Super Bowl buildup: Top 10 Divisional Playoff upsets in NFL history
LOS ANGELES — Unlike professional baseball, hockey and basketball, the NFL playoffs are one and done. Every year, shocking upsets take place during these games, part of the annual Super Bowl buildup. The conference title games usually feature great teams, and the wildcard round exempts the top teams. For this reason, this is where to expect crazy results. This round is when many of these amazing Divisional Playoff upsets occur.
The 2019 Tennessee Titans barely made the playoffs at 9-7. One week after going on the road and shocking the 12-4 New England Patriots in the Wildcard, the Titans went on the road again and stunned the 14-2 Ravens 28-12. In future years, this probably will make the list of the Top 10 NFL Divisionals Upsets.
The problem with automatically including it is the issue of recent event bias. The Titans win over the Ravens just occurred. Proper analysis requires time to process the game. So while it probably does deserve to appear on the list, let us focus on Divisional Playoff upsets that happened before this decade.
Other worthy contenders just missed the cut for different reasons.
In the realm of Divisional Playoff upsets, the 2010 Seahawks at 7-9 were the only losing team at the time to ever win their division. Although they shocked the 12-4 defending champion Saints, this divisional contest missed the list since the Seahawks were at home.
The 2011 Giants were only 9-7 when they shocked the 15-1 defending champion Packers. This upset missed the list because the Giants were a very confident bunch who defeated the Packers during their 2007 title run.
The 1983 Seahawks stood at only 9-7 when they stunned the 12-4 Miami Dolphins. This missed the list because it was Dan Marino’s rookie season. As it often does, experience won out in this Divisional Playoff upset.
Likewise, the 1984 Steelers also had a 9-7 W-L record when they shocked the 13-3 Denver Broncos. This was likewise an experience issue. The legendary John Elway was playing his first home playoff game ever.
The 2014 Colts at 11-5 did shock the 12-4 Broncos. Disgruntled fans everywhere found themselves cheated out of an AFC Title Game between Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. The only reason this game missed the list? Manning played injured.
With that, as the current Super Bowl buildup continues, here are the top ten Divisional Playoff Upsets in NFL history.
10.) 1985—Patriots 27, Raiders 20:
The 12-4 Raiders proved every bit as good as their Super Bowl team from two years earlier. The 11-5 Patriots benefitted from Los Angeles kick returner Sammy Seale booting a kick return into the winning New England touchdown. This would have ranked higher. Except Jim Plunkett was out injured and backup Marc Wilson was playing injured. Also, New England went on the road a week earlier. Subsequently, they beat the Jets and went on the road again a week later, shocking the Dolphins in the AFC Title Game.
9.) 1993—Chiefs 28, Oilers 20:
As the 1993 Super Bowl buildup got underway, the 12-4 Oilers were likely the most dysfunctional team in NFL history. As with Buddy Ryan punching Kevin Gilbride. However, they had already won 11 straight games. The 11-5 Chiefs were good. But the Oilers led after three quarters, and then collapsed. This would rank higher, except Chiefs quarterback Joe Montana was the best.
8.) 2007—Giants 21, Cowboys 17:
The 13-3 Cowboys had beaten the 9-7 Giants twice in the regular season. But in Dallas the Giants won when Tony Romo was intercepted in the end zone on the final play. This would rank higher, but the Giants went on to shock the world by beating Brett Favre and the Packers. And then for good measure, by beating Tom Brady and the Patriots. Also, it would be eight more years until Romo finally won a playoff game.
7.) 2010—Jets 28, Patriots 21:
Several weeks earlier in the 2010 season, the 14-2 Patriots carpet-bombed the 11-5 Jets by a score of 45-3 before a nighttime national audience. In the 2010 Super Bowl buildup, the Jets dominated this playoff game, one that was not as close as the score indicates. Rex Ryan got his revenge over the hated Bill Belichick-Tom Brady tandem. As one Patriots player said on the sideline, “They talked it. They walked it.”
6.) 1982—Jets 17, Raiders 14:
This strike shortened season saw the 6-3 Jets go on the road and blast the Bengals. Yet the 8-1 Raiders, who would win it all one year later, were heavy favorites. The New York Sack Exchange dominated the line of scrimmage and forced several turnovers. The Raiders had two chances in the final minutes, when Jim Plunkett was intercepted twice by Lance Mel.
5.) 2007—Chargers 28, Colts 24:
The 11-5 Chargers had no business beating the 14-2 Colts. But for some reason, Peyton Manning and the Colts always played bad games against the Chargers, who could not beat anybody else. Philip Rivers was out, and backup Billy Volek led the win. The 2006 season saw the Colts beat the Patriots in the greatest AFC Title Game ever played. Had the Colts won this game against the Chargers, they would have had a rematch with the 16-0 Patriots in the greatest AFC Title Game to never be played. Manning and Brady would play in a couple more AFC Title Games. But none proved as historic as this one would have been.
4.) 2008—Cardinals 33, Panthers 13—
The 9-7 Cardinals did have Kurt Warner, but they went 2-4 to close the regular season. Despite stunning the 11-5 Falcons in the Wildcard, prognosticators expected them to lose big-time to 12-4 Carolina. That Panthers team with Jake Delhomme and Steve Smith looked like a Super Bowl team. But despite leading at halftime, the Panthers collapsed in the second half. Warner and Larry Fitzgerald were the ones putting the yards and points on the board. Delhomme was never the same after this game.
3.) 1987—Vikings 36, 49ers 24—
This divisional playoff upset marked Joe Montana’s one awful playoff meltdown. One year after San Francisco was belted 49-3 by the Giants, this time the 13-2 49ers were heavy favorites to beat the 8-7 Vikings in the 1987 Super Bowl buildup. Although Minnesota had upset the 12-3 Saints one week earlier, NFL fans and football scribes dismissed this. After all, neither New Orleans nor Jim Mora at that time had ever won a playoff game. In this game Montana threw four interceptions and Bill Walsh benched him for Steve Young. Happily for San Francisco football fans, the 49ers would rebound to win the Super Bowl the next two years.
2.) 1996—Jaguars 30, Broncos 27—
The Jaguars started out the season 4-7 before winning five straight games. They needed a 30-yard missed field goal on the final play of the final game by ace Morton Anderson to make the playoffs at 9-7. Even when they beat Jim Kelly and the Buffalo Bills 30-27, nobody gave them a chance against a 13-3 Broncos team that was expected to finally get John Elway his ring. Denver jumped to a 12-0 lead and then fell asleep as the Jaguars scored 23 unanswered points to lead 23-12 and then 30-20. Elway said it was the one time he cried after a game. The next year Elway would finally hoist the trophy, blasting Jacksonville along the way. The year after that, Denver won it all again, and Elway retired on top.
1.) 1995—Colts 10, Chiefs 7—
The 9-7 Colts were 4-7 before running the table and dispatching San Diego in the Wildcard. They had a tough quarterback in Jim Harbaugh, but were expected to be throttled by a 13-3 Chiefs team. Yes, Marty Schottenheimer suffered playoff losses. But this was one the Chiefs simply gave away. Steve Bono threw three interceptions in the second half and was replaced by Rich Gannon. Lin Elliot would miss three field goals, including the game-tying late attempt. A great quote for the ages occurred when announcer Paul Maguire said, “I hate kickers. They should be paid $50 a game.” He also said, “Well it doesn’t matter because Lin Elliot’s not going to be a Chief next year.” Elliot never kicked in the NFL again and Bono was gone from the team two years later.
— Headline image: In another noteworthy NFL Divisional Playoff loss, KC’s kicker Lin Elliot stares in disbelief after missing his third and final field goal attempt in the Chiefs’ surprise 10-7 1995 defeat at the hands of the Indianapolis Colts. It was Elliot’s last ever NFL game. Screen capture of NFL archive video via YouTube.