San Francisco 49ers join list of top championship comebacks ESPN logo
Tuesday, February 6, 2024

The San Francisco 49ers made history Sunday night.

After falling behind 24-7 to the Detroit Lions at halftime of the NFC Championship Game, the 49ers became the first team to overcome a seemingly insurmountable second-half deficit.

San Francisco opened the second half with 27 consecutive points en route to a 34-31 victory. The Niners' 17-point comeback is the largest halftime deficit overcome in NFL conference championship history and tied for the third-largest rally overall in a conference title game.

The 49ers join a list of legendary athletes and teams who triumphed when the odds were against them. Here are some of the most memorable since the turn of the century.

Boston Red Sox, 2004 American League Championship Series

The New York Yankees held a 3-0 series edge against their hated rivals and brought in Mariano Rivera to protect a 4-3 lead in the ninth inning of Game 4. Kevin Millar worked a walk against Rivera in the ninth, Dave Roberts came in to pinch run and just barely stole second base, and Bill Mueller singled Roberts home to tie it all up. David Ortiz hit one of his many walk-off home runs in extra innings, and the comeback was on. Ortiz did it again in Game 5, this time knocking in Johnny Damon for the winning run in the 14th inning. Curt Schilling got a win with a bloody sock in Game 6, and the Red Sox ended things by blowing out the Yankees 10-3 in Game 7. Boston crushed the St. Louis Cardinals to win the 2004 World Series and snap its 86-year championship drought.

This was the first of a few curse-breaking or drought-ending runs. The 2016 Chicago Cubs did it in the World Series and won their first title since 1908. The 2020 Los Angeles Dodgers trailed 3-1 to the Atlanta Braves in the NLCS before rallying. L.A. would later win the World Series, its first since 1988.

In Major League Baseball, 14 teams since 1925 have come back from a 3-0 or 3-1 deficit to win a series. Six of those came in the World Series. The 1985 Kansas City Royals overcame 3-1 deficits in the ALCS and World Series. The 2016 Cubs are the most recent team to overcome a 3-1 deficit to win the World Series. Since 2003, there have been six 3-1 comebacks, and each of those teams went on to win it all.

Los Angeles Kings, 2014 Western Conference first round

The Kings ended up winning the 2014 Stanley Cup, but they were almost a footnote in the story of that season's playoffs. Down 3-0 to the San Jose Sharks, the Kings came roaring back, outscoring the Sharks 18-5 in Games 4 through 7. Two members of the Kings, Mike Richards and Jeff Carter, were also part of the Philadelphia Flyers squad that came back from a 3-0 deficit against the Boston Bruins in the 2010 Eastern Conference semifinals. The Kings are the most recent team to face a 3-0 series deficit and go on to win a title.

While Boston's NBA team was on the right side of the comeback this postseason, its hockey team wasn't so fortunate. The Bruins, who set the league record for wins and points in a season, blew a 3-1 lead to the Florida Panthers in the first round of the 2023 Stanley Cup playoffs.

In all, 32 NHL teams in history have rallied to win a series after going down 3-1. The 1941-42 Toronto Maple Leafs are the only team to do it in the Stanley Cup Final, rallying from a 3-0 deficit to beat the Detroit Red Wings.

Cleveland Cavaliers, 2016 NBA Finals

The Golden State Warriors went 73-9 in the 2015-16 regular season, topping the Chicago Bulls' record of 72-10 in 1995-96. It looked as if they were going to cement their legacy as the greatest team in NBA history after going up 3-1 on the Cavaliers in the NBA Finals ... but LeBron James had other ideas. He and Kyrie Irving scored 41 points apiece in Game 5, then LeBron added another 41 in Game 6. But it was in Game 7 -- a hard-fought match that wasn't decided until the final minute -- where LeBron delivered perhaps his most clutch play of all time, denying Andre Iguodala with "The Block" to keep the game tied and allow Irving to make a go-ahead 3-pointer to give the Cavaliers the lead for good.

The 2016 Cavs are the only team to overcome a 3-1 deficit to win the NBA Finals.

New England Patriots, Super Bowl LI

The Atlanta Falcons held a 28-3 lead over the Patriots midway through the third quarter, and you'd have been forgiven for assuming the game was effectively over. As the meme goes, however, you never want to count out Touchdown Tom. Tom Brady led his squad to 25 unanswered points, the defense made several key stops and takeaways, and the Patriots won the fifth Super Bowl title of the Brady-Belichick dynasty.

Tiger Woods, 2019 Masters

Injuries, scandal and the toll of age had Tiger Woods stuck at 14 career majors, and after 2008, it looked like that would be his final tally. That was until the 2019 Masters tournament. Tied for 11th place after the first round, Woods moved up to a tie for sixth in the second round and a tie for second in the third. Woods ended up passing Francesco Molinari on the final day, then held on to an unlikely victory for his 15th career major and first in 11 years.

Rafael Nadal, 2022 Australian Open

Nadal's attempt to set the record for men's major wins looked to be at a standstill in the 2022 Aussie Open final against Daniil Medvedev. Medvedev had won the first two sets and Nadal faced three break points in the third. He saved all of them, however, and ended up prevailing in a match that at 5 hours, 24 minutes was the second-longest Slam final in tennis history.