Blame it on the 24-hour newsreel full of projections or the beckoning of the sports books; few things are quite as mind-blowing as Super Bowl upsets. Think about it. Professional sports aren’t an exact science. Even those who pour over stats and dub themselves experts don’t get it right all the time. Yet, for some reason, Super Bowl upsets repeatedly feel like the rug was yanked out from under our feet.
The current question: Will the underdog Atlanta Falcons upend the New England Patriots in Super Bowl 51. We say, “Why wouldn’t they?” Plenty of past teams played David to Goliath come Super Bowl Sunday. (And haven’t the Pats been on the losing end of a couple of those battles?) Here are the 10 biggest Super Bowl upsets of all time.
10. Super Bowl XVII: Washington Redskins beat Miami Dolphins 27-17
Washington’s first championship of the Super Bowl era came after many seasons of solid play coming shy of greatness. They met up with a familiar foe in the Miami Dolphins, who bypassed the Redskins to win their second straight Super Bowl a decade before.
The favored Dolphins were ahead 17-13 in the fourth quarter and led the entire game. However, Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann handed the ball to running back John Riggins. His 43-yard run gave Washington its first lead of the game on their way to a 27-17 victory. Riggins received Super Bowl MVP honors.
9. Super Bowl XXII: Washington Redskins beat Denver Broncos 42-10
Another upset at the hands of Washington. Only this time, they faced a quarterback named John Elway — and anyone can imagine what the hype was like ahead of this Super Bowl. However, after the first quarter, the big playmaker was the opposing quarterback, Doug Williams. He manned the offense to score four touchdowns in consecutive drives and put up 35 points in the second quarter. Denver didn’t find the end zone again for the rest of the game.
8. Super Bowl XXV: New York Giants beat Buffalo Bills 20-19
The Giants show up on this list a couple times for their mad skill at upsetting favored teams in the Super Bowl. But their best may have came in 1991 against the Buffalo Bills — especially because this game came down to the wire and a single point made the difference.
It’s fascinating to go back and look at how Coach Bill Parcells built up this Giants team to win the big dance. What it came down to in those last seconds, however, was Buffalo’s kicker missing the uprights, which created the chance to give the Bills the 22-20 win.
7. Super Bowl XV: Oakland Raiders beat Philadelphia Eagles 27-10
Now this Raiders team was a real underdog story in the making. After beginning the season 2-3, starting quarterback Dan Pastorini went down with a broken leg. Then, behind 33-year-old backup Jim Plunkett, the Silver & Black rallied themselves into a wild-card spot and won back-to-back games at home to punch their ticket to the Super Bowl. The rest is history.
6. Super Bowl IV: Kansas City Chiefs beat Minnesota Vikings 23-7
In the last “hurrah” before the NFL and AFL joined forces, the Chiefs were reportedly 13-point underdogs to Minnesota. So, quite a few people lost money that Super Bowl Sunday, when Kansas City abashed the heavily praised Vikings’ defense in one of Super Bowl history’s most one-sided battles.
5. Super Bowl XLVII: Baltimore Ravens beat San Francisco 49ers 34-31
Ah yes, the Harbaugh Brothers Bowl.
Now anyone who watched these two teams battle in the Thanksgiving Day matchup the year before would have predicted that the Ravens defense had the 49ers’ number. However, little brother John’s team flew high thanks to newly-found spark from their coach and a backup quarterback by the name of — maybe you’ve heard of him — Colin Kaepernick.
San Francisco was the 4.5-point favorite, but still fell late to big brother John’s team.
4. Super Bowl XXXII: Denver Broncos beat Green Bay Packers 31-24
Amidst one of its most dominant runs of the modern era, the Packers were returning to the Super Bowl after beating the Patriots the previous year. But the Broncos’ run game was on-point, thanks to soon-to-be MVP Terrell Davis. After a 7-7 tie in the first quarter Denver literally ran away with the game.
3. Super Bowl XXXVI: New England Patriots beat St. Louis Rams 20-17
This is a Super Bowl upset for two reasons. First, the Patriots — not quite Tom Brady’s team yet — controversially punched their ticket to the big dance thanks to the Tuck Rule Game against the Oakland Raiders. Also, Kurt Warner’s Rams were a 14-point favorite. Yes, 14. In the end, St. Louis was still the better team on paper. But they fell four points shy of hoisting the Lombardi Trophy.
2. Super Bowl XLII: New York Giants beat New England Patriots 17-14
On every other list in modern time this game is probably listed as the biggest upset. Why is it only ranked No. 2 here? Because the game itself was downright boring, that’s why. New York went 10-6 on the regular season before scraping their way to the Super Bowl. New England came into the game with a pristine record on the line. Both teams played to a subpar level, but the game is remembered because the Patriots were such a heavy favorite.
1. Super Bowl III: New York Jets beat Baltimore Colts 16-7
This is the original Super Bowl upset. The first in the NFL’s history.
The Baltimore rendition of the Colts had a winning record on the season and was a heavy favorite to beat the Jets in Florida to close out the year. Except Baltimore didn’t put any points on the board until the fourth quarter, falling to a supposedly inferior team. New York got going in the second after a scoreless first quarter, starting the charge for the first Super Bowl upset ever.