Who doesn’t love a good, old-fashioned upset?
Almost everyone loves it when the underdog does the unexpected and gets one over on the heavy favorites (depending on who you bet on, of course).
And maybe more than any other sport, upsets in the NFL actually happen quite frequently due to the one-and-done nature of their playoffs, whereas basketball, hockey, and baseball all do “best-of” series.
But which of these many upsets were the greatest? We’ve scoured the history of the league to find the ones we think were the best.
5. The Sanchize – 2009 & 2010 Divisional Round
It may sound silly today, but Mark Sanchez being considered “The Sanchize” was a real thing about a decade ago. While he wasn’t putting up MVP caliber seasons, Sanchez led the New York Jets to a handful of successful seasons helped by their staunch defense. They surprised many in 2009, when the 9-7 team upset the 13-3 San Diego Chargers in the Divisional Round. The 17-14 win was just a case of the Jets getting warmed up, though.
The following year, the Jets were even more of a shocker. Though they improved and went 11-5, many didn’t think they’d beat the Peyton Manning led Indianapolis Colts in the Wild Card Round. Especially since those Colts beat them in the Playoffs the year prior. However, Sanchez led the Jets to a 17-16 win. In the Divisional Round, they then upset their rivals, the New England Patriots, 28-21. Neither time saw the Jets make it past the AFC Title game, but these were two huge upsets for the franchise.
4. No Dynasty In Chicago – 1986 Divisional Round
The 1985 Chicago Bears were one of the greatest teams in NFL history. They went 15-1 and are widely considered in the conversation for the best team of all time. It helped that they stomped through the Playoffs, winning their three games by a combined score of 91-10. They looked to be unstoppable and on the verge of a dynasty. Nobody told the Washington Redskins that was the case.
In 1986, the Bears went 14-2 and were a favorite to repeat as champions. However, they struggled in their Divisional Round matchup against the Redskins, holding a 13-7 lead. It still looked like things would go the Bears’ way. Instead, the entire second half belonged to Washington. They outscored the Bears 20-0, winning the game 27-13 and shocking the world. Not only were not supposed to win, but it wasn’t supposed to be by that wide a margin. Unfortunately for Washington, their run ended in the NFC Title game against the New York Giants.
3. Brady Is Born – Super Bowl XXXVI
The 2001 New England Patriots were supposed to be led by Drew Bledsoe. He was a good quarterback and nobody was even thinking about that Tom Brady kid they drafted in the sixth round a year earlier. Bledsoe went down with an injury, Brady came in to replace him and led a comeback victory. Bledsoe never got his job back. Brady carried that Patriots team all the way to an improbable Super Bowl berth. But could he do the unthinkable?
It seems crazy to think now, but nobody really gave the Patriots a chance in the Super Bowl. The offensive juggernaut St. Louis Rams were favored by 14 points. They did have Kurt Warner and Marshall Faulk, a combo almost unmatched in the entire league. The steady play of Brady, the stingy Patriots’ defense, and a clutch kick by Adam Vinatieri gave the Patriots a 20-17 victory that started a dynasty.
2. A Giant Upset – Super Bowl XLII
We go from the Patriots as the underdogs to the Patriots as the ultimate favorites. Winners of three of the previous six Super Bowls, New England somehow got even stronger in the 2007 season. They added future Hall of Fame wide receiver Randy Moss. It gave Tom Brady a deep threat like no other and the Patriots flourished. The team went undefeated during the regular season and Brady set all kinds of records. A win in the Super Bowl would cement them as the greatest team in NFL history.
Eli Manning and the New York Giants shouldn’t have had a chance in this one. They were severely outgunned and outmatched. Unlike his brother Peyton, Eli would never be held in the same breath as Brady. And yet, the Giants did it. Manning produced one of the most clutch efforts you’ll ever see. He got help from an unreal catch that still makes no sense over a decade later. The Giants pulled out a 17-14 win to prevent a perfect season. Eli and the Giants would again upset New England in the Super Bowl a few years later. Eli may never be Brady, but he’s undoubtedly beaten him.
1. The Guarantee – Super Bowl III
Come on, could it be anything else? Just a few years into the history of the Super Bowl, we got something extraordinary. Though the AFL’s New York Jets finished the season at a strong 11-3, their opponents, the NFL’s Baltimore Colts, went a whopping 13-1. Throw in the fact that many experts believed the NFL was far superior to the AFL and you had the Jets coming in as an 18 point underdog. New York Jets quarterback Joe Namath didn’t believe any of that.
Just days before the biggest game of his career, Namath was interviewed and personally guaranteed that his team would win. That’s a bold statement when you’re considered to be outmatched by this kind of margin. The Jets went out and built a 16-0 lead going into the fourth quarter, completely controlling the game. Johnny Unitas came in for Baltimore to lead them to a touchdown, but it was too little, too late. The Jets won 16-7 and Namath was named the Super Bowl MVP. Up until this past year’s Super Bowl, it marked the only time a team had won the big game while only scoring one touchdown.