Ranking the 10 biggest upsets in NFL playoff history

Super Bowl XLII
Ted Kerwin, CC BY 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

There’s nothing quite like witnessing one of the greatest NFL playoff upsets of all time. Well, unless you’re rooting for the team that was supposed to win. After all, fans watch the playoffs because you never know what’s going to happen, which is why some of the biggest NFL playoff surprises always seem to stand out in our memory.

That being said, some of the great NFL playoff shocks happened so long ago that sometimes they get lost in our memory and we need a reminder. In other instances, the greatest NFL playoff upsets never left us and are just fun to remember. That’s why we wanted to put together a least of the top NFL postseason upsets of all time.

Greatest NFL Playoff Upsets

Of course, it would have been boring if we just listed the greatest NFL playoff upsets based purely on the point spread. There are many more factors that go into a truly great upset. That’s why we hope you appreciate our list of the top 10 NFL postseason upsets of all time.

10. Chargers over Colts (2008)

The Chargers needed to win four straight games to close out the regular season just to get to the playoffs at 8-8. But they also won the AFC West, meaning they got to host Peyton Manning and the 12-4 Colts.

To the surprise of most folks, it was tiny Darren Sproles who helped create one of the biggest NFL playoff shocks with 328 all-purpose yards, even doing some damage in the return game. After the game went to overtime, it was Sproles who ended it with a 22-yard touchdown run to win the game 23-17.

9. Washington over Bears (1986)

In 1985, the Bears had one of the greatest defenses in NFL history.

A year later, the Chicago defense wasn’t too bad either, allowing just 11.7 points per game and leading the Bears to a 14-2 record. But it was all for naught because Washington figured out how to score points against them.

For what it’s worth, Washington was 12-4 that year, although that wasn’t enough to win the NFC East. When they faced the Bears, the great Art Monk had two touchdown catches while Doug Flutie played a dreadful game, completing just 11 of his 31 passes in a 27-13 Washington win.


8. Jaguars over Steelers (2017)

It would have been one thing if the Steelers had succumbed to an outstanding Jacksonville defense in this game.

Instead, the Steelers led a 13-3 season go to waste in the Divisional Round by losing 45-42 at home to a team playing Blake Bortles at quarterback. Granted, Leonard Fournette’s three touchdowns did a lot of the damage for the Jags. But they couldn’t out-score a team led by Bortles in a shootout, which is what makes this one of the biggest NFL playoff surprises.

7. Vikings over 49ers (1987)

The 49ers had Jerry Rice and a prolific offense that led them to a 13-2 record and the top seed in the NFC. But in the Divisional Round, it was Minnesota’s Antony Carter who stole the show with 10 catches for 227 yards.

After trailing 20-3 at halftime, the 49ers got so desperate that they even benched the great Joe Montana. The 49ers never got within striking distance in a 36-24 loss. Of course, San Francisco would win the Super Bowl in each of the next two seasons, but not before falling victim to one of the greatest NFL upsets in league history.

6. Jaguars over Broncos (1996)

In 1996, the Broncos made the mistake of starting the season 12-1 and taking it easy for three weeks and then getting a bye.

They just didn’t have their usual sharpness in the Divisional Round when they met the 9-7 Jaguars, who were only in their second year of existence.

Plus, the Broncos probably thought they would cruise after jumping ahead 12-0. But Jacksonville scored the next 23 points, forcing Denver to come from behind. When that didn’t happen, the upstart Jaguars had pulled off one of the biggest NFL playoff shocks. Fortunately for the Broncos, they would redeem themselves by winning the next two Super Bowls.

5. Broncos vs Packers (Super Bowl XXXII)

Speaking of those Denver Super Bowl wins, the Broncos were 11-point underdogs against the reigning Super Bowl champion Packers in the first game.

Few gave the Broncos a chance, especially when Terrell Davis left the game with a migraine in the first half.

However, Davis returned and would eventually score three touchdowns, earning him MVP honors. John Elway didn’t play his best game, but he did everything he could to help Denver pull off the upset and finally claim his first Super Bowl win.

4. Giants over Packers (2011)

As we’ll see, this wasn’t the first time the Giants were involved in one of the great NFL postseason upsets.

With the Packers going 15-1 as defending Super Bowl champs, this looked like an obvious mismatch against the 9-7 G-Men.

But they proved to be more than a handful, taking a 20-10 halftime lead after Eli Manning hit Hakeem Nicks on a Hail Mary right before the half. The Giants took care of business in the second half, winning 37-20 on their way to winning their second Super Bowl in five years despite being a lowly 9-7 team at the end of the regular season.

3. Seahawks over Saints (2010)

If fans ever complain about a team with a losing record making the playoffs, they can just remember this game. The Seahawks were the first team to make the playoffs at 7-9 and even got a home game because they won their division.

Naturally, the Saints were still 10-point road favorites and even took a 10-0 lead early. But the Seahawks didn’t go away and ended up turning things completely around, eventually leading 34-20 early in the third quarter.

The Saints came back to make it 34-30, only for Marshawn Lynch to put the game away with a 67-yard touchdown run. Lynch’s score created such a roar from the Seattle crowd that it was registered as a small earthquake on a seismograph, meaning the play was forever known as the “Beast Quake.”

2. Giants over Patriots (Super Bowl XLII)

After entering the game 18-0, nobody thought the Patriots would see their perfect season ruined in the Super Bowl, especially not against a 10-6 Wild Card team.

However, the Giants played the Patriots close in a 38-35 Week 17 loss and then proceeded to win three playoff games on the road.

By the time they got to the Super Bowl, they were ready to deprive the Patriots of history. Granted, it took a brilliant game from Eli Manning and that unforgettable catch from David Tyree, but the Giants knocked off the unbeaten Patriots in one of the greatest NFL playoff upsets will ever witness.

1. Jets over Colts (Super Bowl III)

This game surely takes the cake when it to the greatest NFL playoff upsets. At kickoff, the Colts were 19.5-point favorites, which is crazy to think about for any Super Bowl.

Of course, despite the long odds, Joe Namath famously pronounced a few days before the game that the Jets would win. In retrospect, who knows if he had all of his mental faculties functioning when he said that.

Nevertheless, he delivered with a lot of help from the New York defense, leading the Jets to a 16-7 win, as Namath’s guarantee and subsequent victory have long-lived as one of the best playoff moments in NFL history.

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About Bryan Zarpentine 206 Articles
Bryan Zarpentine is a freelance writer and editor with most of his work focusing on the world of sports. He is a 2008 graduate of Syracuse University and still resides in upstate New York.

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