No matter what happens in Super Bowl LV on Sunday, January 7, you can guarantee you won’t see the game on any list of major Super Bowl upsets. The Kansas City Chiefs opened as 3.5-point favorites over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and it looks as though the spread will be somewhere between 3-4 points come kick off.
But, throughout the years, this game has had a propensity to produce some of the greatest upsets the sport has ever seen. Whether is Joe Namath’s guarantee or the GOAT, Tom Brady, making his first appearance in the NFL’s biggest game, let’s take a look at the five biggest upsets in Super Bowl history.
Top Five Super Bowl Upsets
5. Super Bowl XXXII
Green Bay Packers (-11.5) vs. Denver Broncos
Final Score: Broncos 31, Packers 24
Up until this game, the book on John Elway was that he was a great quarterback but would never be able to win a Super Bowl. Almost 25 years later that thought seems unimaginable, but no one outside of Denver expected the Broncos to win this one.
The Packers came in as the defending Super Bowl champions, defeating Drew Bledsoe’s Patriots in Super Bowl XXXI the year prior. Brett Favre led the Packers to a 13-3 regular season record. The Packers earned a first-round bye before winning their Divisional Round game against the Buccaneers, 21-7. In the NFC title game, they beat the 49ers, 23-10.
The Broncos went a respectable 12-4, but didn’t even win their division as the 13-3 Chiefs took the crown. They cruised through the Wild Card Round before hard-fought wins in their two games leading into the Super Bowl. They were led by an aging Elway, but featured one of the best rushing attacks in the NFL, with Terrell Davis in the backfield.
The aerial attack of the Packers and Favre vs. the ground game of the Broncos was on full display all night, and it was Davis that came out on top. Davis finished with 30 rushes, 157 yards and 3 TDs, earning Super Bowl MVP honors in a 31-24 win. But, despite Davis’ massive performance, it was an 8-yard run by 37-year old John Elway that went down as the game’s most memorable play.
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4. Super Bowl IV
Minnesota Vikings (-12) vs. Kansas City Chiefs
Final Score: Chiefs 23, Vikings 7
The fourth biggest upset in Super Bowl history coincidently comes to us in Super Bowl IV, as the heavily favored Vikings fell to the Chiefs, 23-7. This was also the final Super Bowl that featured an AFL vs. NFL matchup.
The Vikings were an absolute machine in 1969. Not only was their 12-2 record the best in the NFL, but they led the league in points scored and fewest point allowed. Their defense was led by the fabled “Purple People Eaters”, a front that featured Gary Larsen, Jim Marshall, Carl Eller and Alan Page.
The Chiefs were led by head coach Hank Stram and quarterback Len Dawson. KC had represented the AFL in the Super Bowl once before, in Super Bowl I against the Packers and Vince Lombardi. They lost that one, 35-10. This Chiefs team seemed to be struck with bad luck. Dawson suffered an injury early in the season that forced him to miss six weeks. His backup, Jacky Lee, then broke his ankle later in the season. Still the Chiefs managed an 11-3 regular season record.
No matter what the Chiefs did, they would always be seen as inferior coming into the game. The AFL was seen as the lesser of the two leagues, a little brother to the NFL. But, the 12-point underdogs scored three straight field goals to take a 9-0 lead before a Mike Garrett TD run made it 16-0. They never looked back.
Not only was the upset on the field one of the most famous in NFL history, but the game led way to players and coaches being mic’d up, as Hank Stram agreed to wear a hidden microphone for the game, producing some of the most memorable sound bites in league history.
3. Super Bowl XLII
New England Patriots (-12.5) vs. New York Giants
Final Score: Giants 17, Patriots 14
If you remember this Super Bowl, you know just how big of an upset it was when the Giants came out on top over the Patriots.
New England, led by Tom Brady, Randy Moss and head coach Bill Belichick ran through the regular season with a perfect 16-0 record, making them the first team to go unbeaten throughout the regular season since the 1972 Dolphins. Tom Brady was the MVP of the NFL as the Patriots set records for touchdowns scored, points scored and point differential. It’s hard to really put into words how big of an upset it was for them to lose, especially to the NFC’s No. 5 seed.
The Giants had an up-and-down season in 2007. They got out to a 6-2 start before the bye, but alternated wins and losses for the remainder of the year, finishing 10-6 and 2nd in the NFC East. They hadn’t won back-to-back games in about 3 months prior to the playoffs, but they ripped off three straight to make it to Super Bowl XLII.
From the opening kickoff, you could tell that the high-powered offense everyone was used to seeing from the Patriots wasn’t going to be showing up. The Giants used the speed of a smaller defensive front, made up of Michael Strahan, Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora, to give the Patriots fits. They sacked Brady five times and kept him under constant pressure, holding the best offense in NFL history to 14 points.
The Giants’ offense wasn’t particularly sharp in the Super Bowl, but it didn’t have to be. All it needed to do was hang around long enough for WR David Tyree to make what is widely considered the greatest play in Super Bowl history.
2. Super Bowl XXXVI
St. Louis Rams (-14) vs. New England Patriots
Final Score: Patriots 20, Rams 17
From massive favorites in the No. 3 game on this list to underdogs of epic proportions in game No. 2, Super Bowl XXXVI is essentially the beginning of the Patriots’ nearly 20 years of NFL dominance.
The St. Louis Rams boasted one of the best offenses in NFL history during the 2001-2002 season. Led by future Hall of Famer Kurt Warner under center “The Greatest Show on Turf” featured names like Isaac Bruce, Tory Holt, Marshall Faulk and contributors like Ricky Proehl and Az-Zahir Akim. Nobody could stop this group of Hall of Famers, until the Patriots came around.
Now, it seems almost comical to think of Tom Brady as the underdog. When he retires he will hold every modern day record for QBs and will be considered by almost everyone that has ever watched a football game as the greatest to ever play the position. But, at the time, he was just the 199th pick in the 2000 NFL Draft, filling in for starter Drew Bledsoe after he was knocked out of the Divisional Round game against the Raiders, and the spread reflected just that.
Brady didn’t light the scoreboard up in Super Bowl XXXVI, but he did just enough to win. The exclamation point was a gutsy drive from his own 12-yard line with 1:21 left and the game tied at 17 that led to Adam Vinatieri’s game-winning field goal attempt as time expired.
1. Super Bowl III
Baltimore Colts (-18) vs. New York Jets
Final Score: Jets 16, Colts 7
We will probably never see an 18-point Super Bowl spread again, so this game’s spot atop the list of biggest Super Bowl upsets is likely safe for the foreseeable future. For as famous as this game is for what happened on the field, it’s perhaps even better known for what happened off the field leading up to it.
To this point, just three years in, the AFL had never won a Super Bowl. The NFL’s Green Bay Packers had beaten both the Chiefs and Raiders in Super Bowl I and II, and pretty much everyone expected the NFL’s Baltimore Colts to do the same to the Jets.
The Colts had lost just one game that season, coming in at 13-1. Meanwhile, the Jets were 11-3 with a flashy, cool QB by the name of Joe Namath. Namath was a legend at Alabama and the first pick in the 1965 AFL Draft.
Namath, in the media circus leading up to Super Bowl III, could sense that no one was giving his team much of a chance. So, when a fan let him hear about just how unlikely a Jets win was, he responded with the most famous guarantee in sports.
The rest is history. The Jets held the Colts to just seven points and are one of two teams to win a Super Bowl scoring just one touchdown. The upset is legendary, but it’s the pregame guarantee by Namath that lives on forever in sports lore.