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11 Biggest NFL Playoff Upsets

by: Esteban On  Tuesday, January 10, 2012

biggest nfl playoff upsets

The last two years, the NFL Playoffs’ “Wild Card Weekend” has really lived up to its name by being rather…well, you know…wild. The big story last year, of course, was the ridiculously thrilling game between Seattle and New Orleans. This year, it was the game between Denver and Pittsburgh that ended dramatically on the first play of the first overtime.

Right now, I think we’re all probably getting a little spoiled by all this awesome football. So I thought that, before the buzz wears off, I’d do a list of the greatest non-Super Bowl upsets in the history of the NFL playoffs. Yes, that’s right. We’re not going to look at the Big Game just yet, but the games that get teams to the Big Game.

So check it out and, as always, let us know what you think.

11. Packers over 49ers, 1995-96 Division Playoffs

brett_favre packers

The Pack and the 49ers actually had identical records (11-5) in the NFC for the 1995 regular season. But records don’t always tell the whole story. Steve Young’s 49ers led the NFL with a whopping 199 point differential. Each of their losses was by only 1 score, while their wins were mostly blow-outs. Plus, the 49ers had were the reigning Super Bowl Champs.

So despite their identical records, Brett Favre’s Packers were double-digit underdogs against the 49ers…and then they won 27-17.

10. Falcons over Vikings, 1998-99 NFC Championship Game

falcons vikings 1998

How does a 14-2 pull off a major upset? By beating a 15-1 offensive juggernaut that scored 556 points and only gave up 296 (for a differential of 260), that’s how.
While the 1998 Falcons were really good, everyone thought Randy Moss and the Vikings were really great. Then they lost a squeaker, 30-27. So this upset makes the list because of the quality of the losing team rather than the lack of quality of the victorious team.

9. 49ers over Vikings, 1970-71 Division Playoffs

1970 49ers

The Vikings were 12-2 in 1970, they had outscored their opponents by about 2 touchdowns per game, and, oh yeah, they were the defending NFL champs. The 49ers, on the other hand, were a respectable 10-3-1, but their schedule was weaker and their margin of victory was only half of Minnesota’s. Oh, and the game was played in frigid Minnesota, where the Vikings hadn’t lost in over two years. There was no way the inexperienced California team could beat them.

And then, of course, they did. 17-14.

8. Oilers over Chargers, 1979-80 Division Playoffs

vernon perry oilers

The Houston Oilers were pretty good in 1979, going 11-5. But going into their playoff game against the 12-4 Chargers (who led the league in points scored and were second in points allowed), the Oilers’ were without their starting QB (Dan Pastorini), All-Pro RB (Earl Campbell). So how in the hell did the Oilers win?

Well, it didn’t hurt that rookie safety Vernon Perry intercepted Chargers QB Dan Fouts four times. It also didn’t hurt that the Oilers coaching staff had figured out the Chargers’ play-calling signals.

7. Steelers over Colts, 2005-06 Division Playoffs

Ben Roethlisberger

Peyton Manning’s Colts were in their prime in 2005, having gone 14-2 and put up 439 points. The Steelers won their division with an 11-5 record, but their young QB Ben Roethlisberger was still wet behind the ears, and they got thumped 26-7 by Indy on MNF earlier in the season. So this was considered the Colts’ game to lose.

Which they did, 21-18, thanks in part to kicker Mike Vanderjagt’s missed 46-yard field goal with 18 seconds on the clock.

6. Colts over Chiefs, 1995-96 Division Playoffs

colts chiefs 1995-96 upset

The 1995 Chiefs were an NFL-best 13-3, while the lowly Colts just squeaked into the playoffs with a 9-7 record. The Colts beat the similarly mediocre Chargers in the Wild Card round, but lost star RB and future Hall of Famer Marshall Falk in the process. So there was no way this week dome team could beat the mighty Chiefs outside in the cold without their best player.

But they did, of course. 10-7.

5. Seahawks over Saints, 2010-11 Wild Card Playoffs

Last year, the downright bad Seattle Seahawks made the playoffs with a record of 7-9 because they played in the worst division in the NFL. So when they beat the reigning Super Bowl champion Saints on Wild Card Weekend, people were immediately talking about how this was possibly the greatest playoff upset ever.

But here’s the thing. The Saints couldn’t find their groove in 2010-11, and finished with a merely respectable 11-5 record. Yes, they had Super Bowl pedigree, but they weren’t playing that way on a weekly basis.

More importantly, though Seattle was putrid on the road, they were a decent 5-3 at home in Qwest Field—which just happens to be one of the loudest venues in the NFL.

So while the crappy Seahawks 41-36 victory over the Saints was thrilling (and that run by Marshawn Lynch was out of this world), this was not the biggest playoff upset ever. In fact, it wasn’t even the greatest playoff upset pulled off by the Seahawks.

4. Seahawks over Dolphins, 1983 Division Playoffs

1983 seahawks dolphins

Now, Seattle’s 27-20 victory over Dan Marino and the Dolphins in 1983—that was something.

Okay, so it was Marino’s rookie season, and he “only” threw for 20 TDs that year. But Miami was 12-4 overall, and they rattled off 5 straight wins in which they averaged 33 points to close out the regular season. So their were really clicking.

The Seahawks, on the other hand, were 9-7, and only made the playoffs thanks to two desperate wins over the mediocre Pats and the putrid Giants.

Now that’s an upset.

3. Jags over Broncos, 1996-97 Division Playoffs

jaguars broncos 1996

The Jaguars managed to make the playoffs in just their second year of existence with a 9-7 record. It was a nice feel-good story. But it got way better when they defeated the 10-6 Buffalo Bills, then John Elway’s 13-3 Broncos. After all, the Broncos were tied for the league’s best record, and pretty much everyone thought that this would finally be the year the Broncos overcame their habit of underperforming in the playoffs.

But nope. It turned out that 1997, not 1996, would be John Elway’s year, and the Jags stunned Denver 30-27.

2. Broncos over Steelers, 2012 Playoffs

Tim Tebow

Alright, I know it’s really early to make such a bold claim about the Bronco’s victory over the Steelers this past weekend. But I just could not resist.

The 2011 Broncos were just a bizarre team. They replaced the mediocre Kyle Orton with the even more mediocre Tim Tebow (QB ratings of 75.7 and 72.9, respectively). But Tebow somehow won a bunch of games…then he lost a bunch of games. Three in a row to end the season, to be precise.

Yet the 8-8 Broncos still made the playoffs because their division sucked. And since they won their division, they got to host the superior 12-4 Steelers, who made the playoffs as Wild Cards.

Any way you cut it, this was a big upset. Huge.

1. Vikings over 49ers, 1987-88 Playoffs

1987 Vikings 49ers

Yet, somehow, the Vikings managed to beat the 12-3 Saints in the Wild Card game, then trounced the 49ers 36-24 in the Divisional game. It was so bad that Bill Walsh actually benched Joe Montana in the 3rd quarter.