Biggest NFL Upsets of All Time
While my job is handicapping NFL games and prognosticating the outcome, there’s a certain element of unpredictability that will always be present. That results in crazy upsets every year in the NFL, and there have been some memorable moments of unexpected results in the history of the league.
I ordered this list based on the size of the spread in the games where underdogs have won, although it’s very possible I missed one or two along the way. Feel free to hit me up on Twitter @wayne_sports_ about any upsets I left off this list. Let’s get to work.
#1: New York Jets (+19.5) beat the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III (1/12/1969)
Following the merger between the AFL and NFL in 1966, the consensus public perception was that the NFL was far superior. That played out in the first two Super Bowls where the Packers won by 25 and 19 points against the Chiefs and Raiders, respectively. However, Jets quarterback Joe Namath expected things to go differently in Super Bowl III.
While the Colts were expected to win in commanding fashion as 19-point favorites, an intoxicated Joe Namath appeared at the Miami Touchdown Club and made a famous guarantee that the Jets would win the game. Head coach Weeb Ewbank later recalled his frustration, saying “I could have shot him for saying it.”
On this day in 1969, Joe Namath delivers on his "guarantee" to win Super Bowl III as the Jets defeat the Baltimore Colts 16-7.
Namath went 17-28 for 206 yards and was named MVP for a Jets team that entered the game as an 18-point underdog. pic.twitter.com/I5hhOObzKh
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 12, 2023
Sure enough, the Jets controlled the game throughout en route to a 16-7 win. For his part, Namath completed a modest 17 of 28 passes for 206 yards with no touchdowns or interceptions, but he won Super Bowl MVP for his route in managing his team’s victory. Namath’s bold guarantee remains a big part of NFL lore as the eventual Hall of Famer led the biggest upset in the history of the league in its biggest game.
#2: Washington Redskins (+17.5) beat the Dallas Cowboys (12/3/1995)
While this Redskins win over the Cowboys didn’t have quite the same memorable storyline as their upset in 1987 (more on that later), Washington shockingly won as 17.5-point underdogs. The Redskins had floundered their way to four straight losses and had allowed 24+ points in three of those four games.
The Cowboys were led by the future Hall of Fame trio of Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, and Michael Irvin and had won the Super Bowl in two of the prior three seasons. The Redskins were led by Mark Shuler, who only started 22 games in his career and had an 8-14 record as a starter. However, none of that mattered as the Redskins won 24-17.
The Redskins were 3-9 entering the game but used the win as a springboard to finish the season 6-10. This loss wasn’t catastrophic for the Cowboys as they went on to win its third Super Bowl in four seasons, and it perhaps provided a check against complacency for a team that ended up one of the great dynasties in NFL history.
#3: Miami Dolphins (+17.5) beat the New England Patriots (12/29/2019)
In what ended up being Tom Brady’s final season in New England, things ended in a rough way for the Patriots. In the final week of the 2019 season, the Patriots needed a win to secure a bye week in the AFC postseason. They hosted the Dolphins as 17.5-point favorites, and fans prepared for an easy win to secure that much needed week of rest.
Things didn’t go according to plan, however, as Ryan Fitzpatrick played a brilliant game for Miami, completing 28 of 41 passes for 320 yards and a touchdown despite no semblance of a run game – the Dolphins ran for just 63 total yards. Former Patriot Eric Rowe got revenge on his former team with a pick six to put the Dolphins up 10-0 in the second quarter.
— Miami Dolphins (@MiamiDolphins) December 29, 2019
Miami’s 27-24 win was the biggest upset in almost a quarter of a century in this game, and it was the worst upset loss of Brady’s career. Perhaps that should have been a sign of things to come as the Patriots lost to the Titans in the playoffs the following week as home favorites, ending Brady’s career in New England in disappointing fashion.
#4: New York Jets (+17.5) beat the Los Angeles Rams (12/20/2020)
In Week 15 of the 2020 season, Adam Gase’s winless Jets traveled cross country to take on Sean McVay’s Rams in a game where nobody gave them much of a chance. The Jets were 0-13 to start the season while the Rams were in the midst of a stretch of 10+ wins in four of five seasons.
Sam Darnold threw a first quarter touchdown to running back Ty Johnson to lead his team to an early 13-0 lead while Frank Gore plodded his way for 59 rushing yards on 23 carries, a measly 2.6 YPC clip. The Rams didn’t find their offensive footing until it was too late as the Jets won the game 23-20.
Much to the chagrin of their fans, the Jets would win one more game the following week, effectively ending their chances of drafting Trevor Lawrence. The Jaguars landed the first pick in the draft instead while the Jets were left to take Zach Wilson second overall. The rest, as they say, is history.
#5: New York Jets (+17) beat the Buffalo Bills (12/6/1992)
The Bills had an “almost” dynasty in the early 1990s as they lost four straight Super Bowls with head coach Marv Levy and quarterback Jim Kelly. That era of Buffalo football is also remembered for two of the biggest upset losses in NFL history. On December 6, 1992, a 3-9 Jets team traveled to face a 9-3 Bills team in a game most expected to be a walkover.
The week prior, the Bills had lost as 16-point favorites to a Colts team that entered the game 4-7 – you can find that game a few spots lower on this list. Surely, after that type of embarrassing loss, the Bills wouldn’t be caught sleeping again. However, the Jets nabbed a 24-17 win in 26 degree weather in Buffalo.
A week after Dennis Byrd was paralyzed the @nyjets played an inspired game to beat the Bills for the 1st time since 1987.
Brian Washington pick 6 to give Jets 24-17 lead
Bill Pickel strip and fumble recovery
— New York Jets History (@nyjetshistory) May 9, 2023
Jets quarterback Browning Nagle, in the midst of his lone season as a starter, threw for 176 yards while Brad Baxter added 98 yards on the ground. Kelly, meanwhile, had a rough afternoon as he completed just 57% of his passes and threw two interceptions. Thurman Thomas’s 116 rushing yards weren’t enough to get the win for the Bills against the much inferior Jets side.
#6: Buffalo Bills (+16.5) beat the Minnesota Vikings (9/23/2018)
Before the world knew how good Josh Allen would become, the Bills had started his rookie season with an 0-2 record. They entered a Week 3 matchup in Minnesota as 16.5-point underdogs against the Vikings. Minnesota had started that season 1-0-1 after an impressive win over the 49ers and a tie against the Packers.
Allen put the world on notice on that Sunday afternoon as he finished with four total touchdowns, two passing and two rushing, in an early display of what his dual-threat skill set would become. The Vikings’ offense was also stuck in the mud in that game as Kirk Cousins was sacked four times and they didn’t score until the fourth quarter.
— Joel (@JoelBishopFB) September 23, 2018
The Bills finished that season just 6-10, but the Vikings were 8-7-1, suggesting the spread in that Week 3 game was significantly overinflated. Nevertheless, Allen’s Bills earned a massive win that helped lay the foundation for this most recent run of success in the franchise’s history.
#7: Jacksonville Jaguars (+16) beat the Buffalo Bills (11/7/2021)
Two seasons after that big upset win over the Vikings, Josh Allen won MVP in the 2020 season. One year after that, he was leading a Bills team that was soaring with a top three offense and defense by points for and against. The Bills were 5-2 entering a road game against the Jaguars with those five wins coming by an average of 26 points per game.
Allen was poised to expose a Jaguars defense that ended the season ranked 28th in points allowed, but that’s not what happened that Sunday afternoon. The Jaguars’ Josh Allen, who shares the same name as the Bills quarterback, terrorized the Bills offensive line with eight tackles, two for a loss, one sack, five total pressures, and an interception.
The Jaguars entered that game with a putrid 1-6 record, and while fans hoped that win would be a springboard for the rest of their season, they lost the following eight games and ended the year 3-14. That wound up being the only year of the Urban Meyer experience in Duval County, but an unexpected 9-6 win over the Bills was the big highlight.
#8: Indianapolis Colts (+16) beat the Buffalo Bills (11/29/1992)
We’re onto our fourth straight game on this list involving the Bills, and we’re going back to 1992 where the Bills preceded their loss to the Jets with another embarrassing loss as 16-point favorites against the Colts. This loss was even more surprising given the Colts had already lost to the Bills 38-0 earlier that season.
Indianapolis had lost four straight games heading into that late November matchup, but things went their way that afternoon. Colts quarterback Jack Trudeau finished with 337 passing yards, and while he had no touchdowns, he far outplayed Jim Kelly who completed just 33% of his passes and threw two interceptions.
The Colts also got a huge effort from Charles Arbuckle, who finished with nine catches for 106 yards. The Bills’ two losses as big favorites in the 1992 season were a bizarre blip in the midst of a seven-game win streak and 11-5 season that ended with the third of four straight Super Bowl appearances.
#9: Cincinnati Bengals (+14.5) beat the Pittsburgh Steelers (12/21/2020)
The 2020 Steelers were off to a brilliant 11-0 start to the season before two straight losses to Washington and Buffalo. Surely, a Monday Night Football game against the lowly Bengals, who entered the game 2-10-1, would be the elixir to cure their recent slump. Pittsburgh was favored by 14.5 points in that primetime game.
With rookie Joe Burrow having suffered a season-ending torn ACL, veteran Ryan Finley would get the fourth start of his career and his first of the season. Finley only completed 7 of 13 passes for 89 yards, but he threw for a touchdown and ran for another 23-yard score on one of the most improbable touchdown runs of the season.
Just when you think the Steelers are taking back over…here comes Ryan Finley
— BetOnline.ag (@betonline_ag) December 22, 2020
Ben Roethlisberger struggled in that game as he completed just 52% of his passes and had two turnovers. Meanwhile, JuJu Smith-Schuster had a costly fumble of his own. The Bengals’ Giovani Bernard finished with 97 yards from scrimmage and two touchdowns, becoming a fantasy football hero in the process in that always crucial Week 15 Monday Night game.
#10: New England Patriots (+14) beat the St. Louis Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI (2/3/2002)
In Super Bowl XXXVI, the Rams were hefty 14-point favorites with future Hall of Famer Kurt Warner leading the “Greatest Show on Turf” into battle. The Rams had gone 14-2 that season and were expected to steamroll an upstart Patriots team that was 11-5 in the regular season and had escaped in the first round of the playoffs in the infamous “Tuck Rule” game.
Tom Brady earned his first Super Bowl win, and while he only completed 16 passes for 145 yards, he earned the Super Bowl MVP award in large part due to leading the Patriots down the field on their final drive for the game-winning field goal from Adam Vinaeteri. Troy Brown was Brady’s leading receiver with six catches for 89 yards in the game.
The Rams had won the Super Bowl two years prior, but that win seemingly caused them to be caught off guard by the Patriots. Brady was able to cap off his first season as the starter with an incredibly improbable Super Bowl win, kickstarting what became the best dynasty in professional sports history.
February 3, 2002: Adam Vinatieri nails a 48-yard field goal on the final play to give the 14-point underdog Patriots a 20-17 win over the St. Louis Rams at Super Bowl XXXVI in New Orleans. pic.twitter.com/CKtnMITgdU
— This Day In Sports Clips (@TDISportsClips) February 3, 2021
Honorable Mention: Washington Redskins (+8) beat the Dallas Cowboys (10/19/1987)
In the 1987 season, some 1,500 NFL players had gone on strike to demand a more lucrative form of free agency, but the Redskins had a big disadvantage in this game as none of their players had returned to the team. Meanwhile, the Cowboys had seen around 20 players cross the picket fence and return to the field, the most of any team.
The list of Cowboys players that had returned included two future Hall of Famers – running back Tony Dorsett and defensive tackle Randy White – as well as quarterback Danny White and defensive end Ed “Too Tall” Jones. The “Scab Skins” had a misfit crew of replacements including a 7-Eleven security guard and a kicker that missed a kick so badly in practice that he broke a window.
The Redskins also had to play without quarterback Ed Rubbert, their replacement quarterback who had led the team to wins in the prior two games, for more than three quarters after he suffered an injury. Tony Robinson, who was on work furlough from prison following a cocaine conviction, made four crucial completions on third down to keep the team alive throughout the game despite an underwhelming effort overall.
Washington also relied on running back Lionel Vital, who had 136 rushing yards, and tight end Craig McEwen, who had 7 catches for 108 yards – they were both cut during training camp. The Redskins also saw several miscast defensive players step up in a huge way to hold the Cowboys to 7 points. They sealed the win with a pass deflection at the 5-yard line late in the fourth quarter.
Joe Gibbs, who later made it to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, deserves a heap of credit for his coaching effort on that day. The two-time Coach of the Year and three-time Super Bowl champion had perhaps his best game ever and was carried off the field on the shoulders of feverish Redskins players after the win.
Quarterback Doug Williams later returned along with the rest of the Redskins’ normal lineup, and the team went on to win Super Bowl XXII over the Broncos. This unlikely story was documented in the 2000 movie The Replacements featuring Keanu Reaves, and it lives on as one of the best examples of all time of David defeating Goliath.
— David Menassé (@Frekiwolf) October 19, 2020