The New York Jets are authors of perhaps the greatest and most memorable upset in Super Bowl history. That 1968 Jets season was, of course, the franchise’s lone Super Bowl appearance, when Joe Namath guaranteed victory over the heavily-favored Baltimore Colts and delivered on his promise. Fast forward 52 years, and the Jets are still in search of a second appearance on football’s biggest stage. And 2020 has seen them plummet to the depths of despair (as if Jets fans didn’t feel that the franchise has already been at that stage for quite a while). But yesterday, something just short of an earthquake shook Los Angeles when the 0-13 Jets upended the 9-4 Rams at SoFi Stadium. The race for Trevor Lawrence just hit a major speed bump, but proud veterans like Frank Gore and Joe Flacco will not have to suffer the humiliation of just the third 0-16 season in NFL history.
After New York’s gargantuan, 23-20 victory, it was fair to start wondering where this 17-point underdog’s win ranks in terms of recent NFL upsets. Because playoff upsets are not nearly “upsets” of the same magnitude (they are, after all, playoff teams), I wanted to only compare based on regular season games. I’ve been watching the NFL closely since 1999 and been generally cognizant of it since about 1997, so I made that the far reach of the range of games I chose to examine (particularly because one of said upsets occurred that year).
I based these upsets not necessarily on point spread, but tried to take into account the magnitude of the game, what the teams’ final records were, and frankly just the shock factor of the games. So here they are, in no particular order:
1997, Week 12: Colts (0-10) defeat Packers (8-2), 41-38
I know I said “no particular order,” but it’s hard not to think of this one as a top-of-the-list candidate. The defending Super Bowl champion Packers were a 13-point favorite over the Colts, who had Paul Justin under center. Justin replaced Jim “Captain Comeback” Harbaugh, who compounded a sprained ankle with a broken hand he suffered when he punched Jim Kelly in the face in a San Diego hotel three weeks earlier.
A game that should have been a Packers runaway started as just that. Green Bay jumped out to a 14-3 lead, and clearly let its guard down after that. The Colts responded with 21 unanswered points before the game turned into a seesaw affair. Justin drove Indianapolis 72 yards in the final 5:19 to set up Cary Blanchard’s game-winning chip-shot from 20 yards out.
Green Bay still went on to finish 13-3 and reach its second straight Super Bowl, where it was upset by Denver, while the Colts actually tacked on two more upset wins later in the year against the Jets and the playoff-bound Dolphins.
2009, Week 16: Buccaneers (2-12) defeat Saints (13-1), 20-17 (OT)
This, quietly, was a true shocker that often gets overlooked. The Saints, en route to the franchise’s lone Super Bowl victory, appeared poised to perhaps. go 16-0. They won their first 13 games before Dallas upset them on a Saturday night, but at 13-1 the Saints just needed a victory to clinch homefield advantage through the playoffs. The Buccaneers began the season 0-7, but knocked off the Packers (a fairly sizable upset in its own right), a team that ended up 11-5. Tampa was coming off a win in Seattle against a bad Seahawks team, but was still 2-12 and entered the contest as a 14-point underdog.
There was no reason to think it wouldn’t be business as usual for the Saints, especially considering New Orleans wiped the floor with the Bucs in the teams’ first meeting, 38-7, five weeks earlier. And when New Orleans raced out to a 17-0 lead, fans were probably already thinking Drew Brees should just take the rest of the day off to rest. Instead, the Bucs rallied, scoring two fourth-quarter touchdowns. That included a game-tying, 77-yard punt return by Micheal (yes, Micheal) Spurlock with 2:25 left to tie the game. The Saints had a chance to win at the end of regulation, but Garrett Hartley, a hero weeks later in the NFC Championship Game, yanked a 37-yard field goal wide left. Saints owner Tom Benson began to celebrate, only to experience a delayed reaction of shock when he realized the kick missed.
The Buccaneers won the overtime coin flip (remember, this game was three years before the NFL implemented the new OT rules in the regular season) and drove 48 yards in 11 plays before Connor Barth sealed the stunning upset with a 47-yard field goal.
2004, Week 15: Dolphins (2-11) defeat Patriots (12-1), 29-28
I remember this one well, because I was there — 16 years ago yesterday. Well, I witnessed most of it anyway. But being sick and tired of all the gloating Patriots fans in attendance on that chilly South Florida evening, my friend and I decided to head out after Daniel Graham caught a short TD pass to extend New England’s lead to 28-17 with 3:59 to play. The Patriots were on their way to yet another win and another Lombardi Trophy, and the Dolphins were done, we figured. But as we reached the parking lot, there appeared to be some considerable noise coming from the home crowd (at least, we thought it was the home crowd, but it was hard to tell with all the Patriots fans in attendance), and some chatter from the Dolphins fans in the parking lot.
Sure enough, Miami, which entered the contest as a 10-point underdog, had driven down quickly to score a TD to cut the deficit to 28-23. But still, these were the Patriots in the midst of Part 1 of their dynasty. No way they would relinquish this lead until… another roar as Tom Brady threw his third interception of the evening, setting up a dramatic 4th-and-10 touchdown pass from A.J. Feeley to Derrius Thompson. On the play, Thompson beat “cornerback Troy Brown,” as the wide receiver memorably filled in admirably at defensive back that season in yet another Bill Belichick masterpiece. The score gave the Dolphins a 29-28 lead, and before we had reached our car — still in shock at what was unfolding, and what we were missing — we were informed that Brady was, indeed, picked off for a fourth time to seal one of this century’s biggest upsets.
2002, Week 16: Bengals (1-13) defeat Saints (9-5), 20-13
This may feel like a bit of a stretch, but any excuse to get the 2002 Saints in here after writing about them previously, right? The 2002 Saints were fascinating for their ability to beat just about all the top teams in football and lose to the worst, but nothing tops this. New Orleans needed one win in its final three games, all against losing teams going nowhere. In Week 16 they encountered an awful Bengals team whose only win to that point was over the expansion Texans. But after leading 13-7, the Saints watched haplessly as the Bengals got the tying and winning touchdowns from a fourth-year running back named Nick Luchey (not to be confused with Cincinnati native Nick Lachey). New Orleans would lose its final game to miss the playoffs, while the Bengals, who were only a 7-point underdog, finished a league-worst 2-14 and would draft Carson Palmer first overall the next year.
2002, Week 14: Texans (3-9) defeat Steelers (7-4-1), 24-6
This one is, in many ways, one of the true stunners of the 21st century, not so much in terms of difference in records, but the flat-out bizarre way this game played out. The expansion Texans (losers 38-3 to the aforementioned Bengals earlier that season) went into Pittsburgh with a punching bag QB in David Carr, who set a dubious record for most sacks suffered in a season. The Steelers had Tommy Maddox returning from a scary injury just three weeks earlier, but appeared ready to roll over the Texans as a 14-point favorite. On paper, the Steelers actually dominated this game. 24-3 in first downs (!). 47 total yards, 10 passing, for the Texans (yes, seriously). A 39:41-20:19 time of possession edge. Alas, five Steelers turnovers, including three for Texans touchdowns, were the difference. Consider this: the Texans’ return touchdowns in this game (two pick-sixes by Aaron Glenn and a fumble return by Kenny Wright) covered 175 yards, which means their defensive return yards outgained their offense by 128 yards.
The Steelers went on to win their next three games and the AFC North, and the Texans finished the season with three straight losses. Go figure.
1998, Week 15: Giants (5-8) defeat Broncos (13-0), 20-16
I remember watching “America’s Game” about the 1998 Broncos and hearing Shannon Sharpe talk about how the morning of this game just had an eerie feel, almost as if the Broncos had a strange feeling their run at perfection would end. Sure enough, Sharpe was right. Even though the Broncos had technically wrapped up homefield advantage and had “nothing to play for,” they played all their regulars and looked plenty thrilled to chase a 16-0 season. But it was not meant to be.
The 13-point underdog Giants stunned Denver as Kent Graham hit Amani Toomer with a 37-yard touchdown pass with 57 seconds to play, on a day when John Elway was held to just 180 yards passing, no touchdowns and an interception. Denver would also lose its next game in Miami, but won the season finale as Terrell Davis topped 2,000 yards rushing and went on to win Super Bowl XXXIII.
2011, Week 15: Chiefs (5-8) defeat Packers (13-0), 19-14
Is there an echo in here? A 5-8 team beats a 13-0 team in Week 15, 13 years later. This time, it’s interim head coach Romeo Crennel (speaking of echoes, Crennel is now in the same spot with Houston) and his Chiefs knocking off Aaron Rodgers’ crew. Kyle Orton was efficient for the 11.5-point-underdog Chiefs, throwing for 299 yards to just 235 for A-Rod, who was sacked four times on this day. The Chiefs racked up 438 yards of offense, further exposing a Green Bay defense that simply didn’t have to be good because of Rodgers’ greatness. However, it came back to bite the defending champs in the playoffs, as the Giants put up 37 points to win at Lambeau and make Green Bay the first 15-1 team not to win a playoff game.
2012, Week 2: Cardinals (1-0) defeat Patriots (1-0), 20-18
This is a rare early-season game that felt like a monumental upset. New England was a 13.5-point favorite against the Kevin Kolb-led Cardinals, who would start 2012 4-0, only to finish 5-11. Kolb did not exactly light it up, throwing for just 140 yards and a TD and fumbling once. Brady threw for 316 yards, but did throw a pick and was sacked four times. Still, the Patriots trailed 20-12 late and had not found the end zone all day until Brady hit Rob Gronkowski for a 5-yard touchdown with 2:49 to play. New England missed a two-point conversion that would have tied it, keeping Arizona in front, 20-18.
The Patriots kicked it deep rather than going onside, and the Cardinals picked up a first down to seemingly salt the game away. Two more runs by Arizona RB Ryan Williams left the Cards with 3rd-and-13 at their own 35, but with only 1:10 on the clock and the Patriots out of timeouts. Rather than kneel on the ball and take their chances punting it deep and leaving the Patriots with about 25 seconds to get into field goal range, the Cards ran again with Williams, and he was stripped by Brandon Spikes, giving New England the ball in field goal range. Danny Woodhead appeared to score the game-winning touchdown on a 30-yard run, but offensive holding by Gronkowski nullified the score. New England eventually lined up for a 42-yard field goal by Stephen Gostkowski to win it, but his kick was wide left, and the Cardinals prevailed in Foxborough.
2011, Week 7: Jaguars (1-5) defeat Ravens (4-1), 12-7
The Blaine Gabbert-led Jags, a 10.5-point underdog, did not crack the end zone, but held the Ravens to a paltry 146 yards of total offense. Jacksonville finished that season 5-11, while the Ravens would have been Super Bowl-bound if not for Lee Evans and Billy Cundiff.
2001, Week 16: Bengals (4-10) defeat Steelers (12-2), 26-23 (OT)
The Steelers squandered leads of 14-0 and 23-10 in this one, but fortunately did not squander homefield advantage. The Bengals got a 411-yard passing day from Jon Kitna and four interceptions of Kordell Stewart from their defense, and were able to survive two missed field goals and a missed extra point from their kicker, Neil Rackers. Cincinnati was 6-10 in 2001, opening and ending the season with two-game winning streaks but going 2-10 in between. The Steelers, an 8-point favorite in this one, were 13-3.
2010, Week 16: Vikings (5-9) defeat Eagles (10-4), 24-14
Ah, Tuesday Night Football. A game moved by a snowstorm in Philly turned into a big upset from the 14.5-point underdog Vikings. In the first Tuesday game since 1946, rookie Joe Webb filled in for Brett Favre, who was injured in the previous game and would never take another NFL snap. Webb did a lot of handing off to Adrian Peterson, who ran for 118 yards and a touchdown as the Minnesota defense sacked Michael Vick six times and forced him to fumble twice.