Biggest NFL playoff upsets of the last 70 years

For all 32 NFL teams, a successful season is determined by the ability to compete for one of the most coveted awards in sports: the Vince Lombardi Trophy. It is awarded each year to the winner of the Super Bowl following an arduous regular season and a playoff schedule that continuously highlights ample drama and upsets.

The path to a Super Bowl is unlike any journey to a championship in professional sports. The NFL’s single-elimination playoff format provides every team that qualifies for the postseason with confidence that it can reach football’s highest peak. The format also facilitates upsets in high-pressure situations due to the league’s parity.

Unlike in other pro sports leagues—including MLB, the NBA, and the NHL—that use playoff series to determine their champions, the finality of a loss in the NFL postseason leaves players, coaches, and fans helpless. Such losses have been suffered by dozens of teams with high expectations that fell to opponents with much worse prospects. compiled a ranking of the biggest playoff upsets in NFL history since 1952 using historical point spread data from Stathead. The upsets, including two of the earliest Super Bowls and another pair of Super Bowls from the 2000s, mark some of the NFL’s most memorable moments.

Column chart depicting NFL playoff upsets by year.

NFL playoffs have had at least two upsets every year in the 21st century

The 1992 playoffs marked the last time the NFL saw zero upsets during the playoffs.

Last year, the 2023 playoffs saw a total of four upsets, including the Cincinnati Bengals’ victory over the Buffalo Bills in the Divisional Round; the New York Giants’ win over the Minnesota Vikings in the Wild Card Round; the Jacksonville Jaguars’ defeat of the Los Angeles Chargers in the Wild Card Round; and the Kansas City Chiefs’ Super Bowl LVII victory over the Philadelphia Eagles.

Chiefs Len Dawson getting ready to throw the ball as his teammates hold off Vikings.
Bettmann // Getty Images

#5. Kansas City Chiefs beat Minnesota Vikings, 1970

– Pre-game spread: 12 points
– Playoff round: Super Bowl
– Final score: 23-7

The last Super Bowl before the AFL-NFL merger featured one of the biggest upsets in history. The Minnesota Vikings entered the contest as heavy favorites because of a stout defense that starred Hall of Famers in tackle Alan Page and end Carl Eller plus Jim Marshall and Gary Larsen, who formed the Purple People Eaters.

The Kansas City Chiefs didn’t flinch, though, and led 16-0 by halftime. Kansas City, led by quarterback Len Dawson, dominated all three phases of the game, forcing five turnovers and getting three field goals and two extra points from kicker Jan Stenerud.

Minnesota’s loss in front of 80,997 at Tulane Stadium in New Orleans kept the Vikings from winning their first Super Bowl—a feat they have yet to achieve.

Quarterback Mark Brunell of the Jacksonville Jaguars moves the ball during the playoff game.
Otto Greule // Getty Images

#3. Jacksonville Jaguars beat Denver Broncos, 1997 (tie)

– Pre-game spread: 12.5 points
– Playoff round: Divisional
– Final score: 30-27

This divisional playoff game marks one of the best moments in the history of the Jacksonville Jaguars. Led by head coach Tom Coughlin, the visiting Jaguars pulled off a historic upset known as the Ambush at Mile High. Jacksonville, which entered the game with a 10-7 record, gave the 13-3 Denver Broncos their first home loss of the season.

Hall of Fame quarterback John Elway and running back Terrell Davis pushed the Broncos to a 12-0 first-quarter lead, but Jacksonville scored 23 straight points and outscored Denver 17-15 in the second half. Quarterback Mark Brunell and running back Natrone Means led the way, and Keenan McCardell and Jimmy Smith each caught a touchdown pass.

The Jaguars, in just their second season, fell to the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game a week later.

Quarterback Eli Manning of the New York Giants holds the Vince Lombardi Trophy.
Streeter Lecka // Getty Images

#3. New York Giants beat New England Patriots, 2008 (tie)

– Pre-game spread: 12.5 points
– Playoff round: Super Bowl
– Final score: 17-14

Considered one of the biggest upsets in sports history, Super Bowl XLII featured a Patriots team with an 18-0 record. Led by head coach Bill Belichick, the New England roster included legendary signal-caller Tom Brady and Hall of Fame wide receiver Randy Moss.

The New York Giants were not fazed by the star-studded offense, however, and fielded an impressive roster of their own with quarterback Eli Manning and defensive ends Michael Strahan and Justin Tuck. But, it was unheralded wide receiver David Tyree who propelled the Giants to victory by making an unbelievable reception with a minute remaining in the fourth quarter.

The Helmet Catch and Plaxico Burress’ subsequent 13-yard game-winning touchdown grab were witnessed by 71,101 people at the University of Phoenix Stadium in Arizona.

New England Patriots cornerback Ty Law waves to the crowd after intercepting a pass.
Nancy Kerrigan // Getty Images

#2. New England Patriots beat St. Louis Rams, 2002

– Pre-game spread: 14 points
– Playoff round: Super Bowl
– Final score: 20-17

This game started the Patriots’ dynasty. New England earned the upset by derailing one of the most prolific offenses of all time, the Greatest Show on Turf.

The St. Louis Rams, led by Hall of Fame quarterback Kurt Warner and running back Marshall Faulk, couldn’t get anything going, scoring only three points by the 10-minute mark of the fourth quarter. The Rams’ defense held up its end of the bargain, but the Patriots unit was better. Ty Law returned an interception 47 yards for a touchdown, New England forced two more turnovers, and kicker Adam Vinatieri made himself a household name by drilling two key field goals, including the 48-yard game-winner as time expired.

The triumph sparked a two-decade run that included Super Bowl titles in two of the next three seasons.

Joe Namath of the New York Jets drops back to pass against the Baltimore Colts during Super Bowl III.
Focus on Sport // Getty Images

#1. New York Jets beat Baltimore Colts, 1969

– Pre-game spread: 18 points
– Playoff round: Super Bowl
– Final score: 16-7

Super Bowl III is etched in history not only because it was a huge upset but also because of the players who took the field. Days before the game, New York Jets quarterback Joe Namath guaranteed victory. His team took a 16-0 lead in the fourth quarter against head coach Don Shula and the Baltimore Colts as the Colts struggled on offense.

Quarterback Earl Morrall threw three first-half interceptions before being replaced late in the third period by Hall of Famer Johnny Unitas, who was in the latter stages of his career. Namath finished with only 206 passing yards and was sacked twice but was named MVP despite three field goals by Jim Turner. The Jets intercepted four passes, two by Randy Beverly and one apiece by Johnny Sample and Jim Hudson.

Story editing by Mike Taylor. Copy editing by Robert Wickwire. Photo selection by Clarese Moller.

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