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The Grueling Truth - Where Legends Speak / The 10 Biggest Upsets in NFL Playoff History: Which Upset was the Greatest?

The 10 Biggest Upsets in NFL Playoff History: Which Upset was the Greatest?

Top 13 NFL playoff upsets!
Publish Date: 01/20/2024
Fact checked by: Mark Lewis

I did not include Super Bowls in this ranking. These games were all shocking results when it comes to playoff games. The NFL playoffs get crazier and crazier every season, but back in the day when fewer teams made the playoffs, they still occurred, and today we will look at the greatest upsets in NFL Playoff history!

Criteria

The criteria is pretty simple: you have to be a big underdog who wins a game. Most of these games had point spreads above seven points. You also have some public perception that plays into upsets. In 1998, the Minnesota Vikings were rolling along and got beat by the Atlanta Falcons, who were an 11.5-point underdog. Still, when you look at the game through a lens 25 years later you realize that the Falcons were vastly underrated at the time, should a 14-2 team be that big of an underdog?

10) 2005 AFC Divisional Playoff Steelers stun the Colts

The Colts started the season out 13-0 before finishing at 14-2. The Steelers struggled early in the year before finally getting hot and slipping into the playoffs with an 11-5 record. The Steelers, who were the sixth seed, then upset the Cincinnati Bengals in the Wild Card round of the playoffs. They were given little chance to beat the powerful Colts. Most thought the injury to Carson Palmer was the only reason the Steelers had beaten the Bengals. The Steelers would go on to prove those critics wrong.

The Steelers came out hot and led 14-3 at halftime, a lead that would, in the second half, become 21-3. The Colts mounted an incredible comeback in the 4th quarter, scoring 15 unanswered points to close within 3 points. The Colts had a final chance to tie the game, but kicker Mike Vanderjagt missed a 46-yard field goal with 21 seconds left that would have sent the game into overtime. The Steelers would go on to win Super Bowl 40 with some help from the referees.

Video: 2005 AFC Playoffs Steelers vs Colts NFL Primetime Highlights (Jerome Bettis Fumble at the goal line)

2005 AFC Playoffs Steelers vs Colts NFL Primetime Highlights (Jerome Bettis Fumble at the goal line)

9) 1970 NFC Divisional Playoff San Fransisco upsets the Purple People Eaters

The year before, the Vikings were in the Super Bowl, and they came back off that year with a 12-2 record and had not lost at home in two years. The Niners were making their first playoff appearance in over a decade and had finished the season at 10-3-1. Not many people gave the Niners even a punchers chance against the high-powered Vikings.

This was a game of turnovers as the Niners fumbled five times, losing three of them. The Vikings were worse, turning the ball over four times. The Vikings took an early 7-0 lead when Paul Krause picked up a fumble and returned it 22 yards for a touchdown. From there, the Niners took over, scoring 17 unanswered points behind the passing of John Brodie. The Vikings scored a late TD but never threatened the Niners, as the Niners won the game 17-14. The 49ers would lose the NFC Championship game at home the next week to Dallas.

Video: 1970 NFC Div Playoff 49ers at Vikings NFL GOW

1970 NFC Div Playoff 49ers at Vikings NFL GOW

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8) 1983 AFC Divisional Playoff Seattle takes down the Miami Dolphins

The Dolphins were the 1982 AFC Champions and had replaced QB David Woodley with a rookie QB named Dan Marino. The Phins were the number one seed, finishing with a 12-4 record. The Seahawks were making their first trip to the playoffs in franchise history. This looked like a mismatch; it wasn’t! The Seahawks had beaten Denver in the Wildcard game, but the Dolphins seemed headed for the Super Bowl.

The Dolphins were their worst enemy in this game, turning the ball over five times. The Seahawks’ star of the game had to be running back Curt Warner, who scored two touchdowns and rushed for 113 yards as the Seahawks got the 27-20 upset win in Miami. The Seahawks would go on to lose to the Los Angeles Raiders in the AFC Championship game, but ask any older Seahawks fans, and they will tell you how special this season was. The 1983 Seattle Seahawks will never be forgotten in Seattle!

Video: 1983-12-31 AFC Divisional Seattle Seahawks vs Miami Dolphins

1983-12-31 AFC Divisional Seattle Seahawks vs Miami Dolphins

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7) 1995 AFC Divisional Playoff: The Colts shut down the Chiefs

The Chiefs had the best record in the AFC at 13-3, the Colts were 9-7, and, to make matters worse, they had lost RB Marshall Faulk. Faulk was injured throughout the end of the season, and the Colts looked dead without him. But this Colts team was a resilient bunch who pulled two road upsets against the Chargers and the Chiefs before falling by inches to the Steelers in the AFC Championship game.

The Chiefs had numerous chances to win this game, but their kicker, Lin Elliott, did not cooperate as he missed three field goals. Also, QB Steve Bono threw three interceptions in the game. This was just one more bad playoff game to add list to the career list of Chiefs head coach Marty Schottenheimer. Marty was a great coach, but luck did not follow him into the playoffs.

Video: 1/7/1996 Colts at Chiefs AFC Divisional Playoff

1/7/1996 Colts at Chiefs AFC Divisional Playoff

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6) 2002 NFC Wild Card Playoff Falcons win in Lambeau

It was even snowing in Lambeau, and the Falcons, who were 9-6-1, still won in Lambeau! The Packers went 12-4 and finished in a three-way tie for the best record in the NFC. The Packers were the only NFL team to go through the 2002 regular season unbeaten. Nobody told Michael Vick and the Falcons that they couldn’t win, will maybe some did but the Falcons did not believe them.

The Falcons not only won, they destroyed the Packers, as Brett Favre had another one of his playoff meltdowns, throwing three interceptions. The Packers turned the ball over five times, losing 27-7. The Falcons had barely backed into the playoffs, going 1-3 over the last month of the season. This was also the Packers first home playoff loss ever. Brett Favre failed in the playoffs more often than not, and that’s why he made our list of the most overrated Quarterbacks in NFL history!

Video: 2002 NFC Wild Card | Green Bay Packers VS Atlanta Falcons | Game Highlights

2002 NFC Wild Card | Green Bay Packers VS Atlanta Falcons | Game Highlights

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5) 1987 NFC Divisional Playoff: Anthony Carter and the Vikings pound the 49ers

The Niners had the best record in the NFL at 13-2. The Vikings had just slipped into the playoffs at 8-7, but in the wild card, the round had shocked the 12-3 Saints, beating them 44-10. The Niners rolled through the regular season. The Vikings struggled some because their strike team, which played three games, was not very good.

This game is just known as the Anthony Carter game. He came up with ten catches for a playoff record 227 yards (record at that time) and ran the ball once for 30 yards. The Vikings defense was so good that Niners coach Bill Walsh pulled Joe Montana in the second half for Steve Young. Which, of course, would lead to a Quarterback controversy at the start of the 1988 season. Montana would quiet that nonsense by winning the Super Bowl the next year. The Vikings were edged out the next week in Washington 10-7.

Video: The GREATEST Playoff Upset! (Vikings vs. 49ers 1987 NFC Divisional)

The GREATEST Playoff Upset! (Vikings vs. 49ers 1987 NFC Divisional)

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4) 1986 NFC Divisional Playoff The Redskins take down the “Monsters of the Midway.”

The Bears were defending champions and were a dominant 14-2. The Redskins were no slouches themselves at 12-4, but nobody expected what came next. The Bears defense was statistically better in 1985 than they had been in 1985. But, this team was different as Buddy Ryan, their defensive coordinator, had left to become the Eagles Head Coach. People still thought the Bears were destined to battle the New York Giants in the NFC Championship, but that game never happened.

The Bears’ offense was led by Doug Flutie, who played fairly well in the first half as the Bears built a 13-7 lead. The second half was a different story as a Flutie interception and Walter Payton fumble helped to do them in as they were beaten 27-20. The Redskins had one huge advantage in this game. That advantage was Joe Gibbs was their Head Coach and the Redskins took this game over in the second half.

Video: 1986: Washington Redskins vs Chicago Bears Remastered NFL Playoff Highlights

1986: Washington Redskins vs Chicago Bears Remastered NFL Playoff Highlights

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3) 2010 NFC Wildcard Beast mode takes down the Saints

The Saints were the defending Super Bowl Champions; the Seahawks were the first team ever to qualify for the NFL playoffs with a losing record of 7-9. As a division winner, though, the Seahawks got to host this game. Most people spent the week saying that something should be done about a team with a losing record making the playoffs. It seems maybe the Saints did not take the Seahawks seriously, either.

The Seahawks won this game 41-36, but all people remember about this game is Marshawn Lynch, who put the dagger into the Saints’ comeback plans. He had an epic run, breaking numerous tackles and pushing Saints defenders away. Pure “Beast Mode.” Lynch gained 131 yards on 19 carries, his most memorable game as a member of the Seahawks.

Video: 'Beast Quake' New Orleans Saints vs. Seattle Seahawks | 2010 NFC Wild Card Game Highlights

‘Beast Quake’ New Orleans Saints vs. Seattle Seahawks | 2010 NFC Wild Card Game Highlights

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2) 1979 AFC Divisional Playoff Vernon Perry and the Oilers take down the Chargers

This game turned into an epic upset because of a violent Wild Card battle the Oilers had with the Broncos. The Oilers lost starting QB Dan Pastorini, Star running back Earl Campbell and number one wide receiver Kenny Burrough. The Chargers entered the game at 12-4 and, because of the injuries, were a substantial favorite.

Vernon Perry, who played in the secondary, played maybe the greatest defensive game any player has ever played in NFL playoff history. Perry came up with the four picks, but he also blocked a 26-yard field goal and returned the blocked kick 57 yards, which led to an Oilers field goal. The fourth interception came in the game’s final minute to kill any chance the Chargers had to tie or win the game. The Houston Oilers in 1979 made an improbable run to the Championship game.

Video: 1979 - Wk. 18 Oilers vs. Chargers AFC Div.

1979 – Wk. 18 Oilers vs. Chargers AFC Div.

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1) 1996 AFC Divisional Playoff: The Upstart Jaguars shock the Broncos

The Jaguars made the playoffs in their second year, the fastest an expansion team had ever qualified for the playoffs. The Broncos were 13-3. No way the Jags can win this one, right? Nobody told the Jags they had no chance and they would come from two touchdowns down to win this game.

The Broncos came out of the game strong, scoring two touchdowns to take a 12-0 lead. They did miss both conversions. From there, the upstart Jaguars dominated the game, scoring 23 straight points to a 30-27 win. The Jaguars would lose to New England in the AFC Championship game, while the Denver Broncos would use the loss as fuel for the next year. In 1997, the Broncos got revenge in the playoffs by beating the Jaguars and eventually, a few weeks later, winning the Super Bowl.

Video: Jaguars vs. Broncos - 1996 AFC Divisional Playoffs: Jaguars Upset John Elway | NFL Full Game

Jaguars vs. Broncos – 1996 AFC Divisional Playoffs: Jaguars Upset John Elway | NFL Full Game

Honorable Mentions

New York Giants Upset the San Francisco 49ers in the 1990 NFC Championship

Make no mistake, these were two great football teams; this makes a list because the Giants lost starting QB Phil Simms late in the year against the Buffalo Bills. His replacement, Jeff Hostetler, came in and played beyond anyone’s wildest expectations. The game saw only one touchdown scored, but it was still one of the most exciting games you will ever see.

Two huge moments in this game did the 49ers in. Late in the 4th quarter, Giants defender Leonard Marshall took out 49er QB Joe Montana with a vicious hit; backup Steve Young replaced Montana. The biggest moment, though, had to be 49er legend Roger Craig fumbling the ball as the Niners attempted to run out the clock. The game ended on a field goal by Giants kicker Matt Bahr to win the game.

That fumble may be why Roger Craig is not in the Hall of Fame. The Giants went on to pull off another upset in Super Bowl XV against the high-powered Buffalo Bills.

1979 NFC Divisional Playoff, the Rams shock America’s team

The Cowboys came into this game with an 11-5 record and had played in the two previous Super Bowls. The Rams, on the other hand, limped into the game with a 9-7 record, barely qualifying for the playoffs. The Rams were a team that had made the playoffs almost every year in the previous decade and almost always came up short.

Rams’ starting QB Vince Ferragamo tossed two touchdown passes in the first half of the game as the Rams built a 14-5 halftime. The Rams would go on to win 21-19 in what would end up being legendary Cowboys QB Roger Staubach’s final game. The next week, the Rams finally exercised their playoff demons as they beat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to advance to their first Super Bowl after a decade of near misses.

1998 NFC Championship game Atlanta shocks Minnesota

The Vikings were a dominant team, outscoring their opponents by 260 points in the regular season on the way to a 15-1 season. The Falcons were 11-point underdogs, but they were no pushovers, going 14-2 in the regular season.

The game was a classic as the Vikings scored on four straight possessions in the first half and went to the locker room with a 20-14 lead at the half. In the second half, the Falcons outscored the Vikings 13-7 to tie the game at 27, all in regulation. Chandler hit Terance Mathis again for a score while Cunningham threw a touchdown to Matthew Hatchette.

Gary Anderson had a chance to win the game in regulation for the Vikings, but his field goal in the fourth quarter was missed. To make matters worse, it was Anderson’s only miss of the season. Then, in overtime, Morten Andersen connected on a 38-yard field goal to give the Falcons the improbable upset.

2021 AFC Championship Game Cincinnati upsets the Chiefs

The Bengals had gotten their first playoff win in over thirty years by squeaking past the Raiders; nobody expected what would come next as the Bengals went to Tennessee and beat the Titans. They had to be done after that, right? No, they weren’t done. Nobody gave the Bengals a chance as they arrived in Kansas City as a -7.5-point underdog.

The first half went as expected as the Chiefs built a 21-3 lead. The second half was all Bengals as they dominated the Chiefs and forced two interceptions from Patrick Mahomes and would win the game in overtime.

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