Who Saw That Coming? 10 Notable Playoff Upsets from 2000s
On Monday night, the Clemson Tigers upset the status quo by winning a thrilling NCAA national championship game over the undefeated Alabama Crimson Tide.
The defending champs had not lost since Sept. 19, 2015, and another triumph seemed certain when they entered the fourth quarter with a 10-point lead. According to ESPN Stats & Info, the prestigious program had never blown a double-digit in the final period under head coach Nick Saban.
This doesn’t qualify as an earth-shattering upset; the Tigers gave them a tough fight in last year’s title game and returned to the grand stage after obliterating the Ohio State Buckeyes. But most onlookers expected Saban's juggernaut to capture its fifth championship in eight years, especially after gaining a quick 14-0 lead.
Alabama's legacy will remain illustrious, but not every squad can overcome a heartbreaking defeat. With past success simplified into championship counts, plenty of Davids have rewritten history by knocking down Goliaths. In some instances, teams have experienced unexpected jubilation and agony years apart.
Let's look back at the millennium's top postseason upsets, valuing one shocking series or game over a less probable title run.
Detroit Pistons over Los Angeles Lakers (2004 NBA Finals)
Because of star power and past glory, the Los Angeles Lakers losing to the superstarless Detroit Pistons is considered one of the grandest upsets in NBA Finals history. Yet the Pistons concluded the season with just two fewer wins and a higher point differential than their favored opponents in a year with minimal scoring.
Denver Broncos over Pittsburgh Steelers (2011 Wild Card)
The Denver Broncos entered the postseason with an 8-8 record, three-game losing streak and minus-81 point differential. Their starting quarterback, who is now playing baseball, completed less than half (46.5 percent) of his passes during the season.
Yet Tim Tebow Mania reached its peak when he opened overtime with a game-winning touchdown pass to Demaryius Thomas. The 80-yard score eliminated the 12-4 Pittsburgh Steelers, who reached two of the previous three Super Bowls.
Kansas City Royals over Los Angeles Angels (2014 ALDS)
In five years with the best player in baseball guiding their ship, Mike Trout's Los Angeles Angels have yet to win a postseason game. Their only chance came in 2014, when they amassed an MLB-best 98 victories in the regular season.
They were swept by the 89-73 Kansas City Royals, who rallied to win a chaotic American League Wild Card Game over the Oakland Athletics. The Angels produced 18 hits and six runs (one of each from Trout) while the Royals advanced to the World Series.
New York Yankees over Seattle Mariners (2001 ALCS)
The strongest modern MLB dynasty reached its conclusion when the Arizona Diamondbacks beat the New York Yankees in 2001's classic seven-game World Series. A franchise in its fourth season of existence knocked off the Evil Empire, who won four of the past five championships.
That's not the 2001 Yankees upset getting discussed here.
Before making the Fall Classic, New York went toe-to-toe with the Seattle Mariners, who matched the 1906 Chicago Cubs (in 10 more games) with 116 regular-season victories. Led by 242 hits from American League Rookie of the Year and MVP Ichiro Suzuki, they scored 5.72 runs per game with a 117 OPS+, a metric per Baseball-Reference.com that adjusts OPS for the team's ballpark.
It wasn't just Ichiro. In fact, three teammates (Edgar Martinez, Brett Boone and John Olerud) wielded a higher OPS+. Boone, who hit .337/.372/.578 with 37 homers, had a better MVP case than the singles-hitting outfielder. Freddy Garcia, Jamie Moyer and Aaron Sele weren't imposing aces, but they ate up innings and kept scoring in check enough to benefit from bountiful run support.
As strange as it seems to call a three-time reigning champion winning an upset, the Mariners were that good. Despite boasting an impressive 95 wins, the Yankees dipped offensively in 2001, submitting a league-average 100 OPS+.
The Yankees didn't hit much better in the American League Championship Series, but the Mariners' bats (besides Boone) went ice cold. As a team, they hit .211/.289/.345. A hits machine all season, Ichiro delivered just four over five games.
New York's lack of rotation depth mattered less in the postseason, when it leaned on Roger Clemens, Mike Mussina and Andy Pettitte to keep a powerful offense at bay. Arizona's ensuing World Series win went down as an upset, but the 92-70 team was well-equipped for the postseason behind Curt Schilling and former Mariner Randy Johnson.
New England Patriots over St. Louis Rams (Super Bowl XXXVI)
After watching them rule the NFL for the past 15 years, there's nothing shocking now about coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady winning a football game. Back on Feb. 3, 2002, however, their New England Patriots weren't given much of a chance to topple the Greatest Show on Turf.
In a season where no other team amassed 400 points, the 2001 St. Louis Rams tallied 503. Far from a one-trick pony, they also ranked No. 3 in total defense and intercepted Brett Favre six times in a 45-17 divisional-round rout.
The Patriots, on the other hand, finished the season rated No. 19 and 24 in offense and defense, respectively. Although they went 11-3 after Brady replaced the injured Drew Bledsoe, the newcomer was more of a game manager. It showed in Super Bowl XXXVI, when he went 16-of-27 with 145 yards and one touchdown throw.
That was enough. While the Rams gained 160 more yards, they also relinquished three costly turnovers. With 1:21 left in a tie game, Belichick trusted his young quarterback instead of setting up overtime. Brady went 5-of-8 for 53 yards, just enough to put Adam Vinatieri in position for a 48-yard field goal.
New England needed breaks to narrowly overcome a superior opponent, but that's the formula to most great upsets. The first of three Super Bowl victories by three points put the Patriots dynasty in motion, but they sat on the other end of a similar situation six years later.
Edmonton Oilers over Detroit Red Wings (2006 1st Round)
The Detroit Red Wings concluded the 2005-06 season second in both goals scored and allowed. The Edmonton Oilers, meanwhile, placed No. 13 in each category, netting 17 fewer wins and a plus-five scoring margin.
A one-sided matchup on paper turned into a tightly contested opening round where each squad traded double-overtime wins. All six games were determined by one or two goals, yet the Oilers prevailed despite attempting 82 fewer shots.
Fernando Pisani—a seldom used winger who collected a career-high 18 goals during the season—improbably found the net five times. With the series tied at 2-2, he scored three goals over the closing two bouts.
During their active 25-year streak of playoff trips, only the 1995-96 Red Wings accrued more points than their 124 earned 10 years later. They have passed the first round 17 times during that span.
The Oilers rolled into the Stanley Cup Finals, where the Carolina Hurricanes blocked the franchise from snatching its first title since 1990. They have yet to return to the playoffs, but that should change as soon as this season behind young phenom Connor McDavid.
St. Louis Cardinals over New York Mets, Detroit Tigers (2006 NLCS, World Series)
The St. Louis Cardinals were extremely fortunate to make the 2006 playoffs. They won the National League Central with 83 victories, a lower tally than five teams who missed the postseason. Despite MLB adding a second wild-card spot in 2012, no team has since advanced with as few wins.
Advancing to the National League Championship Series was a victory in itself for a club with no business still playing. Their journey should have halted against the 97-win New York Mets, who ended the Atlanta Braves' 11-year reign as NL East champions. In addition to bringing aboard star sluggers Carlos Beltran and Carlos Delgado, they received breakout campaigns from young stars David Wright and Jose Reyes.
Yet Jeff Suppan—author of a 4.70 career ERA—silenced them to one run in two sensational starts. Despite getting outscored (27-22) during the seven-game series, the Cardinals seized Game 7 with a ninth-inning home run from Yadier Molina. Rookie Adam Wainwright sealed the deal with a strikeout that haunts Mets fans a decade later.
Their reward for upsetting the Mets? A Detroit Tigers squad that surrendered the fewest runs (675) during the regular season. Luckily for the Cardinals, the American League champions self-destructed at the worst time, committing eight errors over an ugly five-game series.
David Eckstein, a 5'6" shortstop often patronized with labels of scrappy and gritty despite his .345 career on-base percentage, received MVP honors even though Molina reached base 10 of 20 times and Scott Rolen recorded a 1.213 OPS.
Five years later, the Cardinals parlayed a 90-win season into another championship. Yet they felt the baseball gods' wrath in 2015, when they notched 100 victories only to get ousted by the Chicago Cubs in the National League Division Series.
Golden State Warriors over Dallas Mavericks (2007 1st Round)
Four years before winning their first and only championship, the Dallas Mavericks notched a franchise-high 67 victories during the 2006-07 regular season. Following an MVP campaign from Dirk Nowitzki, they started the first round against the 42-40 Golden State Warriors.
Per Basketball-Reference.com, Dallas ranked second and fifth in offensive and defensive rating, respectively. Golden State, meanwhile, allowed an NBA-worst 106.9 points per game, a mark bloated by a before-their-time speedy pace.
When the two contrasting styles collided, the Mavericks' slower tempo won out. The two competitors averaged 92.8 possessions per 48 minutes, down from the Warriors' season pace of 99.2. Yet they lost none of their offensive sizzle, scoring 105.2 points per game.
Baron Davis, Stephen Jackson and Jason Richardson played the series of their lives on both ends. Nowitzki, on the other hand, shot a subpar 38.3 percent from the floor, making only four of his 19 three-point attempts.
Unlike many other triumphant underdogs, the Warriors didn't squeak by with a few fortuitous bounces. They ran circles around the Western Conference's top seed, obtaining their four victories by a combined 59 points.
Their improbable run promptly stopped against the Utah Jazz, who were better equipped to exploit their size and defensive deficiencies in the conference semifinals. Nevertheless, those Warriors will always remain remembered as one of five No. 8 seeds to pull off a Round 1 shocker.
New York Giants over New England Patriots (Super Bowl XLII)
One interception. One holding call. One sack. Either one of those, or one less miraculous catch from a previously unknown wide receiver with glue on his helmet, would have cemented the 2007 New England Patriots as the greatest sports team of the 21st century.
Maybe the best ever.
The Patriots became the first NFL squad to run the 16-game season table. Behind a then record-breaking 50 passing touchdowns from Tom Brady, they demolished the opposition with a plus-315 point differential. To put the seismic mark in perspective, the 2016 Patriots, who went 14-2, posted an NFL-best scoring margin of plus-191 points.
Only the New York Giants, holders of a plus-22 scoring margin, stood in the way of immortality. Had Eli Manning not been a highly regarded No. 1 draft pick related to two legendary quarterbacks, the Giants would have benched the fourth-year pro after one of his 20 interceptions.
Here are some of the 24 quarterbacks who finished the 2007 season with a higher passer rating than Manning's 73.9: Sage Rosenfels, Derek Anderson, Jon Kitna, Jason Campbell, Joey Harrington, Damon Huard, Brian Griese and Kyle Boller.
The G-Men, however, wielded a three-man rushing attack (Brandon Jacobs, Derek Ward and Ahmad Bradshaw) and a lethal pass rush led by Michael Strahan, Osi Umenyiora and Justin Tuck. Manning did his part by posting a 95.7 postseason quarterback rating.
After upsetting Brett Favre's Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field to win the NFC, they pulled out another improbable three-point victory over a favored powerhouse. In Brady's first Super Bowl loss, the defense recorded five sacks and stymied the future Hall of Famer to 5.5 yards per pass attempt.
Yet history remembers Manning as the conquering hero for evading a sack, closing his eyes and heaving a deep bomb to David Tyree, which set up a game-winning touchdown pass to Plaxico Burress to seal the 17-14 triumph.
Montreal Canadiens over Washington Capitals (2010 1st Round)
Excluding the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season, no team has reached the Stanley Cup playoffs with fewer points than the 88 accrued by the Montreal Canadiens and Philadelphia Flyers in 2009-10. Against all odds, the two squads met in the conference finals.
Philadelphia advanced to the Stanley Cup Final—where it lost to the Chicago Blackhawks—but Montreal receives recognition for ousting the Washington Capitals in the opening round.
Stuck with the lower seed via tiebreaker, the Canadiens looked doomed against the Capitals, who entered the playoffs brandishing 54 wins and 121 points. They scored 99 more goals than their mismatched opponent, who backed into the postseason despite losing seven of their last 10 games.
To nobody's surprised, Alexander Ovechkin's crew jumped to a 3-1 lead with 20 goals. Series over, right? As Capitals fans know all too well, it takes four wins to advance.
A scorching-hot offense mustered one score in each of the ensuing three games. Backup goalie Carey Price allowed six goals in his lone start for the Canadiens, but Jaroslav Halak netted a 93.9 save percentage. Winger Mike Cammalleri, who produced 50 points during the season, supplied five goals and assist apiece.
This continued a painful trend of close calls for the Capitals, who have lost six seven-game series in the last decade.
Seattle Seahawks vs. New Orleans Saints (2010 Wild Card)
Nobody would now dare to pick against the Seattle Seahawks at home, but their 12th Man had no such aura for 2010's 7-9 club, which won an abysmal NFC West by default.
As division winners, they "earned" first-round hosting duties against the New Orleans Saints, the defending Super Bowl champions who settled for a wild-card spot at 11-5. Location be darned, Drew Brees was expected to squash the undeserving playoff participant like a bug.
In all fairness, the star quarterback did his part, registering 404 passing yards and two touchdowns in hostile territory. The defense, which ranked No. 4 in yards allowed, yielded four passing scores to veteran quarterback Matt Hasselbeck.
That historic carry will stand the test of time, even if Lynch accrued two yards in their divisional-round loss to the Chicago Bears.
Given their minus-97 point differential, the Seahawks were fortunate to even notch seven wins. Per Pro-Football-Reference.com, that lowly scoring margin lent them 5.5 expected victories. The Cincinnati Bengals went 4-12 with a minus-73 point differential that year.
Yet strange things happen in a single-elimination tournament. Seattle, who recently advanced to the second round for the fifth straight postseason, earned each of those playoff bids with at least 10 wins per season.
Memphis Grizzlies over San Antonio Spurs (2011 1st Round)
When tasked to remember an upset from the NBA's 2010-11 postseason, most fans will probably recall the Mavericks upending the Miami Heat's newly formed super trio of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. Yet a more shocking stunner facilitated Dallas' title run.
Dirk Nowitzki's crew didn't need to deal with the top-seeded San Antonio Spurs, who exceeded 60 wins (61) for the third of five times under the Tim Duncan/Gregg Popovich regime. The Memphis Grizzlies instead took care of them with a first-round elimination nobody expected.
Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol outplayed Tim Duncan throughout the series. The power forward provided the defensive-minded team's scoring with 21.5 points per game, and the emerging center posted 14.2 points, 12.3 boards and 1.5 blocks per contest.
After finishing the season second in offensive rating, per Basketball-Reference.com, San Antonio reached triple digits once against Memphis' stingy defense.
The Spurs had not suffered a first-round exit since 2000, when they lost to the Phoenix Suns in a best-of-five format before welcoming Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. For any other organization, that loss would have signaled the downfall of a once dominant dynasty. Not being any other organization, they acquired Kawhi Leonard during the offseason and made two more Finals appearances.
Middle Tennessee over Michigan State (2016 1st Round)
A March Madness mainstay, head coach Tom Izzo's Michigan State Spartans have gone dancing in each of the last 19 NCAA tournaments. Entering 2016's playoff, they reached the Sweet Sixteen in seven of the last eight years, including three Final Four trips.
They looked poised for another deep run behind senior Denzel Valentine, who narrowly edged out Buddy Hield for Associated Press Player of the Year honors. At 29-6 with a No. 5 team ranking on KenPom.com, they earned a No. 2 seed.
They started their slate against the Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders, who hadn't won an NCAA tournament game since 1989. According to ESPN.com's Brian Bennett, 97.8 percent of all ESPN.com brackets had the Spartans advancing to the second round. A significant slice of those pickers probably pegged them to win the whole thing.
The Conference USA club ruined brackets across the globe with a 90-81 upset. Jumping out to a 15-2 lead, they never trailed throughout the stunner.
All five starters—led by Reggie Upshaw’s 21—registered double-digit points and combined to make 11 of 19 three-point attempts. Despite Middle Tennessee's strong shooting throughout the season, Izzo expressed awe over their collective hot hand.
"I'll be honest with you, in my wildest dreams I didn't think they'd hit some of the shots they hit," Izzo said after the loss, per AP's Dave Skretta. "We didn't guard them good, but man, they made some shots."
Sometimes an upset is as simple as making some shots.