Revisiting the Biggest Upsets in NFL Playoff History

Jan 19, 2022

The NFL playoffs are upon us and the eight remaining teams are preparing for this weekend’s divisional-round with the hopes of advancing to a conference championship game. There will be many fans pulling for Cincinnati, the fourth seed in the AFC, and San Francisco, the sixth seed in the NFC. Fans love underdogs and upsets. There have plenty of big ones in the NFL playoffs. In hopes of one happening this year, here’s a look at some of the biggest upsets in NFL playoff history. 

Jacksonville 30, Denver 27 (1996) 

The Broncos were the top seed in the AFC and took on the upstart Jags, the fifth seed. Denver had QB John Elway and RB Terrell Davis who ran for over 1,500 yards and 13 touchdowns during the regular season, one in which Denver went 13-3. 

In the Super Bowl era, 26 teams have been underdogs of at least 12.5 points. Only four of them have ever won a game. The Jags are one of them. Jacksonville was a 14-point underdog on the road. QB Mark Brunell passed for 245 yards and two touchdowns and RB Natrone Means ran for 140 and another score helping the Jags pull off one of the biggest playoff upsets of all time. 

Tennessee 28, Baltimore 12 (2019) 

The Titans, this year’s No. 1 seed in the AFC, were seeded sixth in 2019 and had to travel to top-seeded Baltimore in the divisional round. The Ravens had finished with a league-best record of 14-2 and QB Lamar Jackson would win the NFL MVP. 

The Ravens couldn’t stop RB Derrick Henry, the NFL’s leading rusher that year. Henry ran for 195 yards and even threw a touchdown pass for the victorious Titans. Tennessee entered the game as a 10-point underdog. 

Minnesota 36, San Francisco 24 (1987) 

It was a strike-shortened season in ’87 and the 49ers were in their prime with QB Joe Montana and WR Jerry Rice. They went 13-2 in the regular season and earned the top seed in the NFC. Minnesota went 8-7 during the season and was seeded fifth. 

Vikings WR Anthony Carter outplayed Rice to the tune of 227 receiving yards to Rice’s 16. The Vikings were a 10.5-point underdog. The 49ers would come back the next two seasons and win consecutive Super Bowls. 

New York Giants 17, New England Patriots 14 (2007) 

It was Super Bowl XLII. The New England Patriots were attempting to become the first team since the 1972 Miami Dolphins to go through an entire regular season and postseason unbeaten. The Tom Brady-led Patriots went a perfect 16-0 during the regular season. New England then defeated Jacksonville and the then-San Diego Chargers to advance to the Super Bowl. 

The Patriots were 12.5-point favorites over a Giants team they had beaten 38-35 in the regular-season finale. The game had one of the more historic plays in Super Bowl history. Trailing 14-10 with 2:39 remaining in the game, the Giants began their game-winning drive. WR David Tyree made the “Helmet Catch” where he jumped, caught the ball one-handed, and pinned it against his helmet. A few plays later, Giants QB Eli Manning hit WR Plaxico Burress for a 13-yard touchdown to win the game. The fifth-seeded Giants became the first NFC wild card team to win a Super Bowl. 

New York Jets 16, Baltimore Colts 7 (1969) 

Not only was it the biggest upset in Super Bowl history, but the New York Jets win over the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III also stands out because of the guarantee. The Colts were the absolute best team in the NFL. They had gone 13-1 in the regular season and won the NFL championship game beating Cleveland 34-0. 

The Colts were 18-point favorites over the AFL champion Jets, who had a brash young quarterback named Joe Namath. A few days before the game, Namath guaranteed the Jets would win. He wasn’t kidding either. New York jumped out to a 16-0 lead before the Colts scored a late touchdown. Namath completed 17-of-28 passes for 206 yards but didn’t score a touchdown. He was named the game’s MVP.