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 best expected. Cinderella stories tend to gain much media and fan attention as they move closer to the championship game at the end of the tournament.
The term comes from the well-known European folk tale of Cinderella, which embodies a myth-element of unjust oppression and triumphant reward, when the title character's life of poverty is suddenly changed to one of 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. The term was used by Bill Murray in the 1980 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." 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. 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.
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.
Cinderella teams are also referred to as a surprise package or surprise packet, and their success would be termed a fairy-tale run. A related concept is the giant-killer, which refers to a lesser competitor who defeats a favorite, reflecting the story of David and Goliath. In Soviet sport, particularly team sports like football and hockey, there appeared a term Thunder to the Dominant [teams] (Russian: Гроза авторитетов, Groza avtoritetov) that referred to underdog, often a strong mid-table team, of which the dominant teams were afraid. The title is still in use in the post-Soviet period and sometimes is given to "dark horse" teams which manage to win a major tournament. There was an official sports award that was introduced by the Soviet sports weekly "Sportivnaya Moskva" in the 1970s and 1980s for football and hockey top competitions awarded to teams that managed to take away the biggest number of points from the last season top-three placed teams.
Examples of "Cinderellas"
Many teams are considered "Cinderella teams" when they seemingly overachieve. For example, the Tampa Bay Rays, the Arizona Cardinals went all the way to their respective leagues' championships in 2008, and the Vegas Golden Knights went all the way to the 2018 Stanley Cup Finals by winning the Clarence Campbell Bowl in 2018. In all three cases, these teams only “turned into a pumpkin” in the end. This list is confined mostly to "Cinderella teams" that won championships. A list of Cinderella teams that did not win their championship is below this one.
- Janica Kostelić at 2002 Winter Olympics — After achieving 8th place in only one event at the 1998 Winter Olympics, Kostelić suffered a very serious knee injury in December 1999 that threatened to end her career. After being out of commission for nearly a year, Kostelić returned to win 2001 Alpine Skiing World Cup, going on to win 4 medals out of 5 available Alpine skiing events at 2002 Winter Olympics, including becoming the first woman in history of Alpine skiing to win 3 gold medals during a single Olympics.
- 1968 New York Jets — The American Football League (AFL) champion Jets, led by quarterback Joe Namath, defeated the heavily favored National Football League (NFL) champion Baltimore Colts 16–7 in Super Bowl III. Namath had shockingly guaranteed a Jets win before the game.
- 1969 Kansas City Chiefs – The Chiefs lost starting QB Len Dawson and backup Jacky Lee. But third-stringer Mike Livingston, along with the team's defense, orchestrated a five-game winning streak. Dawson returned and the Chiefs beat the Jets and Raiders in the AFL playoffs and then knocked off the heavily-favored Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl IV.
- 1980 Oakland Raiders — The Raiders became the first Wild-Card playoff team to win the Super Bowl, defeating the Philadelphia Eagles 27–10 in Super Bowl XV.
- 1997 Denver Broncos—The Broncos were the first AFC team since the then-Los Angeles Raiders at Super Bowl XVIII to win a Super Bowl, defeating the defending Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers 31–24 at Super Bowl XXXII and winning their first Super Bowl in franchise history.
- 1999 St. Louis Rams — After losing starting quarterback Trent Green in the preseason to a torn ACL, many suspected the Rams' season was over. Kurt Warner, an undrafted quarterback who formerly worked as a grocery store clerk, led the Rams to a 13–3 record, their first winning record in 10 seasons. After defeating the Minnesota Vikings and Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the NFC playoffs, the Rams captured their first and only Super Bowl championship by defeating the Tennessee Titans 23–16 at Super Bowl XXXIV, thanks to a defensive goal-line stand. It also marked the beginning of the Rams' Greatest Show on Turf offense that would last for the next two seasons. Warner also became the first quarterback in NFL history to win a Super Bowl in their first season as a starter. Head coach Dick Vermeil retired from coaching following the season and would subsequently be replaced by his offensive coordinator Mike Martz, whom led the Rams to four playoff appearances and Super Bowl XXXVI during his four years as head coach.
- 2000 Baltimore Ravens — After 4 years of losing seasons, the Ravens, who were established in 1996 as an expansion team, finished 12–4 and made the playoffs for the first time in franchise history, largely thanks to their record-setting defense. In the playoffs, the Ravens defeated the Denver Broncos, then defeated the defending AFC champion Tennessee Titans and the Oakland Raiders to reach Super Bowl XXXV against the New York Giants, in which the Ravens won their first Super Bowl championship by a score of 34–7. In just their first playoff appearance in franchise history, the Ravens were anticipated to have a very low chance of winning or even reaching the Super Bowl, with some believing they would lose like most brand-new teams that have made the playoffs for the first time.
- 2001 New England Patriots — The Patriots were a mediocre team throughout much of their franchise history, even threatening to relocate to Hartford, Connecticut and St. Louis throughout most of the 1990s. The Patriots were coming off a disappointing 5–11 season in 2000. In 2001, the team's second season under head coach Bill Belichick, the Patriots began the season 1–3, and lost their starting quarterback Drew Bledsoe in the second game of the season, during the team's first game since the September 11 attacks on September 23 against the New York Jets, after he signed a 10-year contract worth $103 million. Tom Brady, a sixth-round, 199th pick in the 2000 NFL Draft took over as quarterback and led the team to an 11–5 finish, winning the AFC East division title. The Tom Brady-Peyton Manning rivalry commenced this season as well, although the Colts were placed in the newly formed AFC South ahead of the 2002 season. The season ended with a 20–17 upset victory over the 14–2 St. Louis Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI, ending the Rams' Greatest Show on Turf offense and any potential for a Rams dynasty. This season marked the beginning of the Patriots' dynasty, as they would reach the AFC Championship game twelve additional times and reach the Super Bowl eight more times winning five of them over the next seventeen years, being widely regarded as one of the greatest dynasties in the history of the National Football League. The Patriots and Rams would meet again 17 years later in Super Bowl LIII in which the Patriots won again, this time by a score of 13–3.
- 2005 Pittsburgh Steelers — In 2005, the 6th seeded Steelers, who failed to improve on their 15–1 record from the last season and finished 11–5, began the season at 7–5; at that point the Steelers were in jeopardy of missing the playoffs but they went on to win their last four games to earn a Wild Card spot in the playoffs. They defeated their divisional rival, the Cincinnati Bengals in the playoffs, and after that 3 other teams who finished with 13+ wins; the Indianapolis Colts, Denver Broncos, and in Super Bowl XL, the Seattle Seahawks. This made the Steelers the first team since the 1970 AFL–NFL merger to win 3 straight playoff games on the road, and this feat would later be matched by the 2007 Giants, the 2010 Packers, and the 2020 Buccaneers. The Steelers were led by 2004 1st round pick and sophomore quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, whom had led them to a near-perfect 15–1 record the season prior as a rookie.
- 2007 New York Giants — In 2007, the 5th-seeded Giants, led by Eli Manning, the younger brother of Colts quarterback Peyton Manning and the top pick in the 2004 Draft, finished 10–6 in the regular season, won three playoff games on the road, defeating the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Dallas Cowboys and Green Bay Packers, which culminated in a win over the 18–0 New England Patriots and Tom Brady in Super Bowl XLII. Three of the four Giants' playoff victories were against teams they had lost to in the regular season (Cowboys twice). At the time, their 10–6 regular season record was tied for the worst record among teams to win the Super Bowl. Today, the only Super Bowl-winning team to have a worse regular season record is the 2011 New York Giants, who, after a 9–7 regular season, again defeated the Patriots and Tom Brady in Super Bowl XLVI.
- 2010 Green Bay Packers — After trading franchise quarterback Brett Favre (who had been with the Packers since the 1992 season) to the New York Jets 2 years earlier, the Packers failed to win their first division title since 2007 or improve on their 11–5 record from the season before, and finished the 2010 season 10–6 with the 6th seed in the NFC playoffs. Aaron Rodgers, the 24th overall pick in the 2005 Draft, took over as starting quarterback and led them to their first playoff win in the post-Favre era as they defeated the Philadelphia Eagles, Atlanta Falcons, and division rival Chicago Bears on the road to Super Bowl XLV against the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Packers won Super Bowl XLV by defeating the Steelers 31–25, winning their fourth Super Bowl title in franchise history. This also made the Packers the fourth team to win three straight playoff games on the road (the others being the 1985 Patriots, 2005 Steelers, and 2007 Giants). The next season, the Packers accomplished their most successful season at 15–1; however, they lost to the eventual champion New York Giants in the NFC divisional round.
- 2012 Baltimore Ravens — The Ravens failed to improve on their 12–4 record from the previous season when they fell to the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game, and finished the 2012 season at 10–6. In the playoffs, the Ravens defeated the Indianapolis Colts, led by top draft pick Andrew Luck, the Denver Broncos in a memorable double-OT victory, and the Patriots to advance to play in Super Bowl XLVII against the San Francisco 49ers, coached by Jim Harbaugh, the younger brother of Ravens head coach John Harbaugh. The Ravens won their second title in franchise history after the 2000 season when they won Super Bowl XXXV. It made the Ravens the only NFL team to win all of its Super Bowl appearances, replacing the 49ers.
- 2015 Denver Broncos — The Broncos came off a 12–4 season in which they lost to the Indianapolis Colts 13–24 and also the departure of head coach John Fox, after 5 seasons with the team. Despite once again finishing 12–4, quarterback Peyton Manning had the worst statistical season of his career since his rookie 1998 season with the Colts. After Manning suffered a torn plantar fascia in his foot during a Week 10 game vs. the Kansas City Chiefs, backup quarterback Brock Osweiler would start for the remainder of the regular season until the playoffs, where Manning returned from his injury and led the Broncos to victories over the Pittsburgh Steelers 23–16 in the divisional round, and then the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots 20–18 in the final game of the Tom Brady-Peyton Manning rivalry. In Super Bowl 50, the Broncos would then defeat the heavily favored Carolina Panthers for the Broncos' third Super Bowl title and their first in the post-John Elway era. Manning retired following the season, after playing 18 years in the league, and since this Super Bowl win and Manning's retirement the Broncos haven't qualified for the playoffs.
- 2017 Philadelphia Eagles — The Eagles came into the season surrounded by doubts involving second-year quarterback Carson Wentz and head coach Doug Pederson. While the team started the season strong with a win-loss record of 11–2, injuries caught up to them as Wentz was ruled out for the season following a torn ACL in Week 14 vs. the Los Angeles Rams. Franchise left-tackle Jason Peters and linebacker Jordan Hicks missed extended periods of time. Backup quarterback Nick Foles took the reins from Wentz and the Eagles finished the season 13–3, securing the top NFC seed in the NFL playoffs. During the playoffs, they defeated the Atlanta Falcons 15–10 in the divisional round and the Minnesota Vikings 38–7 in the NFC championship game (coincidentally, Philadelphia defeated both teams in reverse order during their run to Super Bowl XXXIX 13 years earlier), and upset the New England Patriots by a score of 41–33 in Super Bowl LII, avenging their Super Bowl XXXIX loss and winning their first title since 1960. For his efforts in Super Bowl LII, Foles was named Super Bowl MVP, becoming the first backup quarterback to achieve this award since his opponent, Tom Brady, did so in Super Bowl XXXVI.
- 2020 Tampa Bay Buccaneers — After 12 years of missing the playoffs, the Buccaneers, led by second-year head coach Bruce Arians, improved their 7–9 record from the previous season, posted their first 10-win season since 2010, and ended a 13-year playoff drought by making the playoffs for the first time since 2007 with an 11–5 record, but failed to win a division title when they were swept by the NFC South division champion New Orleans Saints in two regular season games. The off-season was headlined by adding former New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, a 20-year veteran, while trading for Rob Gronkowski after talks out of retirement. In the wild card round, the Buccaneers defeated backup quarterback Taylor Heinicke and the Washington Football Team (who won the NFC East division title with a losing record) 31–23, winning their first playoff game since Super Bowl XXXVII. Then, they defeated Drew Brees and the NFC South champion New Orleans Saints 30–20 in the divisional round, advancing to the NFC Championship. In the NFC Championship, the Buccaneers upset Aaron Rodgers and the top-seeded Green Bay Packers 31–26, advancing to Super Bowl LV where they defeated the Patrick Mahomes-led defending champion Kansas City Chiefs 31–9, winning their second Super Bowl title in franchise history. Tom Brady was named Super Bowl MVP for the fifth time, becoming the only player to achieve five Super Bowl MVP awards. The Buccaneers joined the 1985 Patriots (lost Super Bowl XX to the Chicago Bears), 2005 Steelers, 2007 Giants, and 2010 Packers as the only NFL teams to win three straight playoff games on the road. They also became the first team in NFL history to play in the Super Bowl in their home stadium.
- 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 Game for the first time ever, but lost a close game to USC by a score of 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 after losing their starting quarterback, starting running back, and starting left offensive tackle to injuries. The team and star linebacker Jon Abbate became the subject of a 2011 feature film, The 5th Quarter. 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 I-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. The win capped a 13–0 season for the Broncos.
- Auburn Tigers (2013) — Came out of nowhere after a 3–9 season to win the SEC Championship. Beat Georgia on a tipped Hail Mary that was caught for a touchdown and beat Alabama on the "Kick Six" which was a Chris Davis touchdown return as time expired against Alabama who was a heavy favorite and the 2 time defending national champions.
- 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 only team with a regular season winning percentage lower than .250 to win a championship in the history of the AFL.
- Manchester United F.C. (1967–68 European Cup) — The horror of the Munich air disaster on February 6, 1958, which killed eight members of Manchester United's back-to-back league championship winning team, leaving two others with injuries which meant they couldn't play again, is something that is written large in the history of English football and is still keenly felt at Old Trafford. The young team managed by Matt Busby had been dubbed "the Busby Babes" in the media, with football left in mourning as the plane carrying United back from a European Cup quarter-final against Red Star Belgrade crashed having stopped to refuel in Munich, killing 23 people. Busby himself had suffered life-threatening injuries, but he was determined to carry on and rebuild his team, even taking them to the FA Cup final that season. Eventually United somehow recovered, winning the FA Cup in 1963 and then the league title in 1965 and 1967, before Busby's greatest ever achievement of leading them to the European Cup in 1968, 10 years after the deaths of talented, largely young players Duncan Edwards (21), Geoff Bent (25), Roger Byrne (28), Eddie Colman (21), Mark Jones (24), David Pegg (22), Tommy Taylor (26) and Liam "Billy" Whelan (22). Munich survivors Bill Foulkes and the team's captain, Bobby Charlton, who scored twice, were both in the team which beat Benfica 4–1 after extra-time at Wembley in 1968, sealing United's first European Cup a decade after their lowest ebb.
- Nottingham Forest F.C. (1978–79 European Cup) – Early in 1979, Clough and Taylor felt Forest needed more firepower, so they made Birmingham forward Trevor Francis, Britain's first million-pound player. Forest couldn't have started their maiden European Cup campaign in better fashion, upsetting champions Liverpool with a 2–0 aggregate victory over the Merseysiders in the first round. They then coasted past AEK Athens (7–2) and Grasshopper (5–2) to set up a semi-final against Köln. In the semi-final first leg in England, Forest, who had already retained their League Cup crown, were held to a 3–3 draw by Köln but Bowyer's solitary strike in Germany saw them progress to the final, where they would face Malmö. In a tight tournament decider in Munich, Francis paid back his exorbitant transfer fee by scoring the game's only goal from a Robertson cross, as Forest were crowned European champions.
- Steaua Bucharest (1985–86 European Cup) – Romanian side Steaua Bucharest were a significant force back in their day, so much so that they went a huge 119 games unbeaten, including 104 league matches and 15 cup games. The club racked up a simply incredible five straight league titles and four Romanian cups as they went from 1985 to 1989 without suffering a single defeat in domestic football. Between 1986/87 and 1988/89, Steaua played 102 league games, winning 86 and drawing 16, scoring an average of three goals per game and conceding less than a goal per match. Sadly, with Romania still under the control of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, it took until 1986 when they became the first Eastern European side to lift the European Cup for them to really receive the plaudits they deserved. Steaua beat Terry Venables' Barcelona in that final, despite being without their captain, who was suspended as Barca became the first team to miss all of their penalties in a European Cup final shootout.
- Red Star Belgrade (1990–91 European Cup) – Red Star were far from a one-man team, however, with quality spread across the pitch. In goal was inspirational captain Stevan Stojanovic, Miodrag Belodedici was a key cog in defence having already won a European Cup with Steaua Bucharest, while the supremely talented quartet of Vladimir Jugovic, Sinisa Mihajlovic, Robert Prosinecki and Dejan Savicevic formed one of the greatest midfields ever seen in club football. In the first round of their victorious European Cup campaign, Red Star were held to a 1–1 draw at home by Grasshoppers but ran riot in the return leg, racking up resounding 4–1 win. Rangers were up next and despite the Scottish giants' domestic domination, they were fully aware of the challenge that awaited them. Indeed, a popular anecdote claims Rangers assistant coach Walter Smith was sent to scout Red Star before the first leg and returned with a simple verdict for manager Graeme Souness: “We're f*cked!” Smith was not wrong either. Petrovic's side romped to a 3–0 win in Belgrade before claiming a 1–1 draw at Ibrox to coast into the quarter-finals, where they outclassed Dynamo Dresden, who had won the East German league before the reunification of Germany. Indeed, having won their home leg 3–0, Red Star were 2–1 up at the Rudolf-Harbig-Stadion when fans began hurling objects onto the pitch, thus prompting the referee to abandon the game and UEFA to award the visitors a 3–0 win. Red Star's fairy-tale campaign continued in Germany as they claimed a 2–1 first-leg win over Bayern Munich at Olympiastadion but they almost threw the semi-final away in front of 80,000 fans in Belgrade. Despite opening the scoring in the 24th minute through Mihajlovic, Bayern struck twice in the space of six second-half minutes and continued to lay siege to Red Star's goal in search of a winner. However, with Stojanovic standing firm, the home side were able to seal their passage into the final thanks to a very fortunate own goal from Klaus Augenthaler in the 90th minute of the game. Marseille awaited in the tournament decider in Bari. In a twist of fate that once again favoured Red Star, the Yugoslav First League that season had settled all drawn games via a penalty shootout, so Petrovic's side were well-versed in the art of spot-kicks. After Manuel Amoros failed to convert Marseille's first penalty, Red Star kept their cool and calmly slotted home all of their efforts, with Pancev, fittingly, the man to fire his team to the title they had set out to win four years prior. With the club's first ever European Cup now in their hands, Red Star's bold five-year plan had remarkably come to fruition a year ahead of schedule, and though Petrovic's side would be quickly picked apart by Europe's richest clubs inside a year, what they achieved in 1991 should never be forgotten.
- 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 Yugoslav Wars. 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.
- Greece (Euro 2004) — Greece were the second-least favourite to win the 16-team competition, with only Latvia (who made their first appearance in a major tournament) being considered even less likely. Greece was given odds of 150–1 of winning before the tournament. They were drawn in Group A with Portugal, hosts and favourites to win, Spain, former European champions, and Russia, who won the first-ever Euros as the Soviet Union. Very few people expected Greece to progress to the quarterfinals, let alone win the tournament. Greece won the final 1–0 (the same scoreline as in their quarter-final, eliminating holders France, and semi-final), with Angelos Charisteas scoring the winning goal over in the 57th minute to defeat Portugal in Lisbon, having already beaten them in Porto on the opening day. 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.
- FC Porto (2003–04 UEFA Champions League) — A year after winning the UEFA Cup in 2003, José Mourinho's team entered the competition as the Portuguese league champions facing the title favourites, Real Madrid, Partizan Belgrade and the French participant Marseille in group F. With being finished second at the group, they managed to lead 2–1 at home on the first leg of the round of 16 against the Premier League champions, Manchester United and followed with Costinha's game-winning goal at the stoppage time to pull off the upset at second leg in Old Trafford after being 1–0 down and tied on aggregate. Their miraculous run continued to beat French champions, Lyon in the quarterfinal and the Spanish minnows, Deportivo La Coruña in the semifinal to progress to the final. In the 2004 UEFA Champions League final, they faced against A.S. Monaco in AufSchalke Arena despite being labelled as the underdogs, his side won 3–0 with the goals from Deco, Carlos Alberto and Dmitri Alenichev. The Portuguese side stood victorious into the European summit by winning the second European title since 1987, and after the final, he decided to manage Chelsea a season later. Porto's European win became the first team to win the European Cup outside of teams from Spain, England, Italy and Germany since Marseille won in 1993 as the first title under the Champions League era, Red Star Belgrade in 1991 and Steaua Bucharest in 1986.
- Iraq (2007 AFC Asian Cup) — Devastated from the ongoing war within the country. The Iraqi national team have to play the qualifier match inside the neighboring Iranian stadiums. Iraq qualified to the final group round and reached the knockout stage after an upset 3-1 victory against Australia. After defeating Vietnam in quarterfinals, Iraq won 4-3 against tournament's favorite South Korea in a penalty shootout, resulting in thousands of Iraqis celebrating in the streets of Baghdad. Over 50 Iraqis were killed by terrorist bombs targeting these crowds. Iraq's 1-0 victory against Saudi Arabia in finale secured them their first — and only — Asian Cup titles to date.
- Montpellier HSC (2011–12 Ligue 1) — On 20 May 2012, at the final day of the season, Paris Saint-Germain needed three points to secure their first French title as they visited Lorient on the road but Carlo Ancelotti's side won 1–2 as they await for the results between AJ Auxerre and Montpellier. Fortunately for the Hérault side, they won on the road 1–2 to clinch their first French title in the club's history after finishing 14th last season and qualify for the next season's UEFA Champions League.
- Chelsea F.C. (2011–12 UEFA Champions League) — During the 2011–12 season, Chelsea qualified for the competition as the second-placed team in the Premier League, despite team's group stage smooth performance with three wins, two draws and one loss, but the things went sour as Andre Villas-Boas sacked after losing to Napoli in the first leg of the round of 16 and the caretaker, Roberto di Matteo came up with a plan on how to win the entire tie and the second leg at Stamford Bridge. Just at the end of the regulation, Frank Lampard forced the tie to the extra time by the penalty as Branislav Ivanović scored the winning-goal to send his side to the quarter-final against Benfica where they would move on to the next round with a 3–1 aggregate. Despite winning the first leg of the semi-final at home, but Chelsea were on the brink of the elimination after being down 2–0 at the first half at second leg in Camp Nou until Fernando Torres scored the winning goal to send to the Champions League final in Munich. In the UEFA Champions League final, Chelsea's opponents were Bayern Munich. By coincidence, the match was being held at the Allianz Arena, Bayern's home ground. Bayern took the lead after 83 minutes through Thomas Müller, but five minutes later Didier Drogba headed in the equaliser – his ninth goal in nine cup finals for Chelsea – to take the game to extra time. Bayern were awarded a penalty, but Arjen Robben's strike was saved by Petr Čech. The game remained 1–1, meaning it went to a penalty shootout. Bayern took a 3–1 lead after Juan Mata saw his penalty saved, but Čech then saved Ivica Olić and Bastian Schweinsteiger's efforts, leaving Drogba to score the decisive spot-kick to clinch Chelsea's first Champions League title in their history. In 2013, the International Federation of Football History & Statistics (IFFHS) ranked Chelsea the number one team in the world, replacing Barcelona at the top of the world rankings. Chelsea became the first team from London to lift the European Cup since the English teams entered the competition in 1956.
- 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.
- Leicester City F.C. (2015–16 Premier League) — After Tottenham Hotspur failed to beat Chelsea on the road with just 2 games to spare, Leicester City became 2015–16 Premier League champions, the only championship in the history of the club as of far, two seasons after gaining promotion to the Premier League in which they narrowly avoided relegation on their return. Bookmakers who had rated them at 5,000–1 odds to win the title were forced to pay out £25 million, the biggest loss on a sporting event in British history. With Leicester's win, they became the first new winners in the Premier League/First Division era since Nottingham Forest in 1978.
- 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.
- Lille (2020–21 Ligue 1) – Under the management of Christophe Galtier, Lille won their first Ligue 1 title in 10 years, beating defending champions Paris St-Germain, who had won seven of the last eight titles, by a single point after a 2–1 win over Angers on the last day of the season. This was one of the most unlikely French title wins in history, given that PSG has backing from Qatar Sports Foundation and Lille only narrowly avoided relegation in the 2017–18 season.
- Chelsea F.C. (2020–21 UEFA Champions League) – Chelsea qualified for the Champions League through a fourth placed finish in the 2019-20 Premier League, just four points ahead of Leicester City. They started the competition with a 0–0 home draw against Sevilla, but proceeded to win four straight games to seal top spot in Group E despite Frank Lampard later sacked after the group stage. In the knockout stage, they first defeated an Atletico Madrid side who went on to win the 2020-21 La Liga 3–0 on aggregate in the last 16 on the Thomas Tuchel's Champions League managerial return after being sacked from Paris Saint-Germain. After edging out Porto in the quarter finals, they would face the record winners Real Madrid in the semi finals. A 1–1 away draw was followed by a 2–0 home win, which sealed the Blues’ progress into the final, where they would face the 2020–21 Premier League champions and tournament favourites Manchester City. A goal from Kai Havertz sealed a 1–0 win as they won their second Champions League title.
- Western Bulldogs (2016) — After failing to qualify for the finals for four consecutive seasons from 2011 to 2014 and losing their 2015 elimination final to Adelaide, the Bulldogs finished seventh in the regular season standings with a record of 15–7. After defeating West Coast and Hawthorn on the road by more than 30 points, they defeated Greater Western Sydney (who qualified for the finals for the first time ever) by 6 points to advance to the Grand Final, where they would face the top-seeded Sydney Swans. In the Grand Final, the Bulldogs defeated the heavily favoured Swans by 21 points after trailing by two points at the end of the second quarter to win their first premiership since 1954. This was the first time in AFL history where a team that was seeded seventh or lower won the premiership.
Major League Baseball
- 1969 New York Mets — The Mets won their first ever World Series title after defeating the heavily favored 109-win Baltimore Orioles in the 1969 World Series; previously, the Mets had finished either last or next-to-last in the National League every year of their existence.
- 2003 Florida Marlins — The Marlins used a strong second half to win the World Series, after defeating the San Francisco Giants in the NLDS, the Chicago Cubs in the NLCS, and the New York Yankees. The NL Championship Series was especially memorable for the Marlins' rally and another Cubs collapse, as it extended the alleged Curse of the Billy Goat.
- 2004 Boston Red Sox — The 2004 Red Sox ended an 86-year World Series drought by winning eight straight games to come back from a 3 games to 0 ALCS deficit against their rival New York Yankees. While most Cinderella teams come from relative obscurity to win a championship, the 2004 Red Sox won 98 regular season games and were a dominant team throughout the 2004 regular season. They did, however, defeat a New York Yankees team which won 101 games, along with sweeping the St. Louis Cardinals, who won a league-best 105 regular season games. However, their Cinderella status was established after becoming the first Major League Baseball team to overcome a 3 games to 0 series deficit in a 7-game series and only the third team in Major American professional sports to achieve such a feat.
- 2011 St. Louis Cardinals — The 2011 Cardinals began their season strongly, leading their division throughout much of April and May, but suffered a mid-season slump, and by August 24, they were considered unlikely to make the playoffs with a mediocre record of 67–63, ten games behind the Milwaukee Brewers in the NL Central standings, and in third place for the wild card, 10½ games behind the Atlanta Braves. However, the Cardinals won 23 of their last 32 games, while the Braves collapsed. The Cardinals clinched the wild card on the last day of the regular season. The Cardinals defeated the Philadelphia Phillies, the Milwaukee Brewers, and the Texas Rangers in the NLDS, NLCS, and World Series, respectively, despite being the underdog in all three series. On September 12, when the Cardinals were still 4½ games behind in the wild card race with 15 games to play, an unidentified man bet $250 on them to win the National League championship at 500-to-1 odds, and another $250 on them to win the World Series at 999-to-1 odds. Both bets paid off, and the man won $375,000.
- 2019 Washington Nationals — The Nationals had experienced many years of playoff failure despite talented teams, losing in the first round of the postseason in the 2012, 2014, 2016 and 2017 seasons. After losing star outfielder Bryce Harper in free agency to one of their division rivals, the Philadelphia Phillies, Washington was largely expected to miss the playoffs in 2019, with some experts having them finishing 4th in the NL East behind the New York Mets, in addition to the favored Atlanta Braves and Phillies. Washington overcame a 19–31 start to obtain a wild card berth thanks to a 74–38 finish. In the NL Wild Card Game, the team rallied from being down 3–1 in the 8th inning against the Milwaukee Brewers and star closer Josh Hader, overcame a 2–1 NLDS deficit against the 106-win Los Angeles Dodgers, winning the series on an extra-innings grand slam by Howie Kendrick after back to back solo shots by star players Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto tied the game when the team was down to its final 6 outs in the 8th inning. After sweeping the St. Louis Cardinals in the NLCS to win the first NL pennant in franchise history, the team trailed the MLB-best 107–55 Houston Astros, a team many experts considered to be the greatest of all time, 3 games to 2 in the World Series, with the final 2 games in Houston. After winning Game 6, the Nationals trailed 2–0 in the 7th inning of Game 7 when home runs by Rendon and Kendrick gave Washington the lead, as they would go on to beat Houston 6–2 to win Game 7 and the first World Series in franchise history, completing one of the biggest upset runs in modern sports history. The 2019 World Series was the first and only time in all four major North American sports which involved the road team winning all seven games of a single postseason series.
- 2021 Atlanta Braves — The Braves became only the second team in MLB history, and the first team since the 1964 St. Louis Cardinals to clinch a World Series title despite having a losing record at the All-Star break, and they also became the fourth team to reach the World Series, despite that losing record. Before August 6, the Braves had never secured a record above .500. They started off the postseason in style by defeating the Milwaukee Brewers 3-1, then they proceeded to upset the Los Angeles Dodgers 4-2, in a rematch of the previous year's National League Championship Series (where they lost despite leading 3-1). The Braves faced the Houston Astros in the World Series, where they ultimately clinched the title after a 7−0 shutout in Game 6, to give Atlanta its first major sports championship since 1995.
- 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. 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. Fresno State ended their magical run by upsetting the heavily favored Georgia Bulldogs in the championship series.
Nippon Professional Baseball
- Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles (2013) — As an expansion team that was added to the Pacific League to replace the Orix BlueWave (which merged with the Orix Buffaloes before the 2005 season), the Golden Eagles played relatively poorly during their first seven seasons in the league; they advanced to the Climax Series in 2009, marking their only playoff appearance during that time. The city of Sendai and the team's home stadium was affected by the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, which was the most powerful earthquake to ever hit Japan. The team unexpectedly played well during the 2013 season, which happened two years after the earthquake disaster. Masahiro Tanaka registered a 24–0 regular season record, sending the Golden Eagles to a first-place finish in the Pacific League and a Climax Series matchup with the Chiba Lotte Marines. Tohoku, who entered the series with a 1–0 series lead, defeated Chiba in five games to advance to the 2013 Japan Series, where they would face the heavily favored Central League champion Yomiuri Giants. In the Japan Series, the Eagles defeated the Giants in seven games to win their first championship title.
National Basketball Association
- 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 Celtics fell into a quick 2 games to none deficit (followed by a 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.
- 1994–95 Houston Rockets — The Rockets were the sixth seeded team in the 1995 playoffs, yet 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 upsetting three 60-win teams in dramatic fashion en route to defending their championship.
- 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.
- 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 Cleveland 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 (a winning percentage of .707) and a sixth consecutive playoff berth. In the NBA playoffs, the Raptors defeated the Orlando Magic, the Philadelphia 76ers in a Game 7 buzzer beater, and the top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks to advance to play in the NBA Finals. The Raptors then defeated the defending back-to-back champion Golden State Warriors in six games to win their first championship in franchise history and to end a 26-year Canadian championship drought that dated back to the 1993 World Series title won by Major League Baseball'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.
- Texas Western Miners (1966) — Little-known Texas Western College (now the University of Texas at El Paso) advanced to the NCAA Championship Game where they defeated perennial powerhouse Kentucky 72–65 to win the school's only men's basketball national title to date. The Miners' championship is best remembered for the fact that the team utilized an all-black starting lineup versus Kentucky's still all-white squad. The team's story was subject of the 2006 film Glory Road.
- North Carolina State University Wolfpack (1983) — The Wolfpack defeated the heavily favored "Phi Slama Jama" Houston Cougars, led by future hall-of-famers Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler, 54–52 to win the NCAA Men's Tournament on Lorenzo Charles' last second dunk.
- Villanova Wildcats (1985) — The eighth-seeded Wildcats (unranked in the final AP poll) beat defending champion and ten-point-favorite Georgetown, who had already beaten Villanova twice in the regular season. The Wildcat squad remains the only eighth-seed and the lowest overall seed in tournament history to win the championship.
- Kansas Jayhawks (1988) — During the championship season, Kansas started 12–8 and fell out of the rankings. The regular season included losses at Allen Fieldhouse against Kansas State, Duke, and Oklahoma. Kansas managed to get a six seed and won their first three games of the tournament defeating No. 11 Xavier, No. 14 Murray State, and No. 7 Vanderbilt to reach the Elite Eight. After getting revenge against Kansas State in the Elite Eight, Kansas headed to the Final Four in nearby Kansas City where they defeated Duke to reach the national championship game and defeated Oklahoma 83–79 to win the national championship. Led by senior Danny Manning and head coach Larry Brown, the team became known as "Danny and the Miracles".
- University of Connecticut Huskies (2014) — After being banned from postseason play the previous year, the Huskies unexpectedly won the NCAA tournament, becoming the first 7 seed to do so. They beat teams such as Michigan State, Villanova, and 1st-overall seed Florida, and were led by second-year coach Kevin Ollie.
- Slovenia (EuroBasket 2017) — After finishing 12th in the EuroBasket 2015, the Slovenian team, consisted of mostly players from European leagues, with only one player from the NBA and led by the team's captain Goran Dragić, won its first-ever European Championship. They were drawn in Group A with Finland, co-hosts, France, former European champions, Greece, who won two European Championships in 1987 and 2005, Iceland, qualified for the second-straight European Championship, and Poland. Slovenia placed first in its group without a loss and advanced to the round of 16, which they won 79–55 over Ukraine. In the quarterfinals, they defeated Latvia 103–97 and then the defending champion Spain, consisted of seven players from the NBA and five from the Spanish league, 92–72 in the semifinals to advance to their first-ever final against Serbia. Slovenia going undefeated (9–0) in the tournament after defeating Serbia 93–85. Goran Dragić was named the EuroBasket MVP. Despite a 9–0 run to win the EuroBasket 2017, Slovenia failed to qualify for the 2019 FIBA World Cup.
- 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.
- 2016 Ottawa Redblacks — The Redblacks, who had begun play in 2014, finished the 2016 regular season in first place in the East Division despite having an 8–9–1 record. Due to the CFL's crossover playoff format, the Redblacks were paired up with the Edmonton Eskimos in the East Division final; the Eskimos had won the 103rd Grey Cup against the Redblacks one season earlier. In shocking fashion, the Redblacks defeated the Eskimos 35–23 to advance to the 104th Grey Cup, where they would face the heavily favoured Calgary Stampeders. Ottawa would lead throughout most of the championship game, but Calgary kicker Rene Paredes kicked a field goal to tie the game at 33–33 with 22 seconds remaining, sending the game into overtime. In the overtime period, Ottawa quarterback Henry Burris threw a game-winning touchdown pass to Ernest Jackson to take a 39–33 lead; Calgary quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell threw three consecutive incomplete passes to end the game, which would result in the Redblacks winning their first championship title, therefore ending a 40-year championship drought for a major league sports franchise from the city of Ottawa.
- Anna Kiesenhofer (2020 Summer Olympics – Women's individual road race) — Kiesenhofer, who turned pro in 2017 and was a full-time teacher by profession , broke away from her group at the very start of the race along with four other riders. She proceeded to drop her breakaway companions, soloing off the front at the Kagosaka Pass with 41 kilometres (25 mi) to go and holding off the late chase from the peloton. She won by 1' 15" over the silver medalist, Annemiek van Vleuten of the Netherlands. Van Vleuten made a late attack with 2.1 kilometres (1.3 mi) to go, distancing the remnants of the peloton. She celebrated after crossing the line, having mistakenly thought that all the breakaway riders had been caught and that she had won gold. Kiesenhofer's win was considered a major upset given that she trained for the event without a coach or a professional team, and was not viewed as a contender to win a medal. CNN called it "one of the biggest shocks in Olympics history".
- 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 to The International, nor its regional qualifiers and were required to play through the open qualifiers.
Needing three new members just a few weeks before the open qualifiers began, OG quickly signed Topias "Topson" Taavitsainen, a newcomer to the scene who had never performed at a major LAN event, Sébastien "Ceb" Debs, retired professional player who had previously served as the team's coach and has not played at professional level for nearly 3 years, and Anathan "ana" Pham, returning to the team from a year-long break after their previous elimination at The International 2017. 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. 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. 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.
OG would then go on to win The International 2019 with the same roster, becoming the first team to win two The Internationals and first team to win back to back The Internationals, a feat that remains unmatched in the history of Dota 2 esports.
- Tiger Woods — Woods won the 2019 Masters Tournament by one shot, giving him his first major title in 11 years (and his first green jacket in 14 years) after mounting a historic comeback following personal scandal and countless debilitating injuries and surgeries. Because of his remarkable performance, Woods was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Donald Trump.
National Hockey League
- 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.
- 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. They would go on to win the Stanley Cup once again two years later, which had them winning in seven games on the road three times, including being the fourth team in NHL history to overcome an 0–3 series deficit by doing so against their cross-state rival San Jose Sharks in the first round, and then the Anaheim Ducks and defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks, before beating the New York Rangers in five games to win their second title in franchise history and in three years.
- 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. 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, who had eliminated them at that point both of the previous two years, 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, another Cinderella-team, 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.
- 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. 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 wait for a first championship for a team in NHL history as well as the tied-for-longest active Stanley Cup drought at the time and one of the longest in the league's 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.
- United States (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.
- Finland (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.
- Canada (2021 World Championship) — The Canadian team consisted of mostly players from the NHL, with two players from respective leagues, AHL and KHL, one major junior player and one collegiate player. Two years after losing to Finland in the final in 2019, and a year after the cancellation of the 2020 tournament due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Canadians, led by the team's captain Adam Henrique, returned to the 2021 tournament facing seven teams in Group B. After losing their first three games, the Canadian team won three straight games before losing to the defending world champion Finland 3–2 in the shootout. They were so close to being eliminated in the preliminary round, but the Canadian team finished fourth in their group based on head-to-head victory over Kazakhstan (4–2), and made the playoffs. The Canadians upset the ROC team 2–1 in overtime in the quarterfinals, then their most heated rival United States team 4–2 in the semifinals. Finally, the Canadians defeated the defending world champion Finland 3–2 in overtime in the final to win their 27th world championship in Canada's national team history.
24 Hours of Le Mans
- Ferrari 250 LM (1965 24 Hours of Le Mans) — As a result of a Ferrari's failed attempt to homologate the coupe version of the 250 P as a GT, the 250 LM was forced to run in the prototype class, thus was considered too heavy to be a contender against the works Ferraris and Fords. After the work cars of the factory teams failed to finish, the two Ferrari privateers took a one-two to the end with the under-competitive car in what became the marque's last victory.
Grand Prix Motorcycle Racing
IFMAR World Championships
- Masami Hirosaka (1987 IFMAR 1:10 Electric 4WD Off-Road World Championship) — The virtually unknown Hirosaka arrived in competition as a privateer with an outdated Schumacher CAT and no factory representation unlike the rest of the championship contenders. During practice and qualifying, he managed to impress Schumacher's management with his driving; thus was loaned a car (CAT XL) favored by his competitors and was not yet available in his native Japan. Despite being near-stock (as opposed to the heavily modified cars of his well supported oppositions) with much of the running gear donated from his old car, Hirosaka managed to win his first (of fourteen) title.
- Tamiya (2002 IFMAR 1:10 ISTC World Championship) — Tamiya was better known for their R/C cars that catered to less than serious hobbyists in their 26 years of involvement. At the title contending A-main final of the event, Tamiya's title contention was led by an unknown Thai driver, Surikarn Chaidejsuriya, who was joined by a star studded line-up consisting of Masami Hirosaka, who had just claimed his title defense in 1:12 On-Road racing (and his 13th title); Barry Baker, the Top Qualifier; David Spashett, the multiple world champion who notably scored his 'triple' in 1998, and defending champion Atsushi Hara. Surikarn took the 3rd (and final) round win to claim the title after Baker, the round 1 winner, badly damaged his car in a crash. This win was credited for helping to improve Tamiya's image as a serious contender and as a brand.
World Rally Championship
- Trevor Bayne in the 2011 Daytona 500 – Racing in only his second NASCAR Sprint Cup Series start, Trevor Bayne went on to survive the wreck-filled race and win the race. Mike Joy, is heard saying "Cinderella's Glass slipper! (...?)". This is mainly due to his inexperience in NASCAR, and the fact that the day prior was Trevor Bayne's birthday.
- 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, 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.
- Terunofuji Haruo (July basho 2020 , 2020 in sumo) — In 2017, through a series of injuries; Terunofuji began his descent from his ōzeki rank (the 2nd highest rank in sumo) to by 2019, the jonidan division (the 2nd lowest division). It was after this, he began his ascent back to the makuuchi division (the highest division in professional sumo); winning division titles and losing one in a playoff. He earned his promotion back to the top division at the March Haru basho 2020 but as a result of the pandemic which caused the cancellation of the Natsu basho, he had to wait until July for his return. He won 13 bouts to secure his second career career top division yūshō on his return to the top division. He earned his second promotion to ōzeki following a third championship win in March 2021, which he immediately followed with another tournament championship in May 2021. Following a runner-up performance in the July 2021 tournament, he was promoted to become the sport's 73rd yokozuna. Sumo commentator John Gunning has regarded Terunofuji's comeback "a tale unparalleled in sumo history."
- 1994 US Open — Andre Agassi became the first unseeded player in the Open Era (1968–) to win the championship.
- 2001 Wimbledon — Goran Ivanišević, a three-time runner-up (1992, 1994, 1998), won the title despite being ranked 125th and only entering the tournament by a wild card.
- 2002 US Open — Pete Sampras, who was seeded 17th, won his last ever professional match to capture a then-record extending 14th Major, beating long-time rival Andre Agassi in the final.
- 2017 Australian Open — 17th seed Roger Federer, who was aged 35, defeated long-time rival Rafael Nadal in a five-set final for his first Major tournament victory in five years.
- 2021 US Open — 18-year-old Emma Raducanu defeated fellow teenager Leylah Fernandez in the final, becoming the first qualifier to win a Major title. Raducanu did not lose a set throughout the entire tournament.
Examples of Cinderellas that did not win the championship
These Cinderellas made it to the finals/playoffs in their respective leagues, but they were unable to win the championship.
- 1972 Pittsburgh Steelers — In Chuck Noll's 4th season as head coach, the Steelers finished 11–3 and qualified for the NFL playoffs as the AFC Central winner. It was the Steelers' first playoff appearance since 1962 and their second-ever appearance since 1947. During the divisional round, the Steelers played the Oakland Raiders and were leading 6–0 until the Raiders scored a touchdown late in the 4th quarter to take the lead 7–6. Facing a 4th-and-10 on their own 40 yard line, Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw threw towards halfback John "Frenchy" Fuqua, when Raiders safety Jack Tatum collided with Fuqua. However, Steelers fullback Franco Harris picked up the deflected ball and took it in for a touchdown. This play, later dubbed the "Immaculate Reception", helped the Steelers win 13–7 and get their first playoff victory. The Steelers would advance to the AFC championship game, but lost 21–17 to the undefeated Miami Dolphins.
- 1975 Dallas Cowboys — Finishing 10–4, the Cowboys qualified for the NFL playoffs as the NFC wildcard seed. During the divisional round, they defeated the defending NFC champion Minnesota Vikings 17–14 in the now-famous "Hail Mary" game, then beat the Los Angeles Rams 37–7 in the NFC championship game and became the first wildcard team to reach the Super Bowl. They would lose Super Bowl X to the defending Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers by a score of 21–17.
- 1985 New England Patriots – The Patriots were able to improve on their 9–7 record from 1984 and finished with and 11–5 record in 1985. Despite starting the year 2–3, they were able to win 9 of their next 11 to barely make the playoffs as the 5th seed with an 11–5 record. However, they won road playoff games against the division rival New York Jets and the number one seed Los Angeles Raiders to advance to the AFC championship game on the road against the heavily favored rival Miami Dolphins. They shocked the world by winning, and became the first team in NFL history to make it to the Super Bowl by winning 3 consecutive road playoff games. However, the actual Super Bowl would not be close, with the Bears trouncing the Patriots 46–10.
- 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.
- 1994 San Diego Chargers — Finishing 11–5, the Chargers qualified for the No. 2 AFC seed in the NFL playoffs. After 2 comeback wins during the playoffs, a 22–21 win against the Miami Dolphins in the divisional round, and a 17–13 win against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the conference championship, the Chargers would make their first Super Bowl appearance at Super Bowl XXIX, but lost 49–26 to the San Francisco 49ers. As of 2018, this has been the Chargers' only Super Bowl appearance and their sole appearance as a San Diego-based franchise before relocating to Los Angeles after the 2016 season.
- 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, who themselves had won their first championship since 1951.
- 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.
- 2002 Cleveland Browns — Three years since returning to the NFL following a very controversial relocation story, the Browns finished 9–7 and made the NFL playoffs for the first time since 1994. In the wildcard round, they faced their division rivals Pittsburgh Steelers but lost 36–33.
- 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.
- 2005 Seattle Seahawks — Three years after getting placed in the NFC West (where they'd been in their inaugural 1976 season), the Seahawks finished a franchise-best 13–3 and qualified for the top seed in the NFL playoffs. During the divisional round, the Seahawks beat the Washington Redskins 20–10 to win their first playoff game since 1984, and with a 34–14 win against the Carolina Panthers in the conference championship, Seattle would advance to their first Super Bowl. They would lose 21–10 to the Pittsburgh Steelers at Super Bowl XL in a game which was subject to questionable officiating.
- 2006 New Orleans Saints — Since their establishment in 1967, the Saints had experienced many years of mediocrity, not qualifying for the playoffs until 1987 and not winning a single one until 2000. 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, the 32nd overall 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 27–24 in the NFC divisional round before losing 39–14 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 signing of Brees in March 2006 is believed by many as the greatest free agency signing in NFL history, tied with the Denver Broncos' signing of Peyton Manning 6 years later.
- 2008 Arizona Cardinals — The Cardinals had experienced many years of failure for much of the 20th century, not winning a single playoff game until 1998 and prior to that, qualified for the playoffs only 3 times since winning the NFL Championship in 1947. 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 starter 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 30–24 in overtime during the Wild Card round, the Carolina Panthers 33–13 in the Divisional Round, and the Philadelphia Eagles 32–25 in the NFC championship game and advanced 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. Despite the surprising turnaround, the Dolphins would fall to the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC wild card round by a score of 27–9. 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.
- 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.
- 2011 Detroit Lions — Three years after suffering the first 0–16 season in NFL history, Detroit finished 10–6 and made the NFL playoffs for the first time since 1999. Led by head coach Jim Schwartz and quarterback Matthew Stafford, both of whom joined the team in 2009, Detroit posted their first winning season since 2000 and their first 10-win season since 1995, setting the new franchise record for most points scored at 474. Despite these successes, the Lions fell to the New Orleans Saints 45–28 in the wildcard round, extending Detroit's playoff win drought, having last won a playoff game in the 1991–92 NFL playoffs.
- 2012 San Francisco 49ers — After quarterback Steve Young's departure in 2000, the 49ers would make two more playoff appearances in 2001 and 2002 before spending the rest of the decade struggling, never finishing better than 0.500. In 2011, the 49ers hired former Stanford head coach Jim Harbaugh, who led the team to a 13–3 season and the No. 2 NFC seed at the NFL playoffs, defeating the New Orleans Saints 36–32 in the divisional round before losing 20–17 in overtime to the eventual Super Bowl XLVI champion New York Giants in the NFC Championship Game. In 2012, the 49ers started 6–2 before quarterback Alex Smith was injured, eventually prompting quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who was drafted in 2011, to step in and finish out the season 11–4–1, earning the No. 2 NFC seed at the NFL Playoffs once again. During the playoffs, they defeated the Green Bay Packers 45–31 in the divisional round and the Atlanta Falcons 28–24 at the NFC Championship Game, overcoming a 24–14 deficit, and advanced to their first Super Bowl in 18 years. They narrowly lost Super Bowl XLVII to the Baltimore Ravens by a score of 34–31, also losing their place as the sole NFL team to stay undefeated in multiple Super Bowls.
- 2016 Green Bay Packers — After posting a 4–6 record through 10 games, star QB Aaron Rodgers led the Packers on one of the greatest in-season runs in NFL history to finish the season 10–6 and as division champions. Post-Week 11, Green Bay ran the table, riding an eight-game win streak into the playoffs all the way to the NFC Championship Game. Along the way, they defeated the 11–5 New York Giants and downed the No. 1 seeded 13–3 Dallas Cowboys on the road with some late-game heroics. While they ultimately fell to the Atlanta Falcons in the conference championship, their comeback in the second half of the season is still regarded as one of the most sudden turnarounds ever.
- 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 divisional 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.
- 2018 Philadelphia Eagles — A year after winning their first Super Bowl title over the New England Patriots, the Eagles had hopes of defending such title and winning consecutive Super Bowls for the first time since the Patriots did so in the 2004 season. Quarterback Carson Wentz, whom was sidelined during the final weeks of the 2017 season, returned from injury in Week 3 of the 2018 season. Additional injuries to key players and overall inconsistencies prevented the Eagles from executing fully, and they began the season 4–6, failing to improve on their 13–3 record from the preceding season. They were dealt some particularly horrifying losses in said start, topped off by a 48–7 loss to the New Orleans Saints on the road, which is the worst loss any defending Super Bowl champion has been dealt in NFL history. Not only did this leave their postseason hopes in grave peril, but they were on the brink of becoming the worst defending Super Bowl champions of all time. And facing the hardest remaining schedule in the league, they were heavily predicted to complete said collapse. Furthermore, a back injury after Week 14 bumped Wentz down as the Number 3 quarterback instead of being placed on the injured reserve, and reigning Super Bowl MVP Nick Foles would start for the remainder of the season. They upset the drastically favored Los Angeles Rams and won out to make the playoffs. From there, the Eagles upset the favored 3rd seeded Chicago Bears in the Wild Card round, and in the divisional round nearly defeated the top-seeded aforementioned Saints, again on the road, as the Eagles led 14–0 during the 1st quarter, which would have been the Saints' first playoff loss at home since 1992 and the first in the Sean Payton/Drew Brees era.
- 2019 Green Bay Packers — After two disappointing seasons (including an injury-plagued 2017 season and the 2018 season which quarterback Aaron Rodgers later revealed he played with a sprained MCL), and firing their head coach Mike McCarthy after 12 years, the Packers were not expected to fare much better in 2019. They hired Tennessee Titans offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur as their new head coach, the 15th head coach in franchise history. After finishing 13–3 for the first time since 2007 (which was also Brett Favre's final year with the Packers), the Packers won the NFC North for the first time in 3 years and in the playoffs, defeated the Seattle Seahawks 28–23 but in the NFC Championship Game, lost to the San Francisco 49ers, their 3rd playoff loss to the Niners in 8 years, and ending their hopes of returning to the Super Bowl for the first time in 9 years.
- 2019 San Francisco 49ers – The 49ers had been in misery since former head coach Jim Harbaugh left the team to coach Michigan following the 2014 season. Coming off a 4–12 record, the Niners would begin the season 8–0 for the first time since 1990, during the Joe Montana/Jerry Rice era. 3rd-year quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, whom the Niners traded from the New England Patriots for a 2018 second round pick, was coming off a torn ACL he suffered during Week 3 of the 2018 season. The Niners would finish the season 13–3 in the playoffs, they defeated the Minnesota Vikings 27–10 in the divisional round and the Green Bay Packers 37–20 in the NFC Championship Game to make their first Super Bowl since the 2012 season. The Niners ultimately lost to the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LIV 20–31, ending their hopes of joining the Pittsburgh Steelers and Patriots as the only teams to win 6 Super Bowl titles; the loss gave Kansas City their second Super Bowl win and their first NFL championship title. Kansas City's victory helped reduce the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic in San Francisco; had the Niners won the game, the number of deaths in the early days of the pandemic would have been larger.
- 2019 Tennessee Titans — The Titans came off a 9–7 season in which they missed the playoffs and their first under head coach Mike Vrabel, whom previously served as Linebacker's coach and defensive coordinator for the Houston Texans and played as a linebacker for the Pittsburgh Steelers, New England Patriots, and Kansas City Chiefs from 1997 to 2010. The Titans began the season 2–4, and following a 16–0 shutout loss to the Denver Broncos in Week 6, head coach Vrabel chose to bench quarterback Marcus Mariota, the 2nd overall pick in the 2015 Draft in favor for backup Ryan Tannehill, whom the Titans traded for from the Dolphins during the offseason. Tannehill performed well going 7–2 at the helm, and qualified for the playoffs as the 6th seed in the AFC. In the playoffs the Titans defeated the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots on the road 20–13 (their first win at Gillette Stadium since 1993), the heavily favored number 1 seed Baltimore Ravens 28–12 in the Divisional Round, ultimately losing to the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC Championship Game 24–35, ending their hopes of returning to the Super Bowl for the first time in 20 years, or Ryan Tannehill returning to Hard Rock Stadium (the site of Super Bowl LIV) since the Dolphins traded him to the Titans.
- 2020 Cleveland Browns — After last making the playoffs in 2002, the Browns would suffer 18 years of futility only having one winning season, going through multiple starting quarterbacks and head coaches, and going on a 1–31 stretch including a winless season in 2017. Following a 6–10 record from the previous season, the Browns fired head coach Freddie Kitchens and named Kevin Stefanski as their new head coach and named Andrew Berry as their new general manager. With Stefanski plus 3rd year quarterback Baker Mayfield, the Browns finished the season at 11–5, their best record since 1994, and clinched the number 6 seed in the postseason. In the playoffs, the Browns upset the Pittsburgh Steelers 48–37 after scoring 28 points in the first quarter alone following miscues from the Steelers. The win was the Browns first playoff win since 1994, their first away playoff win since 1969, and snapped a 17-game losing streak in Pittsburgh which dated back to 2003. However the Browns would lose to the defending Super Bowl LIV champions and eventual AFC Champions Kansas City Chiefs in the Divisional Round 22–17.
- Western Michigan Broncos (2016) — This was a historic season for the Broncos. They were led by fourth-year head coach P. J. Fleck and played their home games at Waldo Stadium as a member of the West Division of the Mid-American Conference(MAC). Led by senior offensive weapons Zach Terrell and future 1st round pick Corey Davis, the Broncos completed their regular season undefeated and won the MAC West Division title. The Broncos finished conference play defeating the Ohio Bobcats 29–23 in the 2016 MAC Championship Game, winning the school's first MAC championship title since 1988. WMU received an invitation to the 2017 Cotton Bowl as the highest rated Group of Five team in the College Football Playoff (CFP). It was the first New Years Six bowl appearance in school history (and second for a MAC team). The Broncos also won 10 games in a season for the first time in their 111-year football history. They lost to the No. 8 Wisconsin Badgers in the game, 24–16. This season marked the last season at WMU for Fleck, as he would depart to be the new head coach of Minnesota.
- Deportivo Alavés (2000–01 UEFA Cup)
- A.S. Monaco (2003–04 UEFA Champions League) — The side based in Monaco and representing the French Football Association were qualified for the group stage where they faced against the Spanish minnows, Deportivo La Coruña, PSV Eindhoven and AEK Athens in group B. With being finished second of the group, they advanced to the quarterfinals by beating the Russian side, Lokomotiv Moscow with an away goal despite being tied 2–2 on aggregate. As they lost to Real Madrid on the road at the first leg, 4–2, they came back from the death on the second leg at home by winning 3–1, thanks to Ludovic Giuly's game-winning goal to pull off the upset against the Spanish giants and send them to the semifinal where they defeated Chelsea in the next round, 5–3 to pull off the another upset in the competition. However, they lost to the eventual winners, Porto, 3–0 in the final. This marked the first team from Monaco to reach the European Cup final and the second French team to do so since Marseille who won the first title under the Champions League era in 1993.
- Bradford City (2012–13 Football League Cup) — 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.
- Atlético Madrid (2013–14 UEFA Champions League) — Under the second year under Diego Simeone, they were drawn group G against the Russia's Zenit St. Petersburg, 2-time titleholders, FC Porto and Austria Wien after finishing third at last season's La Liga behind their rivals, FC Barcelona and Real Madrid. With being finished on the top of the group, they managed to take a 1–0 lead on the road against AC Milan in the first leg of the round of 16 and then thrashed 4–1 at home on the second leg to pull off the upset against 7-time European champions to clinch to the quarterfinals against their Spanish rivals, Barcelona. However, they were drawn at Camp Nou, 1–1 in the first leg, and surged the comeback against Lionel Messi and company at home, 1–0 on the second leg to send his side to the semifinal for the first time since 1974 against Chelsea. Despite with a goalless draw in Stamford Bridge in the first leg, they finished the game, 3–1 to pull off the another upset of the competition on the second leg to send them to the first European Cup final under his managerial career. Unfortunately in the final, they lost 4–1 after the extra time despite they managed a 1–0 lead against their crosstown rivals, Real Madrid with minutes away from lifting the European Cup. This achievement marked the first European Cup final appearance since 1974 against Bayern Munich.
- Liverpool (2017–18 UEFA Champions League) – Liverpool qualified for the Champions League for the first time in five seasons through finishing fourth in the 2016–17 Premier League, a point ahead of Arsenal. After overcoming TSG 1899 Hoffenheim in the play-off round, the Reds advanced to the group stage, where they were drawn into Group E. After back to back draws with Sevilla and FC Spartak Moscow, they got ten points from their remaining four matches to seal top spot in the group, which includes two 7–0 wins over Spartak and NK Maribor. In the knockout stage, they first trounced FC Porto with a 5–0 win in the round of 16. They were then drawn against a Manchester City side which resoundingly won the 2017–18 Premier League with 100 points, being the underdogs despite a 4–3 home win against them earlier in the season. However, a 3–0 home win and a 2–1 away win followed, which sent them into the semi finals 5–1 on aggregate. After grinding out a 7–6 aggregate win over A.S. Roma in the semi finals, the Reds lost the final 3–1 to the defending champions Real Madrid after two goalkeeping errors by Loris Karius.
- Croatia (2018 FIFA World Cup) — 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.
- Tottenham Hotspur (2018–19 UEFA Champions League) — After only achieving one point from their opening three games in the Champions League group stage against Barcelona and Inter, Tottenham were minutes away from elimination after falling 0–1 behind to PSV Eindhoven at home. They went on to win the match 2–1, and four points from their last two games were enough for them to advance to the last 16, where they defeated Borussia Dortmund 4–0 on aggregate. They went on to face favourites Manchester City in the next round, winning 1–0 in the first leg at home. Despite a 4–3 loss away, they advanced on away goals after Manchester City's winning goal was ruled off by VAR. They lost 1–0 at home to the Dutch minnows, Ajax in the next round, and were 3–0 down on aggregate at half time in the second leg, but a hat trick by Lucas Moura sealed their progress to the final, where they lost 0–2 to Liverpool. It was the Spurs' first time making the finals as a team from London since Chelsea won the title in 2012.
- Greater Western Sydney Giants (2019) — The Giants, who finished with the worst regular season record in the AFL during the first two seasons of its existence, qualified for the finals series after finishing sixth in the regular season standings with a record of 13–9. The team had never been to the Grand Final throughout its existence, as it had lost two preliminary finals in the previous three seasons. However, they upset Collingwood in the preliminary final to advance to the Grand Final for the first time in the franchise's history. After having to win two straight matches on the road (against the Brisbane Lions and Collingwood) by less than five points, the Giants lost to Richmond by 89 points in the 2019 AFL Grand Final (who had won their second premiership in three years).
Major League Baseball
- 1995 Seattle Mariners — The Mariners, who had never made the playoffs previously in their 19-season history, were just 51–50 and trailed the California Angels by 12.5 games at the conclusion of play on August 15. Off the field, their ineptitude found them struggling to find support for a new stadium to replace the aging Kingdome, which made relocation seem likely. However, Seattle rallied to go 27–16 the rest of the way, finishing the season tied with California, who collapsed down the stretch, at 78–66. After easily winning the tiebreaker, Seattle trailed the best-of-5 ALDS 2–0 to the New York Yankees, but rallied to win the final 3 games at home, capped by Hall of Famer Edgar Martinez's walk-off double in the 11th inning of Game 5. However, the Cinderella ride ended in the ALCS, where the Mariners lost to the Cleveland Indians in 6 games. However, the playoff run did convince the Washington State Legislature that the team was wanted in the region, and they approved an alternative financing package for a new stadium, Safeco Field, which opened 4 years later.
- 2000 Oakland Athletics — The Athletics end an eight-year postseason drought in what would begin the "Moneyball era" of the team being greatly competitive, lasting from 2000 to 2006. For 2000 the Athletics made the American League Division Series for the first time since 1992, losing to the New York Yankees.
- 2007 Colorado Rockies — On September 16, 2007, the Rockies possessed a win-loss record of 76–72 and were 4 1/2 games out of the NL Wild Card. However, Colorado went on a hot streak, winning 13 of their last 14 games of the season to force a one-game playoff for the wild card berth, which they won by a score of 9–8 in 13 innings against the San Diego Padres. Back-to-back sweeps of the Philadelphia Phillies in the NLDS and the Arizona Diamondbacks in the NLCS gave the Rockies their first ever pennant. However, the team's fortune then ended, as they were swept in the World Series by the Boston Red Sox.
- 2008 Tampa Bay Rays — The Rays were the long-time doormats of the American League East, having lost at least 91 games in each of their 10 years of existence. After a 66–96 campaign in 2007, the Rays broke out in 2008, compiling a 97–65 record to clinch the AL East title. They went on to defeat the Chicago White Sox in the ALDS and the Boston Red Sox in a seven-game ALCS, but lost the World Series in five games to the Philadelphia Phillies—the city of Philadelphia had a championship after 25 years.
- 2014 Kansas City Royals — The Royals, who had not qualified for the postseason since 1985, won the Wild Card Game against the Oakland Athletics through two late-inning comebacks to advance to the ALDS. From there, they swept the Los Angeles Angels (which featured American League MVP Mike Trout) and the Baltimore Orioles in the ALCS to advance to play in the World Series, which they lost in seven games to the San Francisco Giants.
- 2019 New York Yankees — The Yankees, who had not won a division title since 2012, and a championship since 2009, set an MLB record for most players put on the injured list in one season. Despite that, they still finished with a 103–59 record, clinching the AL East for the first time in 7 years. They went on to sweep the Minnesota Twins in the division series before losing to the Houston Astros in the ALCS in a dramatic Game 6 by way of a Jose Altuve walk-off home run. They also become just the second team in MLB History to hit 300 home runs in a season, joining that year's Twins.
- 2020 San Diego Padres — The Padres entered the season having not made the postseason since 2006 or having finished with a winning record since 2010. Thanks to the emergence of young star shortstop Fernando Tatis, Jr., pitcher Dinelson Lamet and center fielder Trent Grisham, the re-emergence of once face of the franchise Wil Myers, as well as some free agents from prior years Manny Machado and Eric Hosmer starting to play up to their contracts, the Padres finished the pandemic-shortened season at 37–23, qualifying for the playoffs as the NL West runner-up. After losing Game 1 of the NL Wild Card Series to the St. Louis Cardinals, the Padres rallied from a 6–2 deficit in Game 2 thanks to home runs from Tatis, Machado and Myers, and then won the winner-take-all Game 3 4–0. However, injuries to Lamet and fellow pitcher Mike Clevinger ultimately did the Padres in, as they were swept by their division rival and eventual World Series champion Los Angeles Dodgers in 3 games in the NLDS.
- 2020 Houston Astros — The Astros began the COVID-shortened 2020 season on the heels of a highly publicized sign stealing scandal that resulted in the gutting of their entire leadership structure, with firings of general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager A. J. Hinch as well as other members of the front office. They were also fined and stripped of certain draft picks, while the players felt a season-long onslaught from the media and angry fans. Then, just one game into the season, following his six-inning winning appearance on Opening Day, ace Justin Verlander injured his right forearm, placing him out indefinitely and later necessitating Tommy John surgery. This meant he was ultimately ruled out for not just the entire season, but for all of the next year. Additionally, sophomore phenom and 2019 Rookie of the Year designated hitter Yordan Alvarez was ruled out for the season after a late start and only nine plate appearances. This proved to be a devastating blow to their batting lineup. Late starts to the season by other key players (especially members of the pitching rotation and bullpen) like José Urquidy due to COVID protocols and travel restrictions caused the Astros roster to be decimated for the vast majority of the season. As a result, first-year manager Dusty Baker shepherded them through the 60-game abbreviated season with a 29–31 record, by far their worst showing throughout their recent history as a perennial powerhouse. Then, during the postseason, they flipped a switch and instantly caught fire, sweeping the No. 3 seed Minnesota Twins in the newly added Wild Card round before easily dispatching their No. 2 seeded rival and AL West champion Oakland Athletics in four games in the divisional series. In the 2020 ALCS, the Astros went down three games to none against the No. 1 seeded Tampa Bay Rays, before thundering back with three dramatic victories in a row to tie the series at 3–3. Ultimately, the Astros lost a close and competitive Game 7 by a score of 4–2 after coming within a late-inning hit of tying the game after having initially been down 4–0. This prevented the Astros from advancing to their third World Series in four years, in what would have been a vaunted re-match of the 2017 World Series with their arch-nemesis Los Angeles Dodgers. Regardless, what amounted to a mediocre regular season quickly turned into the Astros' fourth consecutive league championship appearance, a franchise record, and one of the most exciting come-from-behind postseason upset campaigns in recent memory. This also marked the furthest any MLB team with a losing regular season record has advanced in the playoffs.
- Stony Brook Seawolves (2012) — The Seawolves, in just their 12th season as a Division I program, won the Coral Gables Regional as a four seed by beating host Miami (FL), Missouri State, and UCF to advance to the Baton Rouge Super Regional, where they upset the LSU Tigers, whose pitching rotation was led by future top-ten draft picks Aaron Nola and Kevin Gausman, in a three-game road series in order to advance to the 2012 College World Series. The Seawolves became the third four seed in NCAA history to win a regional, and the second regional-four seed to reach the College World Series after Fresno State. They became the first team from the America East Conference to reach the College World Series, and were also the first team from New York to do so since St. John's in 1980, as well as the first Northeast school since 1986. In the College World Series, the Seawolves lost 9–1 to UCLA and 12–2 to Florida State, ending their miracle season.
- Loyola Marymount University (1990) — 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) — 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.
- University of North Carolina (2010) — After winning the 2009 NCAA Division I Men's Basketball Tournament, the Tar Heels were poised to make another run at an NCAA championship title in the 2009–10 college basketball season. The team played inconsistently throughout the season and were not selected to enter the 2010 NCAA Tournament due to them finishing with a losing record in conference play. UNC were instead invited to play in the 2010 National Invitation Tournament; they won four straight games to advance to the NIT championship game, where they would lose to the Dayton Flyers.
- Virginia Commonwealth University (2011) — The 11th-seeded Rams, who had to play in the First Four, made it to the Final Four for the first time in school history, losing narrowly to the 8th-seeded Butler in the semifinals.
- 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) — With a win against Evansville on February 18, 2018, Loyola clinched at least a share of its first-ever Missouri Valley Conference regular season championship. With a win over Southern Illinois on February 21, the Ramblers clinched the outright MVC championship by defeating Northern Iowa, Bradley, and Illinois State to win the MVC Tournament. The Ramblers qualified for the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1985 as the 11th seed in the South with a 28–5 record. In the first round, the Ramblers defeated No. 6 Miami 64–62. The Ramblers then upset No. 3 Tennessee 63–62, advancing to the Sweet Sixteen for the first time since 1985. Then the Ramblers defeated No. 7 Nevada 69–68, advancing to the Elite Eight for the first time since 1963. In the Elite Eight, the Ramblers defeated No. 9 Kansas State, advancing to the Final Four for the first time in program history, becoming the fourth 11th seed to reach the Final Four. In the Final Four, they lost to 3rd-seeded Michigan 57–69 after leading the game for 30 minutes.
- San Diego State University (2019–20) — The Aztecs came into the season unranked and had missed the NCAA Tournament 3 of the previous 4 years and were two years removed from the retirement of long-time coach Steve Fisher. Led by transfers Malachi Flynn, Yanni Wetzell and K.J. Feagin, as well as the further development of returnees such as Matt Mitchell, Jordan Schakel, and Nathan Mensah, the Aztecs roared to a 26–0 start and a top 5 ranking. The Aztecs were ultimately 30–2 and likely to be a 1 or 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament, with many analysts thinking the Aztecs had a chance to win the national championship. However, the NCAA Tournament was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Oral Roberts University (2020–21) — Seeded fourth in the Summit League Tournament, the Golden Eagles topped North Dakota before having upset wins over top-seeded South Dakota State and North Dakota State in the respective semifinal and championship rounds. Oral Roberts qualified to NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2008 as the 15th seed in the South with a 16–10 record. In the first round, Oral Roberts stunned No. 2 Ohio State 75–72 in overtime with Kevin Obanor and Max Abmas combining for 59 points in the victory. Oral Roberts then defeated No. 7 Florida 81–78 in the second round advancing to the Sweet Sixteen for the first time since 1974. However, Oral Roberts was defeated by Arkansas 72–70 in the Sweet Sixteen.
- UCLA (2020–21) — Having lost four consecutive games, the Bruins snuck into the NCAA Tournament as the 11-seed in the East Region, and had to play in the First Four against Michigan State. UCLA overcame a 14-point deficit to beat the Spartans 86–80 in overtime. The Bruins then defeated No. 6 BYU 73–62, defeated No. 14 Abilene Christian 67–47, outlasted No. 2 Alabama 88–78 in overtime, and upset top-seeded Michigan 51–49 to become just the fifth 11-seed and the second First Four team to reach the Final Four, after VCU in 2010–2011. UCLA's Cinderella run ended with a 93–90 overtime loss to overall top-seed and undefeated Gonzaga, a game which featured 15 ties and 19 lead changes, in which the Zags' Jalen Suggs banked in a deep three-point shot to beat the overtime buzzer. This loss joined UCLA with the aforementioned VCU team as the only teams in NCAA tournament history to win five games and not qualify for the national championship game. The Final Four game is widely regarded as one of the greatest games in NCAA history.
- 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.
National Basketball Association
- 1975–76 Phoenix Suns — Despite entering the NBA playoffs with only a 42–40 record, the Suns would upset the defending champion Golden State Warriors to enter the NBA Finals against the Boston Celtics. Despite giving the Celtics a triple-overtime thriller in Game 5, which the Suns lost by two points, the Suns would lose to the eventual champion Celtics 4 games to 2. That season's team was given the nickname of the "Sunderella Suns".
- 1998–99 New York Knicks — The Knicks became the only eighth-seeded team to advance to play in the NBA Finals. However, New York lost to the San Antonio Spurs 4 games to 1 in the 1999 NBA Finals.
- 2006–07 Golden State Warriors — After 13 years of futility, the Warriors, ending the season with a 16–5 run, finished the season with a 42–40 record, clinching the eight seed, and returning to the playoffs for the first time since the 1993–94 season. Led by Baron Davis, Matt Barnes, Monta Ellis, and head coach Don Nelson, the Warriors faced the top-seeded Dallas Mavericks led by league MVP Dirk Nowitzki. Despite being heavy underdogs, the Warriors shocked the basketball world by defeating the Mavericks in six games, becoming the third eighth-seeded team in NBA history to eliminate a first-seeded team in the playoffs, after the Denver Nuggets and New York Knicks did it in 1994, and 1999 respectively. However the Warriors magical run ended in the Western Conference Semifinals when they were defeated by the Utah Jazz in five games. The slogan “We Believe” became the Warriors’ slogan for the last two months of the season and throughout playoffs.
- 2008–09 Orlando Magic — Just a year after winning their first playoff series since 1996 (during the Shaq/Penny era), the Magic qualified for the NBA playoffs for a second straight year. The Magic defeated the Philadelphia 76ers, the defending NBA champion Boston Celtics, and the heavily favored Cleveland Cavaliers to advance to play in the NBA Finals against the Los Angeles Lakers. However, the Magic lost to the Lakers in five games. The Magic were led by Dwight Howard, the top pick in the 2004 NBA draft who notably led his Magic to the Finals with no other All-Stars on the team, and was also named the NBA Defensive Player of the Year for three straight seasons.
- 2010–11 Memphis Grizzlies — After years of franchise disappointment, the Grizzlies finished the 2010–11 NBA season with a win-loss record of 46–36, and qualified for the 2011 NBA playoffs as the Western Conference's number eight seed. In the playoffs, the Grizzlies won their first ever playoff series, an upset over the top-seeded San Antonio Spurs in six games. However, the Grizzlies' season ended with a 7-game series loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder. Although they made their first ever Western Conference Finals appearance two seasons later, the Grizzlies would get swept by the San Antonio Spurs in four games.
- 2015–16 Oklahoma City Thunder — Coming off an injury-plagued season last year that resulted in the Thunder failing to qualify for the NBA playoffs for the first time since the team's inaugural season in Oklahoma City (2008–09), they fired head coach Scott Brooks and hired long-time Florida Gators coach Billy Donovan as their new head coach. In Donovan's first year as head coach, he led Oklahoma City to a 55–27 record and to a Western Conference finals appearance for the fourth time in five seasons. In the NBA playoffs, the Thunder defeated the sixth seeded Dallas Mavericks and the second seeded San Antonio Spurs, before nearly pulling off one of the biggest upsets in the history of professional sports. Despite holding a 3 games to 1 series lead, the Thunder lost to the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference finals in seven games. The Warriors that year had finished with the NBA's best-ever single season regular season win-loss record at 73–9, surpassing the 1995–96 Chicago Bulls' record of 72–10.
- 2017–18 Boston Celtics — After losing newly acquired star players Kyrie Irving to a season-ending knee surgery and Gordon Hayward to an ankle injury in their season opener, the Celtics qualified to compete in the playoffs for a fourth consecutive year. Boston finished the 2017–18 NBA season with a win-loss record of 55–27 and qualified for the 2018 NBA playoffs as the Eastern Conference's second seed. Led by rookie Jayson Tatum and sophomore Jaylen Brown, the Celtics defeated the promising Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers, before losing in the Eastern Conference finals to the Cleveland Cavaliers, despite leading the series 2 games to none and then 3 games to 2, their first blown 2–0 postseason series lead in franchise history.
- 2017–18 Cleveland Cavaliers — In the year following superstar Kyrie Irving's sudden departure from the team, the LeBron-led Cavs found themselves grappling to stay afloat in an increasingly-competitive Eastern Conference. The team started the season 5–7 through their first 12 games, was ranked as low as 12th in the East a month into the season, and even at the All-Star break was struggling to elevate themselves to their status of the last three years, despite having gone on a 13-game win-streak in December. At regular season end, the Cavs placed fourth in the East, several spots lower than any LeBron-led team had finished in all of his last seven consecutive trips to the Finals, meaning they were an underdog to almost half the conference's playoff field this time around. In the First Round, they defeated the No. 5 seed Indiana Pacers in seven back-and-forth games, propelled by a vintage LeBron buzzer-beater in Game 5, before proceeding to stunningly sweep the No. 1-seeded Toronto Raptors in the conference semi-finals by virtue of yet another instant-classic walk-off game-winning shot in Game 3 by James. This was the third consecutive season that Cleveland sent the Raptors home in the playoffs, and sweeping them in four games for the second year in a row. The Cavs then entered the Eastern Conference Finals firing on all cylinders more than they had at any point previously, defeating the No. 2 seed Boston Celtics in the ECF after being down both 2–0 and 3–2, with all matches except Game 7 being decided by home court advantage. With this win, after having played in and won two Game 7's, and having beaten two higher-seeded teams as historic underdogs both times, they clinched their fourth straight conference title, and advanced to the 2018 NBA Finals to face the Golden State Warriors for a record-breaking fourth consecutive season. Despite being swept in the Finals, the Cavs showed surprising fight in Game 1, taking it to overtime by way of a sensational 51-point game from LeBron James, having held a lead with just seconds remaining in the game, blown in part by a now-infamous closing-seconds blunder by J.R. Smith.
- 2019–20 Miami Heat — A year after Heat legend and 3-time champion Dwyane Wade, believed by many as the best Heat player in franchise history, retired from the NBA, the Heat finished the 2019–20 season with a 44–29 record as the 5th seed in the Eastern Conference. Led by Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo, rookie Tyler Herro and undrafted free agent Duncan Robinson, the Heat began their playoff run by sweeping the Pacers, shockingly defeated the top-seeded and heavily favored Milwaukee Bucks in 5 games and finally beat the Celtics in 6 games to reach their 6th NBA Finals appearance in franchise history. They became the only 5th seed in NBA history to ever reach the Finals. However, the Heat were defeated in the Finals in six games by the LeBron James-led Los Angeles Lakers, who were affected by the death of Kobe Bryant in a helicopter crash that happened six weeks before the NBA suspended its season as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic; the Lakers' win in that series marked their seventeenth championship title and their first championship since 2010.
- 2020–21 Atlanta Hawks — The Hawks had struggled for the past three years failing to win more than 30 games a season. After a 14–20 start, the Hawks fired head coach Lloyd Pierce and named Nate McMillan as interim head coach. McMillan alongside Trae Young, Clint Capela, and John Collins, led the Hawks on a 27–11 run to finish the season with the 5th seed with a 41–31 record, qualifying for the playoffs for the first time since the 2017 season. The Hawks began their playoff run by defeating the 4th seeded New York Knicks where Young was being consistently mocked by fans during the series. Then the Hawks upset the top seeded Philadelphia 76ers in the Conference Semifinals, where two of their victories were coming back from large deficits. The Hawks would advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time since 2015 where they faced the 3rd seeded Milwaukee Bucks. Despite a strong Game 1 victory, the Hawks would lose the series in six games.
- 2020–21 Phoenix Suns — During the previous five seasons, the Suns had just a .302 winning percentage which is the worst winning percentage in the five years prior for a team advancing to the final playoff round in any of the four major American professional sports leagues. After acquiring All-Star Chris Paul from the Oklahoma City Thunder in the off-season, the Suns, led by Paul, Devin Booker, 2018 first overall pick Deandre Ayton, and second-year head coach Monty Williams, finished the season as the No 2. seed with a 51–21 record, clinching the Pacific Division for the first time since 2006–07, clinched a playoff spot since the 2009–2010 season and finished with a winning record for the first time since the 2013–14 season. The Suns began their playoff run by defeating the seventh-seeded and defending NBA champion Los Angeles Lakers in the opening round in six games. The Suns then swept the third-seeded Denver Nuggets in the conference semifinals. Then in the Conference Finals, the Suns defeated the fourth-seeded Los Angeles Clippers in the conference finals in six games, advancing to the NBA Finals for the first time since 1993. Against the Milwaukee Bucks however, the Suns would lose in six games despite starting the series 2–0.
League of Legends
- Suning at the 2020 World Championship — Suning, which had posted a record of 17–5 in the first half of the 2017 LPL season, struggled to make it past the first round of the league's playoffs on certain occasions in 2018 and 2019 and failed to qualify for the World Championship in both of those years. After registering a 7–9 record in the first half of the 2020 season, Suning finished the second half with a record of 11–4 and defeated LGD Gaming 3–0 in the LPL championship to win their second title in the LPL and qualify for the World Championship for the first time in their history. Suning tied for first place with G2 Esports in Group A with a record of 4–2 and defeated G2 in the tiebreaker to have the advantage in the knockout stage, where they defeated JD Gaming 3–1 and Top Esports 3–1 to advance to the finals. Suning would lose the championship game of the tournament to Damwon Gaming 3–1.
National Hockey League
- 1980–81 Minnesota North Stars (1981 Stanley Cup Finals) — The North Stars, who finished third in the Adams Division in the 1980–81 season, qualified for the playoffs as the ninth seed. in the league. The team defeated the Boston Bruins in three games, the Buffalo Sabres in five games, and the Calgary Flames in six games to reach the finals, where they lost to the New York Islanders in five games.
- 1981–82 Vancouver Canucks — The Canucks, who finished second in the Smythe Division with 77 points despite finishing in fourth place in the Campbell Conference, qualified for the playoffs as the second seed in the Smythe Division. They defeated the Calgary Flames in three games, the Los Angeles Kings in five games, and the Chicago Blackhawks in five games to advance to the finals, where they were swept in four games by the New York Islanders.
- 1990–91 Minnesota North Stars — The North Stars finished the regular season 12 games under .500 but pulled off three massive upsets to advance to that year's Stanley Cup finals. The North Stars upset the Presidents' Trophy winning Chicago Blackhawks in six games in the first round of the playoffs, then pulled off another massive upset in round two by defeating the St. Louis Blues in six games. The North Stars continued that momentum by upsetting the defending Stanley Cup champion Edmonton Oilers in five games in the Campbell Conference finals to advance to the 1991 Stanley Cup Finals against the Pittsburgh Penguins. The North Stars' Cinderella run came to an end with an 8–0 game six loss, giving the Penguins their first Stanley Cup in team history.
- 1993–94 Vancouver Canucks — The seventh seed in the Western Conference upset their division rival Calgary Flames in the first round in seven games after falling behind 3–1 in the series and rattled off 3 consecutive overtime wins to complete the comeback. The Canucks then upset the fourth seed Dallas Stars in the second round in five games to advance to the Western Conference finals against the Toronto Maple Leafs. They continued their momentum by upsetting the Maple Leafs in five games to advance to the 1994 Stanley Cup Finals against the New York Rangers. The Canucks fell behind 3–1 in the series to the Rangers, but won games five and six to force a seventh game in New York. Their playoff run fell one win short with a 3–2 loss in game 7, giving the New York Rangers their first Stanley Cup since 1940.
- 1995–96 Florida Panthers — The 1995–96 season was the third in the NHL for the Panthers, who had been awarded as an expansion franchise in 1992. The team was composed of journeymen veterans and rookies and led by all-star goaltender John Vanbiesbrouck. The team finished in third place in the Atlantic Division during the season and qualified for the playoffs for the first time. In the playoffs, the Panthers defeated the Boston Bruins in five games, the Philadelphia Flyers in six games, and the Pittsburgh Penguins in seven games to reach the Stanley Cup Finals, where they were swept in four games by the Colorado Avalanche.
- 2001–02 Carolina Hurricanes — Though the Hurricanes were seeded third as a division winner, having won the Southeast Division, in actuality they had the second-lowest point total (91) and the lowest win total (35) for a playoff team not only in the Eastern Conference, but also the whole NHL. However, they defeated the New Jersey Devils, the Montreal Canadiens, and the Toronto Maple Leafs, all in six games, to reach the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time, where they lost to the Detroit Red Wings in five games.
- 2002–03 Mighty Ducks of Anaheim — The seventh seed in the Western Conference upset the defending Stanley Cup champion Detroit Red Wings in a 4-game sweep in the first round of the playoffs, then upset the first-seeded Dallas Stars in six games in round two. The Mighty Ducks then swept another surprising team (the Minnesota Wild) in the Western Conference finals to advance to the Stanley Cup Finals against the New Jersey Devils. The Ducks fell behind 2 games to 0 in the finals, but rebounded to win three of the next four games to force game 7. However, their Cinderella run came to an end with a 3–0 loss in game 7, giving the Devils their third Stanley Cup in team history. Jean-Sebastien Giguere would win the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP as a member of the losing team for his heroic efforts in backstopping the Ducks to the Stanley Cup Finals.
- 2003–04 Calgary Flames — The sixth seed in the Western Conference, the Flames upset the third seed Vancouver Canucks in seven games in the first round of the playoffs, winning their first playoff series since 1989. The Flames then upset the Presidents' Trophy winning Detroit Red Wings in six games in round two, advancing to the Western Conference finals against the San Jose Sharks. They continued their momentum by ousting the Sharks in six games to advance to the Stanley Cup Finals against the Tampa Bay Lightning. Their playoff run fell one win short, losing 2–1 in game seven, giving the Lightning their first Stanley Cup.
- 2005–06 Edmonton Oilers — The eighth seed of the Western Conference, the Oilers upset the Presidents' Trophy winning Detroit Red Wings in six games in round one of the 2006 playoffs. The Oilers then came back from a 2 games to 0 series deficit to defeat the San Jose Sharks in six games in round two. After this, Edmonton defeated the Anaheim Ducks in just five games in the Western Conference finals, becoming the first eighth-seeded team to ever advance to play in the Stanley Cup Finals, where they played the Eastern Conference champion Carolina Hurricanes. The Hurricanes won three of the first four games to take a 3 games to 1 series lead, but the Oilers won the next two to force a winner-take-all game seven in Raleigh, North Carolina. However, the Oilers' luck finally ran out and they lost the game 3–1, giving the Hurricanes their first Stanley Cup.
- 2009–10 Philadelphia Flyers — The Flyers, inconsistent for much of the season and battling injuries that left them at one point starting their fourth string goaltender (Johan Backlund), qualified for the Stanley Cup playoffs in the final game of the season in a shootout win against their rival New York Rangers. As the seventh seed, the Flyers upset the New Jersey Devils in five games in the first round. In the second round, the Flyers defeated the Boston Bruins in seven games, in the process becoming only the fourth team in sports history to win a series in which they had trailed 3 games to 0 at one point. In the Eastern Conference finals, they needed just five games to defeat the eighth-seeded Montreal Canadiens, who had been on something of a Cinderella run themselves; the Canadiens had defeated the top seeded Washington Capitals and defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins. In the finals, the Flyers lost in six games to the Chicago Blackhawks, who won their first Stanley Cup in 49 years.
- 2016–17 Nashville Predators — The Predators, who were dead last in the NHL's Western Conference at one point in the season, qualified for the Stanley Cup playoffs as the second wild card. As the eighth seed, they swept the top-seeded Chicago Blackhawks in the first round. They would then defeat the St. Louis Blues in six games in the second round to advance to their first conference final in franchise history, in which they took down the Anaheim Ducks in six games. However, in the Stanley Cup Finals, the Predators were defeated in six games by the Pittsburgh Penguins, who became the first team to win back-to-back Stanley Cup championships since the Detroit Red Wings accomplished the feat in 1997 and 1998.
- 2017–18 Vegas Golden Knights — As a new expansion team added to the NHL at the start of the 2017–18 season, composed of at least one player from each of the other 30 NHL teams, the Golden Knights were anticipated to have a very low chance to win the Stanley Cup or even reach the finals, with some even believing that they would have a dismal first season. However, Vegas unexpectedly played very well through the regular season, taking control of the Pacific Division and earning 109 points by the time the Stanley Cup playoffs began. The Golden Knights also made an improbable run to the Stanley Cup Finals, defeating the Los Angeles Kings, the San Jose Sharks and the Winnipeg Jets while losing only three games. Entering the Finals against the Washington Capitals, the Golden Knights boasted a seemingly impregnable defense, with a low goals against average and four shutouts, in part due to Marc-André Fleury's impeccable goaltending. However, such defense soon proved to be no match for the determined and potent Capitals, who overwhelmed the Golden Knights in five games, with at least three goals per game, to claim their first Stanley Cup.
- 2019–20 Dallas Stars — The Stars, who had finished fourth in the Central Division during the previous season, were entering their second season under head coach Jim Montgomery when he was terminated from the organization in December 2019 for unprofessional behavior that was inconsistent with the team. Rick Bowness would take over as the head coach of the team; he would lead the Stars to a 4–2 win over the Nashville Predators in the Winter Classic. The victory would mark the start of a comeback run that would ultimately result in a fourth-place finish in the Western Conference standings by the time the season was curtailed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Dallas would qualify for the playoffs as the third seed in the Western Conference after finishing third in the round-robin round. Dallas defeated the Calgary Flames in six games in the first round. In the second round against the Colorado Avalanche, the Stars held a 3–1 series lead before Colorado forced a seventh game in the series; Dallas would win the seventh game in overtime to advance to the conference finals, where they would face the Vegas Golden Knights, who won their first conference final two seasons earlier and were heavily favored to advance to the finals. Dallas would defeat Vegas in five games in the conference finals to advance to their first Stanley Cup Final since 2000, but ultimately went on to lose to the Tampa Bay Lightning in six games.
- 2020–21 Montreal Canadiens — After a 9–5–4 start early in the season, Montreal fired head coach Claude Julien and assistant Kirk Muller, replacing them with assistant Dominique Ducharme. Despite finishing 24–21–11 in the regular season, the Canadiens qualified for the Stanley Cup playoffs, clinching the fourth and final spot in the North Division. In the playoffs, they overcame a 3–1 deficit to defeat the Toronto Maple Leafs in the first round, followed by a sweep of the Winnipeg Jets in the second round. In the Stanley Cup Semifinals, they defeated the Vegas Golden Knights in six games to become the first Canadian team to advance to the Stanley Cup Finals since the 2010–11 Vancouver Canucks, and marking their first trip to the Stanley Cup Finals since 1993, where they were the last Canadian team to win the Stanley Cup. However, the Canadiens would lose the Stanley Cup Finals in five games as the Tampa Bay Lightning won their second straight Stanley Cup.
- North Queensland Cowboys — In 2004, the North Queensland Cowboys reached the finals for the first time in their 10-year history. 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. 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. However their run would be ended with a close 19–16 defeat by the Sydney Roosters in the preliminary final.
- Wests Tigers — 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. This was followed up with a 34–6 victory over the Brisbane Broncos in the second week before going on to upset the premiership favourites St. George Illawarra 20–12 in the preliminary final. 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.
- Sydney Roosters — 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. 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.