakland lost 48–21 to Tampa Bay, who won their first title in franchise history. Until 2016, this was the Raiders' last time qualifying to play in the playoffs, and as of the conclusion of the 2018 season, this is the most recent season in which the Raiders have won a playoff game.
  • 2003 Carolina Panthers — The Panthers, just two seasons after holding the league's worst record at 1–15 (their lone win being their season opener vs. the Minnesota Vikings), finished the 2003 season at 11–5, clinching their second playoff appearance in franchise history. The Panthers defeated the Dallas Cowboys, the St. Louis Rams in double OT, and the Philadelphia Eagles to qualify to play in Super Bowl XXXVIII against the New England Patriots. Led by sophomore coach John Fox, the Panthers and Patriots were tied during the last minutes of the game 29–29 until Patriots kicker Adam Vinatieri delivered a game-winning field goal as time expired, handing New England their second title in three years.
  • 2004 St. Louis Rams — Despite finishing with a mediocre 8–8 record, the Rams qualified for the NFL playoffs for the fifth time in six years. They were able to sweep their division rival Seattle Seahawks both in the regular season and in the NFC wild card round, before falling to the Atlanta Falcons 47–17 in the NFC divisional round. This was the club's final playoff appearance in St. Louis, as the Rams failed to qualify for the playoffs again until 2017, when the franchise returned to Los Angeles. Statistics site Football Outsiders calculates that the 2004 Rams were, play-for-play, the worst team to make the playoffs in the site's rating history.[81]
  • 2006 New Orleans Saints — The Saints were coming off a 3–13 record and the city of New Orleans came off the destruction of Hurricane Katrina, which caused all of New Orleans' sports teams (including the Saints) to evacuate their home stadiums; the NBA's New Orleans Hornets temporarily moved to Oklahoma City and played there until the 2007–08 season. The Saints had hired Cowboys assistant head coach Sean Payton as their new head coach and signed former San Diego Chargers quarterback Drew Brees, a second round pick in the 2001 draft to a six-year deal. With many suspecting that his career was over, Brees was coming off a career-threatening shoulder injury he suffered at the end of the 2005 season that resulted him to be released by the Chargers and received interest by both the Miami Dolphins and Saints to sign Brees. Finishing 10–6 and clinching a first-round bye for the first time ever, the Saints enjoyed their most successful season at the time (later surpassed by the 2009, 2011 and 2018 seasons), defeating the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC divisional round before losing to the Chicago Bears in the NFC Championship Game. It was only the Saints' second time winning a playoff game and their first time appearing in an NFC Championship Game. The Saints have been historically dominant since signing Brees and no other team had finished with only three wins the previous season and had made the NFC Championship Game the next year.
  • 2008 Arizona Cardinals — 2008 was an up and down year for the Cardinals, being blown out in a week 4 matchup against the New York Jets, recording 7 turnovers in a 56–35 loss, while in a week 16 match up against the New England Patriots, the Cardinals lost 47–7, despite the Patriots losing Tom Brady to a season-ending injury in the season opener. And finally, after many years of mediocrity in their 88-year existence, the Cardinals returned to the NFL playoffs for the first time in ten years with a 9–7 record (by virtue of winning the NFC West division title.) The Cardinals defeated the Atlanta Falcons, the Carolina Panthers, and the Philadelphia Eagles to advance to play in Super Bowl XLIII against the Pittsburgh Steelers. It was the Cardinals' first time winning a playoff game at home since their 1947 championship-winning season, and only their second time winning a playoff game in franchise history. During the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XLIII, the Cardinals nearly pulled off a comeback win, coming from behind 20–7 to take a 23–20 lead, until Steelers wide receiver Santonio Holmes delivered a game-winning touchdown catch with less than a minute left to win the Steelers their sixth title in franchise history, and the Cardinals were unable to end their championship drought dating back to 1947. After Major League Baseball's Chicago Cubs ended their 108-year championship drought by winning the 2016 World Series, the Cardinals currently hold the longest championship drought in the five major sports leagues in North America as of 2019.
  • 2008 Miami Dolphins — The Dolphins came off a league-worst 1–15 season that almost made them the first 0–16 team in the NFL, possibly due to the resignation of head coach Nick Saban, the Dolphins passing on quarterback Drew Brees, and the arrest of several players such as Fred Evans and Kelly Campbell. Miami hired Dallas Cowboys assistant head coach Tony Sparano as their new head coach, replacing the fired Cam Cameron. Under their rookie head coach, the Dolphins started the season 0–2, but then used the Wildcat formation to upset the New England Patriots on the road during Week 3, snapping their 20-game regular season winning streak that dated back to December 10, 2006, in which ironically, they were also beaten by the Dolphins. The Dolphins finished 11–5 and qualified for the NFL playoffs as the third seed in the AFC, and won the AFC East, making them the only team in the NFL to win their division after winning only one game the season before. It also marked the most recent AFC East division title that was not won by the New England Patriots. Despite the surprising turnaround, the Dolphins would fall to the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC wild card round. Newly acquired quarterback Chad Pennington was named NFL Comeback Player of the Year and was tied for second for the 2008 AP NFL MVP with Atlanta Falcons running back Michael Turner.[citation needed]
  • 2010 New York Jets — The Jets improved on their 9–7 record from last season, but failed to win their division for the first time since 2002, losing to the top-seeded New England Patriots for the AFC East title. In a rematch of last year's AFC Championship Game, the Jets defeated the Indianapolis Colts on the road, ending the Colts' Peyton Manning era. The Jets would also defeat the Patriots on the road (whom they lost to earlier in the season 45–3), and nearly defeated the Pittsburgh Steelers on the road in the AFC Championship Game, which ended their hopes of joining the 2005 Steelers, 2007 Giants, and 2010 Packers as the only NFL teams to win three straight playoff games on the road. They also failed to make their first Super Bowl since 1968, as well as play in the first Super Bowl between number 6 seeds. The 2010 Jets were led by the sophomore duo of Rex Ryan and Mark Sanchez.
  • 2016 Atlanta Falcons — The Falcons entered the NFL playoffs for the first time in four years with an 11–5 record and easily defeated the Seattle Seahawks and Green Bay Packers to advance to play in Super Bowl LI against the New England Patriots. Despite holding a 25-point lead nearly midway through the third quarter, they ultimately squandered their chance to win the Super Bowl by blowing that lead, losing the coin toss for what would become the first-ever overtime period in a Super Bowl, and finally allowing a touchdown. The Falcons lost Super Bowl LI to the Patriots by a score of 34–28.
  • 2017 Jacksonville Jaguars — The Jaguars returned to the playoffs for the first time in 10 years and finished 10–6. Jacksonville qualified for the NFL playoffs as the AFC's number 3 seeded team. Led by first-year head coach Doug Marrone, the Jaguars defeated the Buffalo Bills 10–3 in the AFC wild-card round. The Jaguars would then defeat their former divisional rival Pittsburgh Steelers 45–42 on the road in the AFC divisional round. In the AFC Championship Game, the Jaguars nearly defeated the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots on the road. The Jaguars led 20–10 during the fourth quarter, but ultimately gave up two fourth quarter touchdowns, and lost the game 24–20. It was the Jaguars' first AFC Championship Game appearance since 1999 and they failed to become the first team since the 2012 Baltimore Ravens to upset the Patriots on the road in the postseason.
  • 2018 Indianapolis Colts — The Colts qualified to play in the NFL playoffs for the first time since 2014 (their last postseason game being the infamous Deflategate game) with a 10–6 record. They were predicted to be the worst team in the AFC South division, and started the season 1–5. They would win all but one of their games after that, the lone loss being a 6–0 loss against the Jacksonville Jaguars on the road in Week 13, making it possible for Andrew Luck, who was coming off a one year injury, to compete in the playoffs. In the NFL playoffs, the Colts defeated the division rival Houston Texans 21–7 on the road in the AFC wild-card round, before losing to the Kansas City Chiefs 31–13 in the AFC divisonal round. This season also marked the end of an era for the Colts, as Andrew Luck announced his retirement on August 24, 2019, after playing only 7 years in the league.

CollegeEdit

Association footballEdit

  • North Korea (1966) - North Korea played their matches at Middlesbrough's home ground Ayresome Park, when the team caused an upset, beating Italy 1–0 to gain a spot in the quarterfinals. There, they lost 5–3 to Portugal, despite taking a 3–0 lead after thirty minutes. The North Korea team was the first team from outside Europe or the Americas to progress beyond the first round of the World Cup finals.[82] In a 1999 documentary featuring interviews with surviving members of the team,[83] they describe themselves as having been welcomed home as national heroes.
  • Blyth Spartans (1977–78) – Blyth Spartans reached the last sixteen of the FA Cup, after starting in the first qualifying round of the competition, nine rounds prior.[84] They became only the third non-league side to reach the FA Cup fifth round since the end of the second World War. The side was composed of part-time players earning £7 per week.[84] They were eventually knocked out by Wrexham, following a replay at St James' Park.[84]
  • Algeria (1982) - Algeria caused what was described as the "greatest World Cup upset since North Korea beat Italy in 1966" on the first day of the tournament with a 2–1 victory over the reigning European champions, West Germany. A defeat by Austria and a win against Chile followed, with the infamous match between Austria and West Germany denying them the chance to go to the next round. Nevertheless, Algeria became the first ever African and Arab team to win twice at a World Cup.
  • Deportivo de La Coruña (2004) - Despite only scraping through their group in the Champions League on head to head, they managed to knock out Italian champions Juventus by winning 1-0 home and away. In the quarter finals, they managed a 4-0 win at home over defending champions Milan after losing 4-1 away, overcoming a 3-goal deficit to advance 5-4 on aggregate. They were ultimately knocked out by the eventual winners Porto after a 0-0 away draw and a 0-1 home defeat.
  • Barnsley (2008) – Barnsley advanced to the semifinals of the FA Cup after knocking out Liverpool and Chelsea, two of the top clubs in English football, in the last two rounds.[85] However, they lost the semifinals to Cardiff City.[86][87]
  • APOEL (2012) - After overcoming three qualifying rounds, APOEL managed to top a group containing Zenit St. Petersburg, Porto and Shakhtar Donetsk. They were 1-0 down at Olympique Lyonnais after the first leg of the last 16, but won 1-0 after extra time at home despite being down to 10 men, and eventually prevailed 4-3 on penalties after a 1-1 aggregate score. They got knocked out by Real Madrid 2-8 on aggregate in the quarter finals.
  • Bradford City (2013) - Bradford City, then in League Two, knocked out three Premier League sides, Wigan Athletic in the fourth round, Arsenal in the fifth round and Aston Villa in the semi final. However, they lost the final 5-0 to Swansea City.
  • Croatia (2018) - Despite a poor showing in their friendly matches, Croatia began their 2018 World Cup campaign by going undefeated in the 3-game group stage against Nigeria, Argentina and Iceland. Although it had been twenty years since the team ever won a knockout match in a World Cup, the Croatians defeated the Danish and the hosting Russians with back-to-back shootout wins, an unprecedented accomplishment, to reach the semifinals against England, which they also defeated in overtime. After having to win three straight matches beyond regulation in the knockout stage, the Croatians came up short in the finals against the French, in a 4-2 defeat. It was the Croatians' first time making the finals since the nation's breakup from Yugoslavia in 1992.
  • Ajax (2019) - Ajax advanced to the semi finals of the 2018-19 UEFA Champions League, knocking out holders Real Madrid 5-3 on aggregate in the last 16, and Italian champions Juventus 3-2 on aggregate in the quarter finals. However, they lost on away goals to Tottenham Hotspur after a 3-3 aggregate score in the semi finals.

BaseballEdit

Major League BaseballEdit

CollegeEdit

BasketballEdit

CollegeEdit

  • Loyola Marymount University (1990)[99][100] – After averaging an NCAA record 122 points per game, the Lions lost senior leader, and former scoring and rebounding champion, Hank Gathers, to a heart condition as he died on the court. However, the Lions fought their way to the Elite Eight where they lost to eventual champion UNLV Rebels. Their run included defeating defending national champion Michigan 149–115.
  • George Mason University (2006)[101] — The Patriots entered the tournament as an 11 seed, after not having a guaranteed spot following a loss to Hofstra in the CAA Tournament. Subsequently, many critics believed the Patriots should have been excluded from the tournament. However, the Patriots would go on to not only prove the critics wrong, but also capture the attention of a nation. In the first round, George Mason dispatched the Michigan State Spartans by a score of 75–65. Following their improbable win, the Patriots would continue their journey by downing the defending national champion, North Carolina Tar Heels, 65–60. The Patriots, having already made history in their first Sweet 16 appearance, would follow that up with a shocking victory over potential Cinderella story Wichita State Shockers, 63–55. Having once again triumphed, the stage was set for the Patriots toughest test yet, the top-seeded Connecticut Huskies. The Huskies, led by Rudy Gay, had a total of 5 players soon to be taken in the 2006 NBA draft. Regardless of the odds stacked against them, the Patriots were able to withstand the test and emerge with an 86–84 victory, concluding a thrilling overtime. Having once again made history, the Patriots advanced to the Final Four, where they lost to the eventual national champions Florida Gators, 73–58.
  • Virginia Commonwealth University (2011)[102]
  • Wichita State University (2013) — The 9th-seeded Shockers made a run to the Final Four, beating the number-one seed Gonzaga Bulldogs by a score of 76–70 in the third round and then the second-seeded Ohio State Buckeyes in the Elite Eight by a score of 70–66. With the Shockers advancing on to the Final Four, they became the first and only 9th-seeded team to reach the Final Four. They eventually lost to the first-seeded Louisville Cardinals by a score of 72–68.
  • University of Maryland, Baltimore County (2018) — The Retrievers became the first 16th-seeded team to win a game in the men's NCAA tournament against a number-one seed when they defeated the Virginia Cavaliers 74–54 in the first round. UMBC's remarkable run ended with a narrow 50–43 loss to 9th-seeded Kansas State in the round of 32.
  • Loyola University Chicago (2018) — The Ramblers became the fourth 11th seed to reach the Final Four. In the Final Four, they lost to 3rd-seeded Michigan after leading the game for 30 minutes.

EuropeanEdit

  • Macedonian men's national team, Eurobasket 2011. Macedonia hadn't had any success in basketball before and were considered one of weaker teams of the tournament. In group stages they unexpectedly beat Greece, Croatia and Slovenia and advanced to playoffs. In the quarterfinal they were considered underdogs against hosts Lithuania, but they managed to defeat the Baltic team 67-65 in one of the biggest upsets of the tournament. Macedonia finished fourth with a record of 6 wins and 4 losses only losing in double digits to Spain.[103][104]

National Basketball AssociationEdit

Ice hockeyEdit

CollegeEdit

National Hockey LeagueEdit

InternationalEdit

  • Germany men's national ice hockey team (2018 Winter Olympics) - The German ice hockey team had not won an Olympic medal since reunification; its last podium finish was in the 1976 Winter Olympics in Innsbruck, where the West German team won bronze (it had also won bronze at the 1932 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid). At the Pyeongchang Olympics, the German team would eventually make it to the gold medal match, defeating powerhouses Sweden and Canada on the way, only to settle for silver after the Olympic Athletes from Russia scored the game-winning goal in overtime for a 4-3 victory.[119]
  • Canada Men's Olympic team 1994 - The Canadian Men's National team was seeded 8th in Lillehammer eventually finishing second losing to the Swedes in a shootout. The team in fact led in the final two minutes of the game only to have their hopes dashed. Eventually Peter Forsberg scored perhaps the most iconic shootout goal in hockey history to give the Swedes the gold in the extra rounds of the shootout. [120]

Rugby leagueEdit

  • In 2004, the North Queensland Cowboys reached the finals for the first time in their 10-year history.[121] Finishing seventh at the end of the regular season, the Cowboys were drawn against the second-placed Bulldogs in the first week of the finals and pulled off a major upset by winning 30–22.[122] They followed this up with a 10–0 defeat of the Brisbane Broncos on their home ground; this marked the first time the Cowboys had defeated the Broncos in their history.[123] However their run would be ended with a close 19–16 defeat by the Sydney Roosters in the preliminary final.[124]
  • In 2005, the Wests Tigers, in just their sixth season of existence, won the premiership. They had never previously made the finals in five seasons and had been as low as 12th on the NRL ladder by the middle of the season. However, they were able to find some good form in the second half of the season to eventually finish the regular season 4th on the ladder. In their first ever finals match, the Tigers scored a big 50–6 victory over the previous year's Cinderella story, the North Queensland Cowboys.[125] This was followed up with a 34–6 victory over the Brisbane Broncos in the second week[126] before going on to upset the premiership favourites St. George Illawarra 20–12 in the preliminary final.[127] This advanced the Wests Tigers to their first ever Grand Final, which was dubbed the "Battle of the Cinderellas", as their opponents were the North Queensland Cowboys who fell one game short of the decider in 2004 but went one better in 2005. The Tigers would then win the Grand Final 30–16 and complete their own Cinderella fairytale.[128][129]
  • Twelve months after finishing last in 2009, and seemingly being a club in disarray on and off the field, the Sydney Roosters, under veteran coach Brian Smith, conjured one of the greatest turnarounds in recent NRL history, finishing sixth at the end of the 2010 NRL season and proceeding to reach the Grand Final, in which they had the chance to become the first team since the Western Suburbs Magpies in 1933–34 to rise from wooden spooners to premiers in the space of twelve months but lost to the St George Illawarra Dragons.[130] Star recruit Todd Carney, who spent most of the previous year in exile after being sacked by the Canberra Raiders in 2008, won the Dally M Medal in the lead-up to that season's finals series for his outstanding comeback season.[131][132][133]

TennisEdit

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