The Dirty Dozen – The Twelve Greatest Upsets in NFL Playoff History

Kevin LindseyAnalyst IJanuary 9, 2011

Marshawn Lynch and Coach Pete Carroll
Marshawn Lynch and Coach Pete CarrollOtto Greule Jr/Getty Images

The Seattle Seahawks stunned the football world today upsetting the defending Super Bowl Champion New Orleans Saints 41-36.

Many fans believed that the Seahawks had no business being in the playoffs this year as they finished the season with a losing record of 7-9. Seattle was the first team in a non-strike year to make the playoffs with a losing record.

The New Orleans Saints were led by Pro-Bowl quarterback Drew Brees and eight teammates would be joining him in Hawaii. The Seahawks in contrast did not have a single player on their roster going to the Pro Bowl.

Seattle’s offense was ranked 28th and their defense was ranked 27th in the league. The Seahawks lost all nine of their games by at least 15 points during the season.

The game on paper appeared to be a blow-out and when the Saints raced out to a 10-0 lead the game appeared to be going according to plan.

Seattle’s injured and hobbled Matt Hasselback however drank from the fountain of youth and threw three first half touchdowns to give the Seahawks a 24-20 halftime lead.

New Orleans however came out slugging in the second half and was not going to rollover without a fight.

Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch was ready to deliver the knockout blow to the champions as he rumbled 67 yards for the game’s deciding touchdown with 3:22 seconds left.  

Lynch’s run to pay dirt will go down in NFL lore as one of the greatest runs in playoff history. Of course, Seattle’s victory over New Orleans will also undoubtedly go down as well as one of the greatest upsets in NFL playoff history.

Below are twelve of the greatest upsets in NFL playoff history to allow the debate to begin as to where Seattle’s upset ranks in the history of the NFL. 

12.          Houston Oilers over San Diego Chargers 17-14 in 1979 Playoffs

Houston appeared to be too injured to give the Chargers much of games as QB Dan Pastorini, RB Earl Campbell and WR Ken Burrough were all on the sideline watching the action. The Oilers generated only 259 yards of offense but due to rookie safety Vernon Perry setting a playoff record with four interceptions off of future Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Fouts, the offensive production was enough. 

11.           Seattle Seahawks beat the Miami Dolphins 27-20 in 1983 Playoffs

Michael Wilbon writing for the Washington Post wrote that the quarterbacks exemplified the differences between the two teams, “Marino drives to work every morning in a new gold Corvette that matches his hair and arm. [Dave] Krieg, signed as a free agent, comes in a Pinto.

The 9-7 Seahawks however had the last laugh over the 12-4 AFC Champion Dolphins scoring a late fourth quarter touchdown with 1:48 left to take the lead 24-20. “When we came down here, nobody gave us a chance, said Seattle coach Chuck Knox. “We have been coming back like that all season. I can’t tell you how proud I am of this team.”

10. Indianapolis Colts down the Kansas City Chiefs, 10-7 in 1996 Playoffs

The Number One Seed Kansas City Chiefs came into the game as 11 point favorites over the Colts. The Chiefs had gone 13-3 and seemed destined to host Pittsburgh in the AFC Championship game. However, Chiefs Quarterback Steve Bono threw three interceptions and kicker Lin Elliot missed three field goals in brutal frigid temperatures were the wind chill was below zero for the game. The Colts were led by 1995 Comeback Player of the Year – Jim Harbaugh.

9. Super Bowl IV – Kansas City Chiefs beat Minnesota Vikings 23-7

The Chiefs came into the game as 13 point underdogs to the Vikings who finished the regular season 12-2. Minnesota was led by the fearsome “Purple People Eaters” (Carl Eller, Alan Page, Gary Larsen and Jim Marshall) which statistical was one of the stingiest defenses in NFL history giving up a paltry 133 points on the season. The game however was all Kansas City as they rushed out to a 16-0 halftime lead and never looked back. 

8. Minnesota Vikings Surprise San Francisco 49ers 36-24 in 1987 Playoffs

Jerry Rice may never have been upstaged as much by a receiver as he was in this game as the Minnesota Vikings beat the Super Bowl favorites. Rice caught only three passes for 28 yards. Minnesota’s Anthony Carter goes crazy catching 10 passes for 227 yards.  Vikings Coach Jerry Burns, “I’d never seen a wide receiver dominate a game like Anthony Carter did that particular game. Anything you threw out there he went and got it.  He took it away from people.  [That] was the most sensational one particular game that I’ve ever seen any receiver play.” 

7. Jacksonville Jaguars Upset Denver Broncos 30-27 in 1996 Playoffs 

The Jacksonville Jaguars were not supposed to be in the playoffs as this was only their second season of existence in the NFL. The Broncos were heavy favorites as they finished 13-3 and had gone 8-0 in Mile High.  Add to the mix that John Elway was leading the Broncos and some kid named Mark Brunell was at the control for the Jaguars and the game had all indications of being a blow-out. The young up-start Jaguars however were not fazed as they pulled off the “Ambush at Mile High.” Denver tight end Shannon Sharpe, “No matter what happens in the next three or four years, we’ll always look back and say, ‘I can’t believe we lost this one.

6. Super Bowl XXXII, Denver Broncos defeat Green Bay Packers 31-24

Brett Favre and the Packers were looking for their second straight Super Bowl title and the odds makers in Las Vegas had them as 13 point favorites. Denver’s John Elway instead however wins his first Super Bowl in dramatic fashion leading the Broncos to a game winning touchdown with only 1:45 left on the clock. Terrell Davis also makes a statement to the league as he carries the ball 30 times for 157 yards and three touchdowns. 

5. Super Bowl XXXVI New England Patriots surprise St. Louis Rams 20-17

The legend of Tom Brady can be traced to this game. The New England Patriots came into the game as 14 point underdogs against the greatest show on earth led by Quarterback Kurt Warner and Running Back Marshall Faulk. The Patriots came out firing early getting out to a 14-3 lead at halftime. The Rams tied the game late in the fourth quarter 17-17 before Brady lead the Patriots on a late drive before Mr. Clutch Adam Vinatieri kicked a 48 yard field goal with just seven seconds on the clock.                                                                      

4. Super Bowl XLII New York Giants shock New England Patriots 17-14

The Patriots came into the game seeking to become the first team to win 19 games in a NFL season. Las Vegas had the Patriots as 13 point favorites despite the Giants giving the Patriots a very tough game during the regular season 38-35. The play that made the upset possible was the improbably catch of David Tyree who somehow managed to trap the football alongside his helmet as he was being tackled. As a result of Tyree’s magic, the Giants were able to score the go-ahead touchdown with just 35 seconds left.

3. Cleveland Browns spank the Baltimore Colts 27-0 in 1964 NFL title game

Sports Illustrated was so sure that the Colts were going to beat the Browns that they prematurely printed some of the magazines with Johnny Unitas and Don Shula on the cover.

While the Colts were able to keep running back legend Jim Brown in check, they were unable to stop Browns quarterback Frank Ryan connecting with wide receiver Gary Collins for three touchdowns in the second half. Johnny Unitas assessment of the game, “They just beat the hell out of us.”

 2. Super Bowl III New York Jets stun the Baltimore Colts 16-3

The game that gave us the “guarantee,” as New York Jets quarterback Broadway Joe Willie Namath while reportedly lounging by the pool uttered the preposterous without blinking, “The Jets will beat the Colts, I guarantee it.”  The Jets were 17 point underdogs and given that in the first two Super Bowls the old guard of the NFL had pummeled the new guard AFL many felt that Namath would eat his words.  However, Namath has instead become an icon and the sight of him running off the field with his right index finger raised high above of his head is burnt in the consciousness of most NFL fans.

 1. 1934 NFL Title “Sneakers” Game, New York Giants 30-13 over Chicago Bears

 The Chicago Bears were the Monsters of the Midway as they steamrolled their way through the year with a 13-0 record and outscoring their opponents 286-86 on the season.  Coach George Papa Bear Halas had the best running duo in the game with Bronko Nagurski and Beattie Feathers. Feathers was the first player in NFL history to rush for 1,000 yards; he missed two games but still rushed for 1,004 in 11 games averaging more than eight yards a carry.

 The New York Giants had managed to finish the season with a respectable 8-5 record.  When the Giants went in at halftime trailing 10-3 things didn’t look good for the home team especially given that the field had become icy. 

However, the Giants unveiled their secret weapon – sneakers. After changing their shoes, the Giants were able to get better traction on their way to the greatest come from behind upset in NFL history as the Bears continued to slip and slide.


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