Last October, the basement-dwelling Orioles (69-93) were once again microwaving popcorn for the start of the playoffs. Without a winning record since 1997—when Cal Ripken Jr. was still slugging—nobody gave this season's Baltimore bunch a chance.
And then the impossible happened. On September 13, the O's officially ended their streak of 14 straight years with a losing record. And several weeks later, they clinched a playoff berth, reversing their record completely from the previous year (93-69).
Their inspirational and nearly shocking turnaround has us remembering previous underdog stories—tales of teams that escaped anonymity and achieved promise.
Here are the most out-of-nowhere teams in history—the true Cinderella stories.
Coming off a fifth-place finish in 2000, Bill Belichick's first season as coach, the Patriots weren't expected to do much damage in the talented AFC East. And when starting quarterback Drew Bledsoe went down with a season-ending injury in Week 2, any leftover optimism dissipated.
A sixth-round sophomore by the name of Tom Brady, however, would step in and lead the then-0-2 Pats to an 11-5 record and a breathtaking postseason run.
Following the snowy Tuck Rule Game in Massachusetts and an unlikely victory over the Steelers in Pittsburgh, New England visited the Greatest Show on Turf in St. Louis, led by the ferocious tandem of Marshall Faulk and Kurt Warner.
Adam Vinatieri's game-winning kick as time expired in their 20-17 victory would mark the first and only time in Super Bowl history that a game was won by a score on the final play.
They may have lost to Utah in a seven-game second round, but the '94 Nuggets carved their spot in history when they became the first No. 8 seed to upset a No. 1 seed since the NBA instituted its new playoff format in '84.
Squeaking into the playoffs with a 42-40 record, Denver, led by Dikembe Mutombo's beloved finger wag, somehow upset the star-studded Sonics, who were led by Shawn Kemp and Gary "The Glove" Payton. It was a hard-nosed series that had fans clinging to plastic-wrapped sofas everywhere.
In 2008, and for the second consecutive season, the "Amazins" were eliminated from the playoffs on the last day of the regular season by the Florida Marlins. And both collapses gave way to the storming Phillies, who claimed the NL East by three games in the latter.
Without a title since 1980, the apparent Curse of Billy Penn, the focused Phillies nearly swept the Brewers, Dodgers and Rays, respectively, losing only one game each series. Ageless southpaw Jamie Moyer and lefty Cole Hamels combined for 30 wins, and the team got 48 homers from Ryan Howard and 33 apiece from Pat Burrell and Chase Utley. Ingredients to success.
When the Rollie Massimino-coached No. 8 Wildcats upset No. 1 Georgetown, their 22-of-27 shooting from the field (78.6 percent) scraped perfection. Today, the team remains the lowest seed to win the tournament.
And underneath the glory is one small, but notable fact. It was the last game played without the shot clock.
Following a 4-12 season and the omnipresent pleas for unconventional quarterback Tim Tebow, the Broncos were an afterthought entering last year.
A 1-4 start with Kyle Orton at the helm sparked Tebow chants, fans wanting the former Gator. He became starter against the Dolphins in Week 7, before leading Denver to a 7-4 record the rest of the way, albeit losing three of the last four, and securing a playoff berth.
Like a perfect script, Tebow's 316 yards passing highlighted a shocking win over the Steelers. The Patriots would prevent the storybook ending, however, trouncing the Broncos 45-10 in the divisional round. Enter Peyton Manning.
Having not won a World Series title since 1918, the cursed Red Sox were dismissed annually by humored pundits and hateful Yankee fans.
But as a wild card in 2004, the angry and bloodied Sawx swept the AL West champion Anaheim Angels in the divisional round, magically came back from a 3-0 deficit in the championship series against the Bombers and won the World Series over the Cardinals. Curse over.
In defeating four consecutive higher seeds—headlined by a nail-biting victory over the No. 1-seeded Huskies in overtime—George Mason became only the second team in history to make the Final Four as a No. 11 seed. The Patriots had never even reached the Sweet Sixteen.
A loss to the eventual-champion Gators would turn the clock past midnight on this Cinderella story, but George Mason's unexpected carving was complete.
Lacking a winning record since the turn of the century (literally 2000), the '07 Rockies came in with few expectations. Then they won 21 of 22 games in September behind the powerful bats of Matt Holliday and Brad Hawpe and a deep bench, earning a wild-card berth with a franchise-record 90 wins.
A playoff against the Padres featuring the slide that "may not have been" pushed them into the divisional round.
They would sweep the Phillies and Diamondbacks, before getting swept themselves by the Red Sox, who racked up their second title in three years.
Before 1977, the Wimbledon F.C. club was stuck on the amateur level. In 1986, they reached the First Division, and two years later they miraculously upset then-champ Liverpool 1–0 in the FA Cup final. Dons goalkeeper and captain Dave Beasant saved a penalty kick and everything else, while Lawrie Sanchez's header left the stamp.
The team once dubbed "The Crazy Gang" became the second club (after Old Carthusians) to have won both the FA Cup and the FA Amateur Cup (1963).
They might've been respected, with a 26-10 record, but Jim Valvano's '83 Wolfpack defied the odds when they upset Hakeem Olajuwon's talented Houston squad in a magical final.
The sight of Valvano sprinting up the hardwood remains a defining moment.
Standing 10.5 games behind the Braves in late August of last season, the '11 Cards seemed destined for another almost-but-not-quite finish. Few gave them even a breath of optimism.
But the feisty Cardinals would do the impossible and just squeak in as a wild-card team, thanks in part to a monstrous Atlanta collapse. They would soon make their mark, upsetting the Phillies in the divisional round (where the rally squirrel made an appearance) and pounding the Brewers in the championship series, before preparing for the Texas Rangers in the World Series.
Three home runs from Albert Pujols in Game 3 set the tone. Two two-run deficit comebacks—in the bottom of the ninth and 10th innings in Game 6—and an eventual walk-off homer from David Freese in the 11th forced a Game 7. The Cards dominated the final game and got to pop the champagne.
The only No. 16 seed to ever upset a No. 1, the '98 Crimson Tide women did the impossible when they shocked Stanford. A run seemed possible.
Until they lost to No. 9 Arkansas, 82-64, the following round.
Behind the strong and previously unknown right arm of quarterback Kurt Warner, the '99 Rams made the playoffs with a 13-3 record.
They then tripped up the Tampa Bay in a defensive NFC championship game, before epically halting the Titans with a Mike Jones tackle on the one-yard line as time expired to win Super Bowl XXXIV 23-16.
It was then that St. Louis witnessed the greatest show turf had ever hosted.
In only their second participation in the Euro tournament, and their first in 24 years, Greece's underdog national team upset Portugal twice and France and the Czech Republic on the road in 2004.
Coach Otto Rehhagel's directional brilliance and the team's flawless play almost made a joke of the gambling industry, which gave Greece barely a scrape of hope.
New York was led by a fierce defensive rush, while New England had simply cruised to 18-0 behind Tom Brady's brilliance. Few expected the Patriots' dominance to end.
The Giants, however, scripted a different story, as they won three road playoff games en route to arguably the biggest upset in history.
After beating the Bucs, the top-seeded Cowboys and the Packers in the coldest game in Lambeau history, the Giants fought behind David Tyree's helmet reception and Eli Manning's right arm to cut the cord on the Patriots' perfect season..18-1.
Although the NL East-winning Nats certainly deserve some love, their 80 wins last year offered at least a bit of optimism. The 69-93 Orioles, however, always seemed destined for the AL East basement.
But the chemistry-flooded Os—feeding off career years from every offensive player not named Brian Roberts, a crafty pitching staff and Manny Machado's youthful exuberance—would battle for their division's top spot throughout the year, eventually settling for a wild-card berth and an upcoming matchup with the Rangers in a one-game, do-or-die playoff.
Their script is still being written thanks to consistent extra-inning dominance.
A meager enrollment of 161 didn't stop the Milan Indians from achieving the impossible in 1954. The future inspiration for the iconic film Hoosiers, Milan became the smallest school ever to win a single-class state basketball title in Indiana.
Their upset of Muncie Central in the finals, which denied their illustrious opponents a fifth title, was capped by a last-second shot from the eventual Trester Award winner, Bobby Plump.
Featuring unknown college players and gritty no-names, the 1980 U.S. men's hockey team turned hopes and dreams into realities during their round-robin Olympic game against the massively favored Soviets.
Down 3-2 in the third, the Herb Brooks-led Americans would come roaring back with two unanswered goals to secure a 4-3 victory. They would beat Finland in their next, and last, match to bring home the gold medal.
Coined the Amazins by former coach Casey Stengel, the Mets came into 1969 having never finished with a winning record (since their inaugural 1962 season). Yet 100 wins behind sluggers Tommie Agee and Cleon Jones and the hurling prowess of "Tom Terrific" Seaver and Jerry Koosman was all they'd need for a magical postseason run.
The pitching-heavy Orioles, considered the favorites in the World Series, would lose in five games to their energetic counterparts. Mets win the first of two unexpected titles.
Before becoming the first eighth seed to win the Stanley Cup, the '12 Kings scraped the edge of dominance with wallpaper-tight goaltending from Jonathan Quick and a rejuvenated Jeff Carter (whom they traded for in February) and typically lethal Anze Kopitar.
The No. 8 underdogs went on to beat the No. 1 Canucks, No. 2 Blues and No. 3 Coyotes, before essentially trouncing the Devils in the Finals. Not even Darryl Sutter, who replaced former coach Terry Murray in December, could've seen this coming.
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