In sports, the terms Cinderella, "Cinderella story", and Cinderella team are used to refer to situations in which competitors achieve far greater success than would reasonably have been expected. 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 Cinderella, a well-known European folk tale embodying a myth-element of unjust oppression/triumphant reward. The title character is a woman living in unfortunate circumstances that are suddenly changed to remarkable fortune. In a sporting context the term has been used at least since 1939, but came into widespread usage in 1950, when the Disney movie came out that year, and in reference to City College of New York, the unexpected winners of the NCAA Men's Basketball championship also that year. The term was used by Bill Murray in the 1980 hit movie Caddyshack where he pretends as the announcer to his own golf fantasy: "Cinderella story. Outta nowhere. A former greenskeeper, now, about to become the Masters champion."
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.
- 1 Examples of "Cinderellas"
- 1.1 American football
- 1.2 Association football
- 1.3 Baseball
- 1.4 Basketball
- 1.5 Canadian football
- 1.6 Ice hockey
- 1.7 Motorsport
- 1.8 Rugby union
- 2 Examples of Cinderellas that did not win the championship
- 3 References
Examples of "Cinderellas"
Many teams are considered "Cinderella teams" when they seemingly overachieve. For example, the Tampa Bay Rays, and the Arizona Cardinals went all the way to their respective leagues' championships in 2008 only to "turn into a pumpkin" at the end. This list is largely confined to "Cinderella teams" that won championships.
- 1968 New York Jets – The AFL Jets, led by quarterback Joe Namath, beat the heavily favored NFL champion Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III. Namath had shockingly guaranteed a Jets win before the game.
- 1980 Oakland Raiders – The Oakland Raiders became the first Wildcard Playoff Team to win the Super Bowl, defeating the Philadelphia Eagles, 27-10 in Super Bowl XV.
- 1999 St. Louis Rams – After losing starting quarterback Trent Green in the pre-season, many suspected the Rams' season was over. However, Green's undrafted backup and eventual NFL MVP Kurt Warner 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 by defeating the Tennessee Titans 23–16 at Super Bowl XXXIV. It also marked the beginning of the Rams' Greatest Show on Turf offense that would last for the next 4 years until the Rams went through a whole decade of mediocrity.
- 2001 New England Patriots – The Patriots began the season 1–3, and lost their starting quarterback Drew Bledsoe in the second game of the season. Tom Brady, a sixth-round, 199th pick in the last year's draft took over as quarterback and led the team to an 11–5 finish, winning the AFC East title. The season ended with a 20–17 upset over the St. Louis Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI. The team had been in a period of decline for several years previously, after making it to Super Bowl XXXI, and had finished 5–11 the previous season. This season marked the beginning of the Patriots' dynasty, as they would win five more titles in the next 17 years.
- 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, and defeated their divisional rival Cincinnati Bengals in the playoffs, and after that 3 other teams who've 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 NFL-AFL merger to win 3 straight playoff games on the road, though this would later be surpassed by the 2007 Giants and 2010 Packers. The Steelers were led by 2004 1st round pick Ben Roethlisberger, whom in only his sophomore year, led the Steelers to their 5th Super Bowl title and to a near-perfect 15-1 record in his rookie season.
- 2007 New York Giants – In 2007, the 5th-seeded Giants, who went 10–6 in the regular season, won four playoff games on the road, including wins over the Dallas Cowboys and Green Bay Packers, and culminating in a win over the 18–0 New England Patriots 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 in Super Bowl XLVI.
- 2010 Green Bay Packers – After trading star quarterback Brett Favre 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 and 6th seed in the National Football Conference. 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 all on the road to make Super Bowl XLV against the Pittsburgh Steelers, in which the Packers won 31–25, their fourth Super Bowl title in franchise history. This also made the Packers the third team to win three straight playoff games on the road (the others being the 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 Divisional round.
- 2012 Baltimore Ravens – The Ravens failed to improve on their 12–4 record from the previous season that saw them getting defeated by 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, led by star quarterback Peyton Manning, and the Patriots to make Super Bowl XLVII against the San Francisco 49ers. The Ravens won their second title in franchise history and it paralleled their 2000 season when they won Super Bowl XXXV in what was only their first playoff appearance in franchise history. It made the Ravens the only NFL team to win all of its Super Bowl appearances, replacing the 49ers.
- 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 by going 11–2, injuries caught up to them as Wentz was ruled out for the season following a torn ACL in Week 14. Franchise left-tackle Jason Peters and linebacker Jordan Hicks missed extended periods of time. Backup quarterback Nick Foles took the reins from Wentz and led Philadelphia to an upset victory over the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LII, where he was named Most Valuable Player and was the first backup quarterback to achieve this award since his opponent, Tom Brady, did so in Super Bowl XXXVI.
- Northwestern Wildcats (1995) – After 23 consecutive losing seasons, the Wildcats won their first Big Ten Conference title since 1936 and recorded their first 10-win season since 1903. They went to the Rose Bowl for the first time ever, but lost a close game to USC, 41–32.
- Wake Forest Demon Deacons (2006) – Wake Forest won the Atlantic Coast Conference title after being picked by the media to finish last in their division, and after losing their starting quarterback, starting running back, and starting left offensive tackle to injuries. 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 1-A (FBS) play, the Broncos staged a last-minute regulation rally and some trick plays to defeat perennial powerhouse Oklahoma Sooners in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl. The final score was 43-42. The win capped a 13-0 season for them.
- Washington Valor (2018) – The Valor finished the regular season with a 2–10 record, leaving themselves in last place among the four teams competing that season, who all advanced to the league's playoffs. The team defeated the Albany Empire 103–97 in a two-game total points series before facing the Baltimore Brigade in ArenaBowl XXXI. With the Valor's 69–55 victory over the Brigade in the championship game, they became the first team with a regular season winning percentage lower than .250 to win a championship in the history of the AFL.
- Denmark (Euro 92) – Denmark won Euro 92 after originally failing to qualify. They qualified for the tournament as a replacement team after Yugoslavia, who had initially won the group, was the subject of United Nations sporting sanctions following its civil war. They advanced from the group stage after winning their last match against France and then through goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel saving a penalty in the semifinal penalty shoot-out from Marco van Basten of defending European champions, the Netherlands. They won the tournament by defeating reigning world champions Germany 2–0 in the final.
- Greece (Euro 2004) – Greece were the second-least favorite in the competition to win, with Latvia being the least favorite. Greece was also considered as outsiders and underdogs and was given odds of 150-1 of winning before the tournament. They were drawn in Group A, ending up with Portugal, Spain, and Russia, a "group of death"; Portugal, hosts and favourites to win, Spain, former European champions, and Russia, who won the first-ever Euro as the Soviet Union. Very few people expected Greece to proceed to the quarterfinals, let alone win the tournament. Greece won the final 1–0, defying odds of 80–1 from the beginning of the tournament, with Angelos Charisteas scoring the winning goal in the 57th minute. While the dedication of the side and the victory were celebrated by their nation, Greece were dubbed by Barry Glendenning of The Guardian as "the only underdogs in history that everyone wants to see get beaten", due to Greece's rough defensive strategy.
- Leicester City F.C. (2015–16 Premier League) – Leicester City became 2015–16 Premier League champions, the first in their 132-year history, two seasons after gaining promotion to the Premier League in which they narrowly avoided relegation on their return. Bookmakers had them at 5,000-1 odds to win the title and forced bookmakers to payout £25 million, which is the biggest loss on a sporting event in British history.
- New York Mets (1969) – The Mets won their first ever World Series title after beating 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.
- Florida Marlins (2003) – The Marlins used a strong second half to win the World Series, after upsets against the San Francisco Giants, the Chicago Cubs, and the New York Yankees. The NLCS was especially memorable for the Marlins' rally and another Cubs collapse, as it extended the alleged Curse of the Billy Goat.
- Boston Red Sox (2004) – The 2004 Red Sox ended an 86-year World Series drought by winning eight straight games to come back from a 3-0 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 beat a NY 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 3-0 deficit in a 7-game series and only the third team in Major American professional sports to achieve such a feat.
- 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.
- Boston Celtics (1969) – The Boston Celtics were coming off a championship against Jerry West, Elgin Baylor and the Los Angeles Lakers and superstar Center Bill Russell was heading into what would be his final year. The aging Celtics had won 10 of the previous 12 NBA Championships, but with offensive powerhouse Wilt Chamberlain joining the already powerful Lakers, it appeared as if the Celtics, who were practically limping into the finals, would easily be taken care of the old squad. The Celtics fell into a quick 3-2 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.
- Houston Rockets (1995) – The Rockets were the 6th seeded team in the 1995 NBA Playoffs and managed to become the champions for the second straight year in the 1995 NBA Finals by sweeping Shaquille O'Neal and the Orlando Magic, setting playoff records for most games won on the road as well as defeating three 60-win teams en route to defending their championship.
- Detroit Pistons (2004) - 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 54-28 and 3rd seed in 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 beat them in 5 games and ended a 14-year championship drought. The Pistons would make the Finals the next year but would lose to the San Antonio Spurs in 7 games.
- Dallas Mavericks (2011) - After 4 years of playoff disappointments (including their 2007 season when they were upset by the 8th seeded Golden State Warriors), the Mavericks, led by Dirk Nowitzki finished the regular season 57-25 and 3rd seed in the Western Conference and defeated the Portland Trail Blazers, swept the back-to-back defending champion Los Angeles Lakers, and the Oklahoma City Thunder 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 Mavs would defeat the Heat in 6 games, claiming their first title in franchise history. In addition, the Mavs also beat 5 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).
- Cleveland Cavaliers (2016) - After LeBron James lost back-to-back Finals the last 2 years, the Cavaliers finished the 2016 season with a 57-25 record and hired assistant Tyronn Lue as their new head coach. The Cavs would defeat the Detroit Pistons, Atlanta Hawks, and Toronto Raptors to reach the Finals against the Golden State Warriors for the second straight year. The Warriors, whom had finished with the best-ever regular season record of 73-9, led the series 3-1 until the Cavs overcame that deficit 3 more games 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 3-1 deficit.
- 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 Akeem 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.
- 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.
- Chicago Black Hawks (1938) – 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.
- Los Angeles Kings (2012) – The first eight seed of a 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 eliminate the third seed Phoenix Coyotes in 5 games, going undefeated on the road in all 3 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.
- Washington Capitals (2018) – After years of playoff failure under the leadership of captain Alexander Ovechkin, many expected the Capitals to miss the 2018 Stanley Cup playoffs. During the offseason, 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 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 2-0 series deficit against the Columbus Blue Jackets in round one, a limited roster against the defending back-to-back champion Pittsburgh Penguins in round two, and the perils of choking to the heavily favored, conference-leading Tampa Bay Lightning in the conference final, to reach the Stanley Cup Finals against the Vegas Golden Knights, which they had yet to beat in a game. After dropping the first game of the finals, the Capitals ended their misery with four consecutive wins to defeat the 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.
- United States men's national ice hockey team (1980) – 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.
- Brawn GP – Prior to the 2009 Formula One season, Honda Racing F1 announced their withdrawal from Formula 1. It had been a fully factory supported team that had achieved lacklustre results despite a $300 million budget and staff of 700. A few weeks before the season was about to start, the team was subject to a management buyout by Ross Brawn and chief executive Nick Fry and was subsequently rebranded as Brawn GP. The team were not expected to be competitive following the loss of 270 jobs, necessary to ensure the teams survival and having only three cars available as opposed to eight in better funded teams. The team began its season with Jenson Button and Rubens Barrichello scoring a 1–2 victory respectively with Button starting from pole. The team then won 5 of the 6 following races, all by Button before the well funded and factory supported opposition began to catch-up. By the end of the season, two further victories from Barrichello was enough for the team to take the Constructor's Championship. Button won the driver's title.
- 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.
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.
- 1987 Minnesota Vikings - The Vikings finished the 1987 strike shortened NFL season with a mediocre 8-7 record and barely qualified for the 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 1-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 3rd consecutive upset, as they lost to the Washington Redskins by a score of 17-10.
- 2003 Carolina Panthers - The Panthers, just two seasons after holding the league's worst record at 1-15, finished the 2003 season at 11-5, clinching their 2nd playoff appearance in franchise history and easily defeated the Dallas Cowboys, St. Louis Rams, and Philadelphia Eagles to reach 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 ran out, handing his team their 2nd title in 3 years.
- 2004 St. Louis Rams - Despite finishing with a mediocre 8-8 record, the Rams made the playoffs for the 5th time in 6 years. They were able to sweep their division rival Seattle Seahawks both in the regular season and in the Wild Card round, before falling to the Atlanta Falcons 17-47 in the divisional round. This was the club's final playoff appearance in St. Louis, as they didn't make 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.
- 2008 Arizona Cardinals - The Cardinals returned to the playoffs for the first time in ten years with a 9-7 record and easily defeated the Atlanta Falcons, Carolina Panthers, and Philadelphia Eagles to reach Super Bowl XLIII against the Pittsburgh Steelers. During the 4th quarter, the Cardinals nearly pulled a comeback win, coming from behind 20-7 to lead 23-20 until Steelers wide receiver Santonio Holmes delivered a game-winning catch with less than a minute left to win the Steelers their 6th title in franchise history, and extended the Cardinals' championship drought to 62 years.
- 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 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, 3rd seed in the AFC, and won the AFC East, making them the only team in the NFL to win their division after winning only one game the season before. It also marked the last non-Patriot title in the AFC East. Despite the surprising turnaround, the Dolphins would fall to the Baltimore Ravens in the Wild Card Round. Newly acquired quarterback Chad Pennington was named NFL Comeback Player of the Year and was tied for second for the 2008 AP NFL MVP with Atlanta Falcons running back Michael Turner.
- 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 3-45), and nearly the Pittsburgh Steelers on the road, which ended their hopes of joining the 2005 Steelers, 2007 Giants, and 2010 Packers as the only NFL teams to win 3 straight playoff games on the road. They also failed to make their first Super Bowl since 1968. The 2010 Jets were led by the sophomore duo of Rex Ryan and Mark Sanchez.
- 2016 Atlanta Falcons - The Falcons entered the playoffs for the first time in four years with an 11-5 record and easily defeated the Seattle Seahawks and Green Bay Packers to reach 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.
- 2017 Jacksonville Jaguars - The Jaguars returned to the playoffs for the first time in 10 years and finished 10-6 and finished 3rd in the AFC. Led by first-year head coach Doug Marrone, the Jaguars entered the Wild Card round and defeated the Buffalo Bills, whom had returned to the playoffs for the first time in 18 years. The Jaguars would also defeat the 13-3 Pittsburgh Steelers on the road in the Divisional round and in the AFC Championship Game, nearly beat the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots on the road (when they led 20-10 during the 4th quarter). It was the Jaguars' first AFC Championship 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 made it to the playoffs for the first time since 2014, with a 10-6 record. They started the season 1-5, but began a 5 game winning streak, making it possible for Andrew Luck, who was coming off a one year injury, to make it to the playoffs. In the playoffs, they beat the Houston Texans 21-7, before losing to the Kansas City Chiefs 13-31.
- Western Michigan Broncos (2016)
- North Korea (1966) - North Korea played their matches at Middlesbrough's home ground Ayresome Park, when the team caused an upset, beating Italy 1–0 to gain a spot in the quarterfinals. There, they lost 5–3 to Portugal, despite taking a 3–0 lead after thirty minutes. The North Korea team was the first team from outside Europe or the Americas to progress beyond the first round of the World Cup finals. In a 1999 documentary featuring interviews with surviving members of the team, they describe themselves as having been welcomed home as national heroes.
- Blyth Spartans (1977–78) – Blyth Spartans reached the last sixteen of the FA Cup, after starting in the first qualifying round of the competition, nine rounds prior. They became only the third non-league side to reach the FA Cup fifth round since the end of the second World War. The side was composed of part-time players earning £7 per week. They were eventually knocked out by Wrexham, following a replay at St James' Park.
- Algeria (1982) - Algeria caused what was described as the "greatest World Cup upset since North Korea beat Italy in 1966" on the first day of the tournament with a 2–1 victory over the reigning European champions, West Germany. A defeat by Austria and a win against Chile followed, with the infamous match between Austria and West Germany denying them the chance to go to the next round. Nevertheless, Algeria became the first ever African and Arab team to win twice at a World Cup.
- Barnsley (2008) – Barnsley advanced to the semifinals of the FA Cup after knocking out Liverpool and Chelsea, two of the top clubs in English football, in the last two rounds. However, they lost the semifinals to Cardiff City.
- Croatia (2018) - Despite a poor showing in their friendly matches, Croatia began their 2018 World Cup campaign by going undefeated in the 3-game group stage against Nigeria, Argentina and Iceland. Although it had been twenty years since the team ever won a knockout match in a World Cup, the Croatians defeated the Danish and the hosting Russians with back-to-back shootout wins, an unprecedented accomplishment, to reach the semifinals against England, which they also defeated in overtime. After having to win three straight matches beyond regulation in the knockout stage, the Croatians came up short in the finals against the French, in a 4-2 defeat. It was the Croatians' first time making the finals since the nation's breakup from Yugoslavia in 1992.
- Colorado Rockies (2007) - On September 16, the Rockies had a record of 76-72 and were 4 1/2 games out of the NL Wild Card. However, Colorado went on a hot streak, winning 14 of their last 15 games of the season to force a one-game playoff for the wild card berth, which they won in 13 innings. 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.
- Tampa Bay Rays (2008) – 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 beat 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.
- Kansas City Royals (2014) - 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 MLB MVP Mike Trout) and the Baltimore Orioles in the ALCS to reach the World Series, which they lost in seven games to the San Francisco Giants.
- 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, 58-73.
- Virginia Commonwealth University (2011)
- 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 with a score of 68-72.
- 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, namely the Virginia Cavaliers. UMBC's remarkable run ended with a narrow 50-43 loss to 9th-seeded Kansas State in the round of 32.
- Loyola University Chicago (2018) — The Ramblers became the fourth 11th seed to reach the Final Four. In the Final Four, they lost to 3rd-seeded Michigan after leading the game for 30 minutes.
- 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.
- 1975-76 Phoenix Suns – Despite entering the 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, 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 make it to the NBA finals, before losing to the eventual champion San Antonio Spurs, 4 games to 1.
- 2008-09 Orlando Magic - Just a year after winning their first playoff series since 1996 (during the Shaq/Penny era), the Magic made the playoffs for a second straight year, defeating the Philadelphia 76ers, the defending champion Boston Celtics, and the heavily favored Cleveland Cavaliers to reach the Finals against the Los Angeles Lakers in which they lost to the Lakers in 5 games. The Magic were led by Dwight Howard, the top pick in the 2004 NBA Draft whom 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 3 straight years.
- 2015-16 Oklahoma City Thunder - After recently firing head coach Scott Brooks a year before, the Thunder hired long-time Florida Gators coach Billy Donovan as their new head coach, and in his first year, led them to a 55-27 record and to a Western Conference Finals appearance for the 4th time in 5 years. In the playoffs the Thunder beat the 6th seeded Dallas Mavericks, had ended the San Antonio Spurs' Tim Duncan era, and nearly beat the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference Finals when they led the series 3-1. The Warriors that year had finished with the best-ever regular season record at 73-9, surpassing the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls record of 72-10.
- RIT Tigers (2009–2010) In their fifth season of Division I play, the RIT Tigers won the Atlantic Hockey Tournament, receiving their first bid to an NCAA Men's Hockey Tournament. They defeated #1 Denver and #3 University of New Hampshire in the East Regional in Albany, New York to make it to the Frozen Four. They were the only team to make it to the Frozen Four in their first NCAA tournament appearance, as well as the only Atlantic Hockey team to make it to the Frozen Four. They lost to Wisconsin in the Frozen Four semifinals.
- Minnesota North Stars (1981 Stanley Cup Finals)[further explanation needed]
- Vancouver Canucks (1982 Stanley Cup Finals)[further explanation needed]
- Minnesota North Stars (1991 Stanley Cup Finals) - 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 Final to advance to the Stanley Cup Final 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.
- Vancouver Canucks (1994 Stanley Cup Finals) - The seventh seed in the Western Conference upset their division rival the 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 Final against the Toronto Maple Leafs. They continued their momentum by upsetting the Maple Leafs in five games to advance to the 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.
- Carolina Hurricanes (2002 Stanley Cup Finals) – 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.
- Anaheim Mighty Ducks (2003 Stanley Cup Finals) - 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 Ducks then swept another surprising team the Minnesota Wild in the Western Conference Final to advance to the Stanley Cup Finals against the New Jersey Devils. The Ducks fell behind 2-0 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.
- Calgary Flames (2004 Stanley Cup Finals) - The sixth seed in the Western Conference 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 Final 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.
- Edmonton Oilers (2006 Stanley Cup Finals) – The eighth seed of the Western Conference upset the Presidents' Trophy winning Detroit Red Wings in six games in round one of the 2006 playoffs, then came back from a 2-0 series deficit to defeat the San Jose Sharks in six games in round two. After this, they beat the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim in just five games in the Western Conference Final, becoming the first eighth-seeded team to ever reach the Stanley Cup Finals and were on to their seventh championship, where they played the Eastern Conference Champion Carolina Hurricanes. The Hurricanes won three of the first four games to take a 3-1 series lead, but the Oilers won the next two to force a winner-take-all game seven in Carolina. However, the Oilers' luck finally ran out and they lost the game 3-1, giving the Hurricanes their first Stanley Cup.
- Philadelphia Flyers (2010 Stanley Cup Finals) – The Flyers, inconsistent for much of the season and battling injuries that left them at one point starting their 4th choice goaltender (Johan Backlund), qualified for the playoffs in the final game of the season in a shootout against their rival New York Rangers. As the seventh seed, the Flyers upset rivals and Atlantic Division champions, 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 3-0 at one point. In the conference final, they needed just five games to beat 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 overtime to the Chicago Blackhawks in six games, who won their first Stanley Cup in 49 years.
- Nashville Predators (2017 Stanley Cup Finals) – The Predators, who were dead last in the NHL's Western Conference at one point in the season, qualified for the 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 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 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.
- Vegas Golden Knights (2018 Stanley Cup Finals) – As a new 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 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, but they unexpectedly played very well through the regular season, taking control of the Pacific Division and earning 109 points by the time playoffs began. The 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 Knights boasted a seemingly impregnable defense, with a low goals against average and four shutouts, in part due to Marc-Andre Fleury's impeccable goaltending. However, such defense soon proved to be no match for the determined and potent Capitals, who overwhelmed the Knights in five games, with at least three goals per game, to claim their first Stanley Cup.
- Germany men's national ice hockey team (2018 Winter Olympics) - The German ice hockey team had not won an Olympic medal since reunification; its last podium finish was in the 1976 Winter Olympics in Innsbruck, where the West German team won bronze (it had also won bronze at the 1932 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid). At the Pyeongchang Olympics, the German team would eventually make it to the gold medal match, defeating powerhouses Sweden and Canada on the way, only to settle for silver after the Olympic Athletes from Russia scored the game-winning goal in overtime for a 4-3 victory.
- Canada Men's Olympic team 1994 - The Canadian Men's National team was seeded 8th in Lillehammer eventually finishing second losing to the Swedes in a shootout. The team in fact led in the final two minutes of the game only to have their hopes dashed. Eventually Peter Forsberg scored perhaps the most iconic shootout goal in hockey history to give the Swedes the gold in the extra rounds of the shootout. 
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- The 2008 Australian Open was best known for the run into the final of unseeded French player Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. He reached the championship match by defeating four seeded players, including ninth seed Andy Murray in the first round and second seed Rafael Nadal in the semi-finals. Tsonga eventually lost the championship match to Novak Djokovic.
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