There have been a lot of upsets in sports, and it adds life into them because it would be boring if favorites won all the time. So which upsets in NFL history were the biggest, or had an impact on the game?
Honorable Mentions (4)
4. 2004 Week 15 – “The Night Courage Wore Orange”
In 2004, the New England Patriots finished 14-2 on their way to a Super Bowl season. In what was still a budding dynasty, New England was powering through the comparatively weak AFC East.
At the bottom of the division, there were the Miami Dolphins. After a 1-8 start, head coach Dave Wannstedt resigned, leaving interim man Jim Bates to coach the team. From there, the Dolphins were 1-3 under Bates, and were forced to face the 12-1 New England Patriots at home.
Trailing 28-17 with three minutes left to go in the game, the Dolphins launched a furious comeback behind quarterback A.J. Feely to beat New England 29-28, handing them one of two L’s to dent their record that season.
The game remains the only in NFL history in which a team 10 or more games under .500 beat a team that was 10 or more games over .500.
3. The 1998 NFC Wild Card Playoff Game – Cardinals @ Cowboys
During the 1998 season, the NFC East had suffered greatly. A division that popularized smashmouth football was now taking the blows and showing it. Only two teams finished with a winning record, while Philadelphia and Washington combined for only 9 wins. Dallas won the division with a 10-6 record, and earned a Wild Card playoff berth.
The Cardinals were still the same ol’ Cardinals, The Cards had only won two division titles since 1965, and this is a franchise that went 62 years without hosting a home playoff game. In 1998, the Cardinals started 6-7 before rebounding and winning three straight games to finish 9-7 to earn a wildcard berth, despite finishing with a point differential of -53.
The two teams squared off in Texas Stadium, and what followed was the Cardinals’ first playoff victory in 50 years over the 7-point favorite Cowboys. Jake Plummer and Larry Centers led Arizona to a 20-7 win in what would ultimately be the last gasp of the Dallas dynasty of the 1990’s.
2. 1983 AFC Divisional Playoffs – Seahawks @ Dolphins
After an unsuccessful 1982 season, the Seattle Seahawks chose running back Curt Warner with the No.3 overall pick in the 1983 draft. Immediately, Warner turned the Seahawks around, guiding them to a 9-7 record and a playoff berth. After a decisive 31-7 AFC Wild Card victory over the Denver Broncos, the Seahawks had to travel to Miami.
The Dolphins were the defending AFC Champions in 1983, and had found new life in a fresh, new passing approach with rookie quarterback Dan Marino. The Dolphins finished 12-4 and received a first-round bye in the playoffs.
The Seahawks actually stayed in the game for pretty much the entire time, and watching the game, people were like “well, the Seahawks didn’t get blown out, so…kudos to them”. And then, suddenly, Curt Warner breaks a touchdown run to put the Seahawks ahead 27-20, and that was the game.
1. 1979 AFC Divisional Playoffs – Oilers @ Chargers
In 1979, the Chargers finished 12-4 behind an explosive passing offense starring Dan Fouts and a tough defense that gave up the fewest points in the AFC. They received a first-round bye in the playoffs, and waited to challenge whoever won a Wild Card game to face them at home in San Diego.
The Houston Oilers finished the season 11-5, but were relegated to the Wild Card spot thanks to Pittsburgh winning the AFC Central with a 12-4 record. Houston beat Denver 13-7 in the Astrodome, but it was a Pyhrric victory as running back Earl Campbell and quarterback Dan Pastorini were both injured.
The Oilers traveled to San Diego to take on the Chargers, and what ensued is a “fluke” game in my mind. Dan Fouts, despite throwing for 333 yards, didn’t throw a touchdown pass but tossed 5 interceptions. The Chargers were forced into turnover after turnover, and Houston eeked out just enough to manage a 17-14 win over the 8-point favorite Chargers, thanks to the worst day in the illustrious career of Dan Fouts.
10. The 2002 NFC Championship Game – Buccaneers @ Eagles
Starting in 2001, the Philadelphia Eagles advanced to the NFC Championship Game four straight times: going 1-3 in them. In 2002, they had Donovan McNabb at quarterback as well as a good defense and lots of depth pretty much everywhere on the team. The coach, Andy Reid, was a smart guy who will be a very interesting case for the Pro Football Hall of Fame when he retires. The Eagles finished the season 12-4, and defeated the Atlanta Falcons 20-6 in the NFC Divisional Playoffs. From there it was smooth sailing, because everyone saw their opponent.
In the same year, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers had established themselves as a defensive powerhouse, crunching through their opponents with one of the best defenses in modern NFL history. The offense wasn’t great, but it wasn’t a namby-pamby unit. It had Brad Johnson, Keyshawn Johnson and Mike “You’re In Good Hands with” Alstott. However, none of these things seemed to matter.
Going into the 2002 NFC Championship Game, the storylines were all about who the Eagles were going to face in the Super Bowl. The Buccaneers, in all of franchise history, were 1-22 in games under 40 degrees Fahrenheit (4.44 Celsius). They had also never won a road playoff game, and in 2001 and 2002, the Eagles had beaten the Buccaneers in the playoffs two years in a row – not even allowing a single touchdown to the Bucs. The game, played in Philadelphia’s brutal Veteran’s Stadium, would kick off at a temperature of 26 Fahrenheit. The Eagles returned the opening kickoff to the Buccaneers’ 24-yard line, and Deuce Staley broke a 20-yard touchdown run to put the Eagles up 7-0 in less than a minute of play. It all went downhill after that, however, as the Eagles suffered the worst home upset in their history, losing 27-10 as the swarming Buccaneers defense forced a Donovan McNabb pick-six to seal the upset.
9. Super Bowl IV
In the final season of the AFL, the Kansas City Chiefs represented the league in the ‘Super Bowl’, a relatively new event that faced off the best AFL team against the best NFL team. The Chiefs couldn’t win their own division, with that honor going to the 12-1-1 Raiders, who had lost the Super Bowl in 1967. The Chiefs’ “Wild West Variety Show” offense under head coach Hank Stram was like nothing the game had seen before, while the “Redwood Forest” defense was amazingly brutal, giving up 20 points in three postseason contests.
The Vikings, meanwhile, finished in the NFL with the best offense and defense. They had the Purple People Eaters on defense, and the NFL was widely regarded as a vastly superior league than the AFL, who were the stupid stepchildren of professional football. The feeling going into Super Bowl IV was that the Vikings were an unbeatable team.
In reality, the Vikings really underestimated the Chiefs. The team was loaded with Hall of Famers, and they were totally outmaneuvered. The Chiefs were in motion shifts almost every play in Super Bowl IV, while the Vikings seemed to take pride in the fact that they didn’t send a single man in motion or call an audible all game long. The Chiefs’ offense was way too complex for Minnesota’s defense, and the defense suffocated quarterback Joe Kapp on their way to a 23-7 win, a “satisfying conclusion” to the league’s existence according to founder Lamar Hunt.
8. 1995 AFC Divisional Playoffs – Colts @ Chiefs
In 1995, the “Miracle Chiefs” finished with a league-best 13-3 record, one game better than even the ultimate champion Dallas Cowboys. Kansas City won three overtime games during the season, and gave up the fewest points in the NFL. Kansas City won the AFC West and received a first-round playoff bye.
The Colts, meanwhile, finished 9-7 under coach Ted Marchibroda and quarterback Jim “Captain Comeback” Harbaugh, winning lots of comeback games, including two 27-24 victories during the season over the Jets and Dolphins in which the Colts trailed 24-3 at halftime. 12 games of the Colts’ regular season were decided by a touchdown or less, and their point differential of 15 implied that they were just getting lucky over and over.
After a 35-17 beating of the defending AFC Champion Chargers in San Diego, the Colts traveled to Kansas City to take on the mighty Chiefs. In a low-scoring, defensive effort, the Colts scored 10 points. Kansas City scored 7 out of a possible 16, as kicker Lin Elliot missed three field goals, handing the Colts a 10-7 upset win over the 8-point favorite Chiefs that propelled them to the AFC Championship.
7. Super Bowl XXV – Giants @ Bills
In 1990, the Giants put up the last hurrah of their successful teams of the 1980’s. Starting 10-0, the G-men finished with a 13-3 record thanks to a mistake-free offense and a stifling defense that in my opinion was one of the best ever. Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick were on this staff, and after a pounding of the Bears in the NFC Divisional Playoffs, the Giants traveled to San Francisco to take on the two-time Super Bowl champion 14-2 49ers. In a game that featured only a single touchdown, the Giants clawed back from a 13-6 deficit to beat the 49ers with five swings of Matt Bahr’s leg.
So the Giants win in San Fran against a great 49er team, but they win on a last second field goal. The Buffalo Bills absolutely annihilate the L.A. Raiders.
After a crazy season in which the Buffalo Bills cruised over the NFL with an offense that scored the most points in the NFL along with a strong defense with Bruce Smith recording 19 sacks. The K-Gun no-huddle offense the Bills ran had something other teams couldn’t defend, with a great trigger man in Jim Kelly, a versatile back in Thurman Thomas, a great run-after-catch receiver in Andre Reed and a veteran guy like James Lofton all running roughshod over the league. The Bills finished 13-3, and after beating Miami 44-34 in a wild shootout in Buffalo, Jim Kelly and company obliterated the Los Angeles Raiders 51-3 at home in what is the third-worst loss in the Raiders’ history (the worst was a 55-0 drubbing to the Oilers in the AFL, the second worst the 52-0 shutout to the Rams that happened a few weeks ago).
Bill Parcells thought up a great gameplan. In the Giants’ 17-13 loss to the Bills earlier in the season, Parcells figured out maybe the only way to beat the Bills. Control the clock, keep Kelly off the field. And that did just that. The Giants shortened the game, holding the ball for a Super Bowl record 41 minutes. The Giants couldn’t afford to turn it into a high-snap sort of game, because if it was a high-snap game, it would work to the Bills’ advantage. With their ball-control offense, the Giants managed a 20-19 lead deep into the 4th quarter. With 2:16 to play, Jim Kelly got the ball back and drove the Bills down to the Giants’ 30-yard line. With :08 to go, Marv Levy elected to give shaky kicker Scott Norwood a shot at a game-winning 47-yard field goal on the grass in Tampa Stadium instead of running one more play and stopping the clock. Norwood’s kick sailed wide right, giving the Giants a 20-19 victory over the 8-point favorite Bills.
6. 1987 NFC Divisional Playoffs – Vikings @ 49ers
In the 1980’s, the San Francisco 49ers were the model franchise. Everyone wanted to be like the 49ers. They won Super Bowls in 1981, 1984, 1988 and 1989, and in 1987, people thought they were going to do it again. With Joe Montana playing as well as any year, Jerry Rice coming into his own, Roger Craig providing a running game and the defense beefing up, the 49ers finished with a league-best 13-2 during the strike-shortened season. During the season, three games were played with “replacement players” as the real players went on strike. San Francisco went 3-0 in these games, as the team finished first in passing yards, rushing yards, total yards, offense, and total defense.
The Vikings, meanwhile, were middling around. After a bunch of unsuccessful seasons in the mid-80’s, the Vikings didn’t do much better in 1987, finishing 8-7 and recording unimpressive, mediocre stats on both sides of the ball, finishing with a point differential of 1. On paper, they were very much not the 49ers’ equals. After a 44-10 shellacking of the 12-3 Saints, however, Minnesota traveled to San Francisco to challenge the mighty 49ers.
When the game started, it was like entering a parallel universe. Joe Montana threw an ugly interception that was returned for a touchdown, and was eventually pulled for Steve Young after a poor performance. Anthony Carter, the Vikings’ star receiver, recorded 10 catches for 227 yards as the Vikings rolled past the 49ers 36-24 in a win that shocked the 11-point favorite 49ers.
5. Super Bowl XXXII
In the mid-90’s, the Green Bay Packers seemed absolutely unbeatable. In 1995, they reached the NFC Championship, and in 1996, they won the Super Bowl. In 1997, quarterback Brett Favre won his third-straight MVP award as the Packers recorded a 13-3 record. They powered through the NFC playoffs behind the magic of Favre and a strong defense with Reggie White, and won the NFC Championship Game over San Francisco.
The Broncos were a really good team in 1996, finishing 13-3 but not reaching the Super Bowl. In 1997, they were a Wild Card team led by 36-year old John Elway and second-year back Terrell Davis. In fact, they were really good, even if their 11-5 record didn’t show it very well. Denver became only the third Wild Card team to reach the Super Bowl, and what ensued was one of the best championship games in league history.
Immediately, the Packers drove over 70 yards and scored in what looked to be a precursor for the “John Elway Super Bowl Failure Show” that had aired three times before: a 39-20 loss in 1986, a 42-10 bombing in 1987 and a 55-10 cranking in 1989, the most lopsided Super Bowl in history. After the bad start, things got worse as Terrell Davis left the game with a migraine headache. However, once he recovered, he finished the game as the MVP with over 100 yards rushing and 3 touchdowns on the ground. The Packers, confident in their offense, allowed Denver to score with limited time left to make the score 30-27. Their strategy was to let Brett Favre drive down and either get them in position to kick a tying field goal or score a touchdown. Instead, what ensued was a failed 4th down pass at midfield that won the game for the Denver Broncos.
4. 1996 AFC Divisional Playoffs – Jaguars @ Broncos
In 1996, the Denver Broncos finished 13-3 (I literally just said that…) and received the No.1 seed in the AFC and a first-round playoff bye. In fact, they clinched their division and everything so early that they decided to bench star players, like quarterback John Elway and tight end Shannon Sharpe. It didn’t seem to matter though once the Broncos saw their opponent for the divisional playoff game, however.
The Jacksonville Jaguars were only in their second season in the NFL. They finished 1995 with a miserable 4-12 record, and after a 4-7 start to 1996, the season was written off and eyes were turned to 1997. Just at that moment, the Jaguars started to come together and win, as the Jags rattled off five straight wins to finished 9-7. However, they were one missed 31-yard Morten Andersen field goal away from watching the playoffs at home, as Andersen missed the kick in the final seconds of the final week of the season for a Jaguars 19-17 victory over the 3-13 Falcons. The Jags then traveled to Buffalo, where they beat the Bills 30-27.
After the Bills game, the Jaguars were provided with some billboard material as a local Denver newspaper called the team the “Jagwads”. The players on the team assumed that Denver would have some rust, and they did. John Elway was not sharp in the game, and although Denver started strong, Jacksonville took a second-quarter lead and never looked back. Natrone Means ran all over the Broncos, getting carry after carry in a gameplan designed to keep the struggling John Elway off the field. Even with a late touchdown, Denver’s onside kick was recovered by the Jaguars en route to a stunning 30-27 Jaguars win over the 12.5-point favorite Broncos, one that John Elway called “the worst loss of his career” despite previously losing three Super Bowls.
3. Super Bowl XXXVI
From 1999-2001, the St. Louis Rams (before they became terrible walkovers) ran an offense called “The Greatest Show on Turf”, a perfect mix of passing and running combined with trick plays that scored 1,569 points in only three seasons. The offense was led by Kurt Warner, a guy who arrived in the league in 1999 as a no-name but became only the second quarterback in history to throw for over 40 touchdowns in a season (at that time), joining Dan Marino. Running back Marshall Faulk was also an integral part of the offense, running rampant over opponents as well as catching passes out of the backfield in conjunction with wideouts Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce, two of the fastest receivers in the game. In 2001, the Rams finished with a franchise and league-best 14 wins, somehow going 8-0 on the road at the same time. In Week 10, they faced the New England Patriots and beat them 24-17.
Those Patriots began the season 2-3 after Drew Bledsoe’s devastating injury, forcing second-year quarterback Tom Brady into the starting job. Although Brady was good, he still made mistakes, and because of this, New England sometimes played badly. The Patriots finished with an 11-5 record. Behind a 16-13 overtime win in the Wild Card playoff and the infamous “Tuck Rule” game against Oakland in the divisional round, the Patriots then beat the Steelers in the AFC Championship Game on two special teams touchdowns and a good defensive performance. After the game, they advanced to the Super Bowl to face the Rams.
In a game that was supposed to be a coronation for a new Rams dynasty, St. Louis started out slow and flat. After a few drives in which not much was produced, Kurt Warner threw a risky pass to his right to avoid a blitz that was intercepted by Ty Law and returned for a touchdown, earning Law MVP rights for the pivotal play in the game. The Rams kept turning the ball over and making mistakes, but somehow managed to tie the game 17-all after a 17-3 deficit. The Patriots had the ball last, and a young Tom Brady that nobody had ever heard of drove the Pats downfield for a game-winning Adam Vinatieri field goal to beat the 14-point favorite Rams 20-17.
2. Super Bowl XLII
Another Patriots game. This time, the Patriots were the favorites. After two more Super Bowl wins post-2001, New England had established themselves as the dynasty team of the 2000’s, winning 10 or more games nine out of ten times in the decade. In 2007 after a cheating scandal in which head coach Bill Belichick was caught filming New York Jets practices (of course it happened to the Jets), the Patriots got angry and thus decided to take it out on the league. What followed was the only team to achieve a perfect regular season mark of 16-0 as the Patriots scored 589 points behind Tom Brady’s single-season record 50 touchdown passes. Unsurprisingly, the Patriots advanced to the Super Bowl.
New England’s opponent in Super Bowl XLII couldn’t be complimented very much. The 9-7 New York Giants finished the season with a point differential of -7 and went through stretches of time where they looked absolutely awful. Eli Manning was still his turnover-rich self, as the Giants bumbled through some hard stretches in the season. New York actually played the Patriots in Week 17, losing 38-35. During the playoffs, Eli Manning (are you surprised?) led all quarterbacks in interceptions. However, the Giants still won the NFC and advanced to the Super Bowl to play the Pats.
In a game where the Patriots were 12.5-point favorites, the Giants immediately set the tone by constantly putting pressure on Tom Brady, something nobody had been able to do all year. Tom Brady was sacked 5 times as the Giants quietly stayed in the game. With 2:45 to go, Tom Brady hit Randy Moss for a 6-yard touchdown that put the Patriots up 14-10. Eli Manning decided to come of age in the final two and a half minutes, and he and David Tyree orchestrated the “helmet catch” (Google it), the most important play in Super Bowl history on 3rd and 5. The Giants then went ahead for good on a 13-yard touchdown pass, and the Goliath Patriots fell in a crushing loss for New Englanders, but a wonderful way to see the Patsies lose for the rest of the country.
1. Super Bowl III
As if it would be anything else. In a game that put the NFL on the map forever, the Baltimore Colts faced off against the New York Jets in the Super Bowl.
During the regular season, the Baltimore Colts scored the most points and gave up the fewest on the way to a 13-1 record. They had two MVP quarterbacks, Johnny Unitas and career journeyman Earl Morrall, a great rushing attack in Tom Matte and an unbelievable receiving corps. Their defense was the toughest in the league, giving up fewer than 200 points and crushing opponents in the process. In the NFL Title game, Baltimore shut out Cleveland in a game that sent them to the Super Bowl.
Meanwhile, in the AFL, Joe Namath and the Jets faced pitiful divisional competition and a soft schedule against “inferior” AFL opponents. The Jets finished 11-3 despite all of this, and thanks to a lucky bounce off a Darryl Lamonica pass to create a fumble that was picked up and returned for a touchdown in the AFL Title game, the Jets advanced to the Super Bowl to face off against the Colts.
The Jets entered the game as 19-point underdogs, and the Colts were just going to blow them out. 50 points were expected, and it would provide bragging rights for all of the AFL-haters at the time. Immediately, it was apparent it wouldn’t that way, as Joe Namath was a marvelous game manager after his famous guarantee: “We’re gonna win the game, I guarantee it”. Namath had said this before the Super Bowl and followed through masterfully, leading a ball-control offense that featured Matt Snell’s hard-nosed running. Snell broke a touchdown in the game, and the Jets only needed one to pull off the biggest upset in NFL history, a 16-7 shocker over the Colts.