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According to the NFL, of the almost 16,000 pro football games played since the league officially began in 1936, there are ten incredible upsets that stand out above all the others.
These are the gridiron matchups where David slung Goliath, where mom and pop beat up Walmart and McDonalds, where the underdog bared its teeth and bit the favorited one right where it counts, on the way to a surprising victory.
Here we take a closer look at these ten fantastic and historic NFL upsets and examine what made the results of these games so unbelievably shocking.
|Matchup:||NFL’s Minnesota Vikings (12-2) vs AFL’s Kansas City Chiefs (11-3)|
|Date Played:||January 11, 1970|
|Stadium and City:||Tulane Stadium in New Orleans, Louisiana|
Final Score: Chiefs 23, Vikings 7
Key Figures: Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Len Dawson was the game’s MVP after completing 12-of-17 passes for 142 yards and one touchdown with one interception plus 3 carries for 11 yards.
Also key was the outspoken Kansas City Chiefs’ head coach Hank Stram, who was miked-up for this game, the first time that had ever been done in a Super Bowl.
Number of Hall of Famers associated with this game: 17
Why this game was critical: This was the fourth (and final) AFL-NFL World Championship Game because afterwards the two leagues merged.
How the upset happened: After the AFL’s Kansas City Chiefs were blown out of Super Bowl I by the Green Bay Packers by a lopsided score of 35-10, they didn’t garner much respect from the sportswriters of the time and were expected to get smoked by the Vikings in the Big Game.
It didn’t help either team that the conditions were wet that day, but regardless Chiefs head coach Hank Stram outwitted his Vikings’ counterpart, Bud Grant, by game-planning a shutdown of Minnesota’s powerful run game, limiting them to just 67 yards on the ground over the entire sixty minutes.
The other key factor in this upset were turnovers – the Chiefs intercepted Vikings quarterback Joe Kapp three times as well as recovered two fumbles, and it didn’t hurt that Kansas City kept the Vikings completely off the scoreboard in the fourth quarter.
|Matchup:||Minnesota Vikings (8-7) vs San Francisco 49ers (13-2)|
|Date Played:||January 9, 1988|
|Stadium and City:||Candlestick Park in San Francisco, California|
Team favored to win: The NFC West 49ers were the easy favorite over the Wild Card Vikings, who squeaked into the playoffs with an 8-7 regular-season record.
Final Score: Chiefs 13, Vikings 7
Key Figures: Vikings’ wide receiver Anthony Carter, who posted 10 receptions for an NFL playoff record 227 receiving yards on top of a 30-yard carry and two punt returns for 21 yards.
Why this game was critical: This was the number one seeded 49ers with Joe Montana and Jerry Rice getting to play the fifth (and lowest) seeded Vikings in San Francisco’s home stadium for an easy win and a trip to the NFC Championship game.
How the upset happened: After San Francisco finished their regular season with three blowouts that had a combined score of 124-7, so going into this game against an 8-7 Wild Card team like the Vikings seemed like a sure win for head coach Bill Walsh, Montana, Rice and the rest of the 13-2 Niners.
The Vikings went into the third quarter ahead 27-10 after scoring 17 unanswered points in the second quarter, and the 49ers could only manage one more touchdown with just 3:42 left in the game and by then it was too late for a comeback.
During this game, after Montana had thrown for no touchdowns but one interception, Walsh replaced him under center with his backup, Steve Young, who couldn’t get the win despite completing 12-of-17 for 158 yards and a touchdown with an interception.
|Matchup:||Buffalo Bills (13-3) vs New York Giants (13-3)|
|Date Played:||January 27, 1991|
|Stadium and City:||Tampa Stadium in Tampa, Florida|
Team favored to win: The Giants only allowed opponents to score a league-low 211 points during the regular season, but the Bills and their turbo-charged offense that scored 95 points in two playoff games were heavily favored to win this one.
Final Score: Giants 20, Bills 19
Key Figures: Buffalo Bills’ placekicker Scott Norwood, mainly because he famously missed a 47-yard potential game-winning field goal attempt with 8 seconds left in the game, which basically started a four-game Super Bowl losing streak for the poor Bills.
Number of Hall of Famers associated with this game: 12
Why this game was critical: This game was played while the Gulf War was raging in the Middle East – in fact, the Super Bowl halftime show was recorded and shown afterwards so that a live report with anchor Peter Jennings on the progress of the war could be played instead.
How the upset happened: In the Buffalo Bills’ first-ever Super Bowl appearance, head coach Marv Levy used a no-huddle offense to keep Bill Parcels’ Giants off guard most of the game, the Bills leading the game at the half by a score of 12-10.
With just eight seconds left in the fourth quarter and down by just a point, the Bills had a chance to win the game with a 47-yard field goal, but placekicker Scott Norwood kicked the ball wide right of the uprights.
So, Buffalo lost that Big Game by a single point, and that is the first time that’s ever happened in Super Bowl history – it’s also the first Super Bowl in which neither team committed a turnover all game.
|Matchup:||Washington Redskins (11-4) vs Dallas Cowboys (7-8)|
|Date Played:||January 27, 1987, Week 5|
|Stadium and City:||Tampa Stadium in Tampa, Florida|
Team favored to win: Since many of the starters of the Dallas Cowboys crossed the picket line of striking NFL players but the starters of the Washington Redskins did not, the Cowboys were expected to blow away the Skins’ replacement players.
Final Score: Redskins 13, Cowboys 7
Key Figures: The Washington Redskins’ replacement players, who won this game and went 3-0 while the starters were striking, which ended up being a big reason the Redskins went on to win Super Bowl XXII (22) over the Denver Broncos by a score of 42-10.
Why this game was critical: This game was played in the middle of the player’s strike and it featured Washington replacement players taking on some Dallas starters (like Danny White and Tony Dorsett) who some considered strike-breakers at best and scabs at worst.
How the upset happened: Officially it was six Dallas Cowboy veterans who started against a Washington Redskins team fielded completely by replacement players who were either NFL free agents or those out of work after the recent folding of the Canadian Football League.
The game came down to a defensive hold by the Redskins on fourth down at the Washington 13-yard line with two seconds to play in the game, allowing for a narrow 13-7 victory and a 4-1 record, with three of those wins coming during the replacement period.
Cowboys head coach Tom Landry received a lot of flak for using strike-breaking veterans against temporary players during that time, but regardless of those efforts, Dallas ended the season with a 7-8 record and no playoff appearance while Washington ended up winning it all.
|Matchup:||Jacksonville Jaguars (9-7) vs Denver Broncos (13-3)|
|Date Played:||January 4, 1997|
|Stadium and City:||Mile High Stadium in Denver, Colorado|
Team favored to win: The AFC West champion Denver Broncos were favored by two touchdowns over the Wild Card winning Jacksonville Jaguars, a second-year expansion team.
Final Score: Jaguars 30, Broncos 27
Key Figures: Jacksonville Jaguars’ quarterback Mark Brunnell, who threw for 245 yards and two touchdowns along with 44 yards rushing.
Why this game was critical: The Jacksonville Jaguars were an expansion team just added to the NFL, so they were not expected to make the playoffs, let alone beat the number one AFC seed that year.
How the upset happened: After the Broncos ended the first quarter with a 12-0 lead, the Jaguars scored 13 unanswered second-quarter points to go up 13-12 at the half, a scoring run which included an 80-yard, 12-play touchdown drive and a 42-yard field goal with less than a minute left in the half.
The Jaguars kept the Broncos off the scoreboard in the third quarter while posting a touchdown of their own off a 31-yard pass to wide receiver Keenan McCardell.
Despite Denver scoring 15 fourth-quarter points, they came up short by a field goal and the Jaguars took the win, with quarterback Mark Brunnell having the postseason game of his 17-year NFL career.
|Matchup:||Green Bay Packers (13-3) vs Denver Broncos (12-4)|
|Date Played:||January 25, 1998|
|Stadium and City:||Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego, California|
Team favored to win: The Denver Broncos were the 4th overall seed and an AFC Wild Card team, whereas the favored Green Bay Packers were the defending Super Bowl champions and a number two seed with a first-round bye.
Final Score: Broncos 31, Packers 24
Key Figure: Running back Terrell Davis, who was named Super Bowl MVP after setting a Super Bowl record with three rushing touchdowns.
And that was despite suffering a migraine headache that caused him to miss most of the second quarter, with Davis also posting 157 total rushing yards and two receptions for 8 yards.
Number of Hall of Famers associated with this game: 9
Why this game was critical: This was the fifth ever Super Bowl that the Denver Broncos had been to, but they had lost the previous four, so a loss in yet another Big Game was at stake, something quarterback John Elway was not going to let happen.
How the upset happened: This was a close game throughout – the Broncos led at the half by a score of 17-14 but the Packers tied the game at 17 with thirteen and a half minutes left to play.
Then, despite suffering a debilitating migraine that took him out of the game for almost a quarter, Denver running back Terrell Davis scored the go-ahead touchdown with 1:45 left.
The Denver Broncos became the first Wild Card team to win the Super Bowl since the Oakland Raiders won Super Bowl XV as a Wild Card team back in 1980.
|Matchup:||AAFC Champion Cleveland Browns vs NFL Champion Philadelphia Eagles|
|Date Played:||Sept. 16, 1950|
|Stadium and City:||Municipal Stadium (later JFK Stadium) in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania|
Team favored to win: Since sports writers of the day considered the NFL a far superior league to the All-American Football Conference (AAFC), considered an amateur league, the expectation in this matchup was that the Philadelphia Eagles would embarrass the Cleveland Browns for the entire sixty minutes.
Final Score: Browns 35, Eagles 10
Key Figure: Cleveland Browns’ future Hall of Fame quarterback Otto Graham, who completed 21-of-38 for 346 yards and 3 touchdowns with 2 interceptions, plus a rushing touchdown on 3 carries for 3 yards.
Why this game was critical: This was essentially a Super Bowl before the Big Game was ever invented, with the NFL’s 1948 and 1949 champions, the Philadelphia Eagles, taking on the team that won all four of the AAFC’s championships, the Cleveland Browns, in a matchup that was called the “World Series of Professional Football.”
How the upset happened: This was the Cleveland Browns’ first season in the NFL (from the American and nobody gave them a chance to win against the Philadelphia Eagles, considered the best pro football team in the world at the time.
Except the type of football that Paul Brown’s Cleveland team played – fast-moving passes by a quarterback who could throw accurately while scrambling – was a style that the Eagles hadn’t confronted before and it took them completely off guard for the humiliating 10-35 loss.
Thanks to this shocking Browns’ upset, three AAFC teams – Cleveland, the San Francisco 49ers and the Baltimore Colts – were merged into the National Football League for good.
|Matchup:||St. Louis Rams (14-2) vs New England Patriots (11-5)|
|Date Played:||February 3, 2002|
|Stadium and City:||Louisiana Superdome (now Mercedes-Benz Superdome) in New Orleans, Louisiana|
Team favored to win: The favored Saint Louis Rams had quarterback Kurt Warner, himself a Super Bowl winner and MVP, and he led an offense that was dubbed “The Greatest Show on Turf” for a reason.
Final Score: Patriots 20, Rams 17
Key Figure: New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, who was in his first full NFL season and not only led his team to a Super Bowl victory, but also became the game’s MVP after completing 16-of-27 passes for 145 yards and a touchdown.
Number of Hall of Famers associated with this game: 6
Why this game was critical: Not only was this the New England Patriots’ first-ever Super Bowl win (after two previous losses), it was the first NFL season as a starter for their quarterback Tom Brady.
How the upset happened: This was a hard-fought matchup between Warner, an experienced veteran quarterback, and Brady, who at that point was basically a rookie under center, so it was up to the Patriots’ defense to hold the more experienced veteran to within striking distance, which barely by keeping the game tied at 17-17 with less than two minutes to go.
In what would become his signature move, with no timeouts and just a minute and a half remaining, Brady took his team down the field and set up placekicker Adam Vinatieri for the game-winning 48-yard field goal, kicked just as time expired.
That was the first of his and head coach / general manager Bill Belichick’s six Super Bowl championships, a number that may or may not increase depending on Brady’s NFL home in 2020.
|Matchup:||The New England Patriots (16-0) vs the New York Giants (10-6)|
|Date Played:||February 3, 2008|
|Stadium and City:||University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona|
Team favored to win: The number one seeded New England Patriots were favored by 12-points over the number five seeded New York Giants.
Final Score: Giants 17, Patriots 14
Key Figure: New York Giants’ quarterback Eli Manning, the game’s MVP, who completed 19-of-34 passes for 255 yards and two touchdown passes with one interception.
Number of Hall of Famers associated with this game: 3
Why this game was critical: The New England Patriots had just completed the first 16-0 season since the sixteen-game season was instituted in 1978, plus it was the first perfect season since the Miami Dolphins went 15-0 in 1972.
How the upset happened: The game was close throughout, with the Patriots going into the half up 7-3, followed by a scoreless third quarter of play.
Then, what’s been since dubbed ‘The Helmet Catch’ happened when Manning, after barely escaping a tackle by no less than three Patriots in the backfield, threw the ball to wide receiver David Tyree who jumped in the air to catch it and had to trap the ball between his hand and helmet to keep it from popping loose on his way to the ground.
That catch, also called “The Play of the Decade” by NFL Films, led to the game-winning touchdown and a huge win for the underdog Giants, the franchise’s third of four total Super Bowl wins.
|Matchup:||The AFL’s New York Jets (11-3) vs the NFL’s Baltimore Colts (13-1)|
|Date Played:||January 12, 1969|
|Stadium and City:||Orange Bowl in Miami, Florida|
Team favored to win: Since the writers at the time considered the teams of the NFL far superior to any of the AFL teams, the Baltimore Colts were expected to win big in this one.
Final Score: Jets 16, Colts 7
Key Figure: New York Jets’ quarterback Joe Namath, the game’s MVP who, three days before the event at the Miami Touchdown Club, personally (and publicly on camera) guaranteed a win.
Number of Hall of Famers associated with this game: 8
Why this game was critical: This game was the first pro football championship to officially be called “The Super Bowl” and it is now considered to be the greatest upset in NFL history.
How the upset happened: Namath and his Jets made good on his promise by controlling the game from the get-go, building up a 16-0 lead by the fourth quarter.
The Jets’ defense was giving Colts quarterback Earl Morrall a whole lot of trouble, intercepting three of his passes before he could be replaced by Johnny Unitas, who led Baltimore to its lone touchdown with just a few minutes to go in the game.
“Broadway” Joe Namath was named the game’s most valuable player after completing 17-of-28 passes for 206 yards, but he threw and ran for zero touchdowns, making him the first-ever non-scoring MVP in the history of the Big Game.
To find out how to pick an upset then check out our guide, how to pick NFL upsets!
Mike Lukas is a retired standup comedian turned freelance writer now living in Dallas, Texas, originally from Cleveland, Ohio. His love for the game of football and all things Cleveland Browns turned Mike into a pro blogger years ago. Now Mike enjoys writing about all thirty-two NFL teams, hoping to help football gamblers gain a slight edge in their pursuit of the perfect wager. Email: [email protected]More info on Mike Lukas
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