Playoff fever is in full swing – Andrew Luck and the Colts marched into Mile High Stadium on Divisional weekend and upset his predecessor Peyton Manning and his Broncos in what could be the last game of Manning’s storied career. Championship weekend is now behind us and all we have to look toward is Super Bowl XLIX. History tells a compelling story – there is at least one unlikely winner every year. Since 1990, only four Super Bowls have featured the two top ranked teams. Football is not always a game of numbers that can be accounted for by mathematical geniuses. Some things in life cannot be calculated or predicted. It’s the same in football – maybe the weather was too cold, the quarterback forgot to eat his Wheaties, someone stayed out too late the night before the big game, adrenaline was high – there can be any number of incalculable football factors that determine the outcome of a game.
All we know is that the underdogs sometimes surprise people and the favorites sometimes choke. Some of the greatest teams in NFL history have lost to inferior teams for reasons unexplainable. Upsets like these have helped add credence to the saying, “Any Given Sunday”. Those who predict the upsets are called geniuses, psychic, or just plain lucky. Sometimes the experts are wrong, the bettor’s numbers don’t add up, and the underdog goes home singing “We are the Champions.” There is a wealth of games to choose from and this list could have easily turned into a top 100 list, but we have settled on the author’s top 10 choices. Without further ado here is the ultimate list of the 10 biggest upsets in NFL playoff history.
10. Minnesota Vikings vs. Kansas City Chiefs – Super Bowl IV – January 11, 1970
This was the last AFL-NFL championship game before the merger of the two leagues was completed. Many journalists still considered the NFL to be superior, despite the Jets win in the previous Super Bowl. The Vikings were a 13-point favorite to win this game. The Chiefs’ defense stunted the Vikings offense and the Chiefs came out on top 13-6. The legendary Fran Tarkenton was terrorized all game and the Vikings would lose their first of four Super Bowl losses in the 70’s.
9. Chicago Bears vs. Washington Redskins – Divisional Playoffs – January 3, 1987
The Chicago Bears were a powerhouse and a potential dynasty. They had won the Super Bowl the year before and had their sights set on a repeat. Walter Payton was coming off of his tenth 1,000-yard rushing season, and the Bears’ defense was once again ranked first in the league. The Bears finished with an impressive 14-2 record compared to the Redskins 12-4 record. The Bears were expected to easily win this game but the Redskins stole the show and won 27-13. Washington would again beat the Bears in the Divisional round again the following season, effectively ending any shot the Monsters of the Midway had at a dynasty.
8. Chicago Bears vs. New York Giants – NFL Championship Game – December 9, 1934
This historic meeting featured a rematch of the previous championship which the Bears had won. The venue was the frozen, icy, Polo Grounds in New York City. The Bears had an impressive winning streak dating back to the prior season, and entered this game 13-0. The Giants finished the season at an underwhelming 8-5 and had lost twice to the Bears in the regular season.
This iconic game has gone down in NFL history as the “Sneakers Game.” The frozen tundra made traction difficult for both teams. This prompted the Giants coaching staff to have some of their players swap out their cleats in favor of basketball shoes to improve traction. The trick worked and the Giants left the formerly undefeated Bears scoreless in the second half and won 30-13.
7. New Orleans Saints vs. Seattle Seahawks. NFC Wildcard – January 8, 2011
The Seattle Seahawks shocked the defending Super Bowl Champion New Orleans Saints 41-36 in a shootout. The Seahawks won the division with a 7-9 record, becoming the first team to finish below .500 and make the playoffs. By beating the 11-5 Saints they became the first sub .500 team to win a playoff game too. The Seahawks played their best game of the season in this huge upset. This game is famously known for Marshawn Lynch’s “Beast Quake” run.
6. San Francisco 49ers vs. New York Giants – NFC Championship Game – January 20, 1991
The San Francisco 49ers dominated the 80’s and parts of the 90’s, and had their hearts set on a third consecutive Super Bowl victory, and fifth in a decade. The Giants offense was nothing to write home about, going through the playoffs without starting quarterback Phil Simms, and the 49ers were heavy favorites to win. They took a one point lead into the fourth quarter. With just over two minutes left Roger Craig fumbled the ball, Lawrence Taylor recovered, and the Giants won the game 15-13 on a last second field goal to advance to the Super Bowl.
5. St. Louis Rams vs. New England Patriots – Super Bowl XXXVI – February 3, 2002
Due to the 9/11 attacks this became the first Super Bowl played in February. Tom Brady began the season as the backup to franchise quarterback Drew Bledsoe, stepping into the starting positon early in the season after Bledsoe went down with an injury. Little did the football world know that this 24-year-old sixth round draft pick would change the world of football forever.
The St. Louis Rams had Kurt Warner, Marshall Faulk, Torry Holt, and Isaac Bruce – the most lethal offense in the NFL. This was their second Super Bowl appearance in three seasons and they were expected to win again. This game ended like a fairytale, with the score tied at 17, cool-headed Tom led his team down the field with only 1:30 on the clock, and no timeouts remaining. John Madden infamously said on the Super Bowl broadcast that the Patriots should kill the clock and take their chances in overtime, but Brady soon proved him wrong. He set up Adam Vinatieri’s game winning 48-yard field goal as the clock expired.
4. Green Bay Packers vs. Denver Broncos – Super Bowl XXXII – January 25, 1998
Many people thought the class of 1983 quarterbacks would be remembered as the best quarterbacks ever – to never win a Super Bowl. Dan Marino had failed in his one attempt. Jim Kelly went 0-for-4, and up to this date John Elway was 0-for-3. At 37 years of age and 15 years in the NFL, John Elway would get another chance at the Lombardi Trophy, but it would not be easy.
The Green Bay Packers were a dynasty in the making with Brett Favre at the helm. The Packers were the defending Super Bowl champions and their explosive offense was just about unstoppable. They were heavily favored to win this game. John Elway made his famous “Helicopter Run” to get a crucial first down in the third quarter, and helped propel his team to a 31-24 win. Terrell Davis, the Broncos running back was spectacular and would win the MVP.
3. Buffalo Bills vs. New York Giants – Super Bowl XXV – January 27, 1991
To date this is the only Super Bowl game decided by one point. This game is particularly painful to write about, due to the author growing up idolizing the Buffalo Bills. The Bills were favored by a wide margin – this should have been their game. The disappointment of this upset lingers to this day. The Buffalo Bills had the no.1 scoring offense in the league in 1990-91 with 428 points, and featured an explosive “K-Gun” no-huddle offense that was virtually unstoppable. The Bills of this era had numerous future hall of fame players on their roster – Thurman Thomas, the Bills’ great running back was just beginning his reign of dominance in all-purpose yardage. Jim Kelly was carving out his place in football history as a field general, finishing as the NFL’s top rated passer. This was the team’s first Super Bowl appearance.
The Giants came into the game with the no.1 defense led by Lawrence Taylor that allowed only 211 points that season. Surprisingly, the Bills high-octane offense spent a lot of time watching the game as the Giants’ ball control offense set a Super Bowl record for time of possession (40:31). One possession lasted more than nine minutes and ended with a touchdown. This game will forever be remembered for its high-drama ending. The Buffalo Bills had one last chance to win the game with 8 seconds left. Trailing 20-19, Bills kicker Scott Norwood missed a 47-yard field goal wide right, and the Giants were crowned champions.
2. New England Patriots vs. New York Giants – Super Bowl XLII – February 3, 2008
The New England Patriots had a historic season – an undefeated record thus far – and sought to dethrone the 1972 Miami Dolphins as the only team to accomplish that feat. The Patriots came into the game as 12-point favorites. The New York Giants had finished the season 10-6 and sought to become the first NFC wildcard team to win the Super Bowl. In dramatic fashion the New York Giants drove 83 yards down the field trailing 14-10 with just over two minutes left. Following Eli Manning’s great escape and David Tyree’s helmet catch, Plaxico Burress grabbed Manning’s toss for the winning score with 35 seconds left in the game, putting the Giants up 17-10 and thus sealing one of the greatest upsets in history.
1. New York Jets vs. Baltimore Colts – Super Bowl III – January 13, 1969
Broadway Joe Namath was made famous by his declaration that his AFL Jets would win this game despite being an enormous underdog against the NFL’s Colts. This was the third consecutive AFL-NFL championship game – the first one to be called the Super Bowl. Many boasted that the NFL was the dominant league, winning the first two Super Bowls over the AFL. The 1968 Colts team had only lost one game through the regular season while the Jets were 11-3. Joe Namath, true to his prediction, led his team to a history making 16-7 victory. This grabs the top spot due to the impact it had on the game. The Jets’ win helped legitimize the AFL as a professional league and led to the merger of the two leagues. The landscape of football may have been different without this upset.
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