Tales of Bittersweet Loyalty

Perfecting the Top 10: Championship Upsets of the 21st Century

July 9, 2011

In discussing who we are here at Perfecting the Upset, we argue that, “Everyone believes in miracles whether they admit it or not.  And for a sports fan, miracles happen when someone pulls off the perfect upset: That team nobody saw coming against the team who we thought would take it all.” But there’s an additional curl in this fabric that can make some victories considerably more satisfying because of their rarity: Upsets in championships.  In order for this to happen, there has to be perfect harmony in the cosmos.  Not only does David have to first make his way through the rubble, but he also needs Goliath to be waiting at the end of the tunnel.  There are some quite unfortunate cases where, if Goliath was waiting, the story could have been sweeter.  After all, Portsmouth winning the FA Cup in 2008 sounds like a story to tell until you remember they defeated a team from a lower division (Cardiff City) in the finals.

So, what better way to continue our Perfecting the Top 10 series than to count down the ten most memorable championship upsets of the 21st century?  In coming up with the list, more popular leagues were given greater weight.  They had to be head-to-head matchups, not just against the field.  Attention was given to genuine upsets, not those simply perceived as such by the sensationalist media (such as a formidable Diamondbacks team defeating an equally-talented Yankees team).  And finally, additional credence was given to teams with legacy: It’s one thing defeating the flavour-of-the-year, but it’s another to defeat a Goliath packing a dynasty in his holster.

10. Tampa Bay Buccaneers 48 – Oakland Raiders 21 (Super Bowl XXXVII) »  At age 37, Rich Gannon threw for 4,689 yards, won the league MVP and took the Raiders to their first Super Bowl since 1983.  The oddsmakers favored their top-rated offense by 4 against Jon Gruden’s top-rated defense, but by the time the third quarter ended, it was obvious that defense did, in fact, win championships.  Gruden had gotten revenge against his previous team, and the Al Davis affliction in sunny California continued to persist.

9. Florida Gators 41 – Ohio State Buckeyes 14 (2007 BCS National Championship Game) »  Troy Smith, Ted Ginn and Anthony Gonzalez made the Buckeyes look invincible throughout the season (which included a 24-7 dismantling of defending champions from the University of Texas).  Aside from a late game comeback by rival Michigan, Ohio State was never in danger of losing a game.  This was supposed to be one of the most lopsided deciding bowl games ever.  But Chris Leak, Percy Harvin and some fellow named Tim Tebow had other ideas.  After the Buckeyes returned the initial kickoff, Harvin matched—and it was a cakewalk for the remainder.  It was lopsided, alright, just on the other side.

8. Florida Marlins 4 – New York Yankees 2 (2003 World Series) »  Money doesn’t always make you happy, and money definitely can’t buy you championships.  The Marlins shocked the Yankees (and their $110 million difference in payroll) by riding Josh Beckett to the glory land for the second time in seven years.  Along the way, though, they had some extra help from a Cubs fan whose memorabilia-hogging instincts kept the grand prize away for his cursed team.

7. Greece 1 – Portugal 0 (Euro 2004) »  Greece’s improbable run at Euro 2004 was capped with a second defeat of Luiz Felipe Scolari’s Portuguese squad, headlined by Luis Figo and Cristiano Ronaldo, who failed to avenge their opening day loss.  Along the way, they also beat France and England.  It’s possible to pad this further, but seriously, there shouldn’t be any other data necessary: Greece won Euro 2004 by defeating three powerhouses four times total.  That’s the math, and that’s pretty amazing.

6. Maria Sharapova (6-1, 6-4) over Serena Williams (2004 Wimbledon) »  Out of nowhere, 13th seeded, 17-year-old Sharapova beats two-time defending champion and #1 seed Williams in straight sets.  This was a passing of the torch, of sorts, not unlike Federer beating Sampras in 2001.  Of course, Serena continued her dominance for a while longer, but she’ll never forget the spark she provided to Sharapova’s career at Centre Court.

5. Y.E. Yang (-8) over Tiger Woods (-5) (2009 PGA Championship) »  Golf isn’t a head-to-head sport, but when you take into effect that Yang and Woods were paired up for the final round at the Hazeltine National Golf Club, you can imagine how intense it must have been throughout the day.  Tiger entered the day with a 2 shot lead before ending the day +3, in the process witnessing the first Asian-born player to win a major on the PGA tour.  This was all the more impressive as Yang didn’t start playing golf until age 19.  The maturing prodigy was defeated by the budding late-bloomer.

4. Texas 41 – USC 38 (2006 Rose Bowl/BCS National Championship Game) »  Matt Leinart this.  Reggie Bush that.  For all the hype the media loves to generate, there’s probably no doubt amongst college football fanatics that this Trojans team was one of the greatest to ever play.  But there was one man who, frankly, didn’t give a damn: Vince Young.  He had put in the single greatest individual performance I’ve ever witnessed by the time he crossed into the endzone on 4th and 2.  While the awe and magic of a game like this may never again be repeated, Young’s lesson in media-founded histrionics will always be remembered.

3. Patriots 20 – Rams 17 (Super Bowl XXXVI) »  September 11 made New York City a solemn place to live.  But for some reason, it felt as if supporting these mediocre “Patriots” would make us all happier.  So, we did.  Against “the Greatest Show on Turf.”  Little did we know that we’d witness the genesis of one of the most hated dynasties in sports history, and that of a man who would end up marrying the world’s highest-paid supermodel and have hair softer than Justin Bieber.

2. Giants 17 – Patriots 14 (Super Bowl XLII) »  18-1.

1. Detroit Pistons 4 – Los Angeles Lakers 1 (2004 NBA Finals) »  Many would contest that the Giants’ defeat of the previously undefeated Patriots should be #1.  But I can’t help but argue for these pesky, blue-collar boys from Detroit.  Not only did the Pistons embody everything the Motor City stood for, they outright dominated a stacked team filled with four future Hall-of-Famers.  Keeping the Lakers to 68 points in a game?  That’s a team with Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant.  Yet they never broke 100 points.  Winning one game is great.  But winning a championship in this commanding a fashion as an underdog?  Incredible. Keeping someone from perfect once has some luck involved.  But keeping a great team from reaching its ultimate goal over a seven-game series?  That’s the kind of perseverance and teamwork that makes us believe that miracles are possible.

Championship Upsets of the 21st Century
  • toe

    6th seeded rockets sweep the magic in the finals?!

  • I remember the Detroit – LA series.  Although GP and Malone were past their hall of fame selves, they still were contributors at that point.  With Kobe and Shaq in their primes (albeit feuding for alpha male status) they should have won this series in 5 or 6.   If we were talking about non-championship upsets I would throw in Baron Davis’ Golden State Warriors (8th seed) vs Dirk’s Dallas Mavericks (1st seed) first round playoff series.  I just wanted to throw that out there because of how epic a series that was.

    • The funny thing is, everyone knew there was a solid chance the Warriors would beat the 67-win Mavericks.  The Don Nelson advantage was too much to underestimate, and it showed.  Of the #8 over #1 upsets, nothing will ever top Nuggets over Sonics for me.  This year’s Grizzlies over Spurs wasn’t terribly unpredictable: Memphis had the talent, and the Spurs had tired legs.  And when the Heat gave way to the Knicks, it was during the shortened season, so all the seedings were mildly out of whack to begin with.

      • True about the Warriors / Spurs series, but regardless you are talking about a #1 seed in the west and the league, vs a #8 seed with no real playoff expectations.  Many predicted golden state to have some measure of success but also predicted if Dallas stuck to their strengths and played big on GS’s midget lineup, they would prevail.  Problem was, Donnie Nelson’s small ball would not let post passes come freely and once the ball entered the post finally, it would be swiped at by every one in the vacinity, forcing an outside play with the shotclock winding down.  It was such an awesome series.

        • Let’s not forget: That Warriors team had some very good players.  Between Baron Davis (especially when he’s healthy and playing with motivation), Monta Ellis, Stephen Jackson, Andris Biedrins, Troy Murphy, Jason Richardson and crew, the team had a certain level of depth to go along their small ball routine.  That team was  injury-prone, but ended their season winning 16 of 21 games.  The #8 seed was a product of circumstance than a proper representation of talent.

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