For a Super Bowl (or any football game) to be called an “upset,” it must be a game that defeats expectations — one that dramatically “upsets” the apple cart in terms of point spread, teams favored to win, and player performance, among other variables.
An underdog victory can be an upset, as can a points massacre or an unknown player breaking records and gaining MVP status. A newcomer beating a veteran team can be an upset, as can points made from a play that should have been impossible.
We couldn’t just choose five, so here are our top six picks for the biggest Super Bowl upsets of all time.
Super Bowl XLVIII
Date Played: February 2, 2014
Teams Playing: Seattle Seahawks vs. Denver Broncos
Why This Was an Upset: The Seahawks scored 36 points before the favored-to-win Broncos had scored even one
The Broncos, with Peyton Manning at the helm, were favored to win. Both teams had a 13-3 season, but the Broncos’ offense was considered unstoppable, and Denver repeatedly won points on their first possession.
In fact, the Denver Broncos had scored more than 600 points during the season, almost 200 more points than the Seahawks’ 417 season points. This means that the Broncos scored an average of 12 points more per game than the Seahawks did during the season.
That’s a pretty significant advantage coming into the Super Bowl and had the Seahawks on notice that they were going to have to play their best game ever if they wanted to beat Peyton Manning’s Broncos and win the championship.
Famed quarterback Joe Namath, in a giant fur coat, executed the coin toss.
The Seahawks won the coin toss but elected to defend first. The players assembled on the field, and the Broncos got ready for the ball to be snapped.
The Broncos’ center Manny Ramirez snapped the ball, but it flew right past Manning, who wasn’t fully in place yet. Rumor has it that Manning was still calling an audible. Whatever the reason, it was a disheartening miscalculation on the part of Ramirez.
The Quickest Score in Football
The ball landed in the end zone.
If the football had been picked up by a Seahawk, it would have been the fastest touchdown in Super Bowl history.
Instead, it was picked up by a Bronco, who was immediately tackled, scoring a two-point safety for the Seahawks within the first few seconds of the game.
This was not an auspicious beginning for the team favored to win.
Incredibly, the game went downhill from there for the Denver Broncos.
The Seahawks had accepted wide receiver Percy Harvin as a trade from the Vikings the previous March. Here he was, eleven months later on Super Bowl Sunday, playing like he’d been with Seattle from the beginning.
Harvin was unstoppable in this game, scoring a touchdown on an 87-yard, speedy, sinuous, untouchable kick return that is one of the highlights of the game.
The Broncos did not look like themselves. They just couldn’t recover from that snap mistake that started the game.
Peyton Manning had an expression on his face throughout the game that seemed to say, “What on earth is happening here?”
At one point in the third quarter, the score was an astonishing 36-0. Broncos players could be seen on the sidelines covering their eyes in dismay after every new Seattle touchdown. It would take a miracle for them to give the Seahawks a run for their money now, and they knew it.
The Broncos finally scored a touchdown in the third quarter, but the celebrations that usually follow a touchdown are missing. A few players came up to bang helmets, but it was subdued. It was an empty gesture by this point.
The Broncos touchdown is a classic example of closing the barn door after the horse has fled. It’s too late, and they know it. But at least the game won’t be a shutout. A few points are better than nothing.
The Seahawks made yet another touchdown in the game, and Peyton Manning bent over double in disgust. The Broncos were humiliated.
The final score was 43-8 in favor of the Seattle Seahawks — a difference of 35 mammoth points in one of the biggest Super Bowl upsets ever.
Super Bowl III
Date Played: January 12, 1969
Teams Playing: Baltimore Colts vs. New York Jets
Why This Was an Upset: It legitimized an entire football league and helped form the modern NFL
It was early days in the Super Bowl, just the third-ever championship between the NFC (known at that time as the NFL) and the AFC (known then as the AFL). The NFC considered itself the only legitimate football league in America.
Other leagues had come and gone throughout the years, and only the NFL, formed in 1920, could boast of being decades old. The fact that the AFL, which had wavered in its success, just wouldn’t go away greatly irritated the well-established NFL.
The NFL agreed to play its best team of the year against the AFL’s best team of the year. In Super Bowls I and II, this simply meant that the NFL’s superstar Green Bay Packers would show up, cream whatever AFL team made the playoffs, and go home, undefeated.
Super Bowl I saw the NFL’s Green Bay Packers defeating the AFL’s Kansas City Chiefs 35-10. Super Bowl II saw the Packers beat the Oakland Raiders with a very similar outcome, 33-14.
The NFL wasn’t worried. This championship game had only served to show how superior the NFL teams were to the AFL teams. Although Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers didn’t make it to the Super Bowl this year, the Baltimore Colts, under Don Shula, should have no problem continuing the domination streak for the NFL.
Then the Jets arrived at Miami’s Orange Bowl.
The NFL Gets Its First Clue That a Tough Game Lies Ahead
The Jets didn’t score in the first quarter, but neither did the Colts. This was the first-ever Super Bowl first quarter where the NFL team didn’t score.
In the second quarter, the Jets scored with a touchdown, while still keeping the Colts from getting any points. Imagine the consternation in the NFL at that point.
In the third quarter, the Jets scored twice with two field goals, garnering the team 6 points. The Colts, by the end of the third quarter, still had not scored even one point.
The Colts finally managed a touchdown in the final quarter, and the Jets gained three more points in that quarter with a field goal.
The final score was 16-7 in favor of the AFL’s New York Jets, making this quite the Super Bowl upset.
Joe Namath made good on his guarantee, and the AFL could now be considered a “real” football league.
A couple of years later, the NFL and the AFL would change their names to the NFC and the AFC, calling themselves “conferences” rather than leagues. This allowed the NFC and the AFC to band together to become the NFL as we know it today.
Super Bowl V
Date Played: January 17, 1971
Teams Playing: Baltimore Colts vs. Dallas Cowboys
Why This Was an Upset: It was the first-ever Super Bowl “win at the buzzer,” with the Colts achieving victory in the final seconds of the game
The Dallas Cowboys were a little worried coming into this game. They had been flip-flopping all season between quarterbacks, first playing Roger Staubach (who would go on to become Super Bowl MVP the following year at Super Bowl VI) and then switching the starting position to quarterback Craig Morton.
However, Dallas scored 13 points in the first half to the Colts’ 6 points. At this point, the Cowboys figured they must be doing something right.
The Baltimore Colts had no confusion about their starting quarterback. They were going to play the game with future Man of the Year Johnny Unitas.
During the third quarter, neither team scored, putting serious pressure on the Colts. If the Colts wanted a chance at the championship, they’d have to do something pretty spectacular in the fourth and final quarter.
The Colts did achieve a touchdown, tying the score at 13-13.
Were the Cowboys seriously challenging the Colts and Johnny Unitas’ Golden Arm?
There were nine seconds left in the game. The Colts’ Jim O’Brien set up for a field goal. There would be no time for any subsequent play. It was now or never. It was this, or nothing.
O’Brien coolly placed the ball right where he needed it to be, through the uprights for three game-winning points in this early Super Bowl.
There have since been several final-minute Super Bowl upsets, but this was the first close big game, and it stands out as a last-second heart-stopper in the memories of those who watched the game.
Super Bowl XVIII
Date Played: January 22, 1984
Teams Playing: Washington Redskins vs. Los Angeles Raiders
Why This Was an Upset: The underdog defeated the favorite by a tremendous margin
The Redskins arrived at this Super Bowl game in Tampa Stadium as the three-point favorites. They were feeling confident because they had created a powerful victory at the Rose Bowl Stadium the year before, winning Super Bowl XVII in a 27-17 victory over the Miami Dolphins.
But the Raiders had quarterback Jim Plunkett, who had been declared the MVP of Super Bowl XV just a few years earlier.
And the Raiders didn’t know it yet, but they also had a weapon by the name of Marcus Allen that would secure not just a victory for the team but also an unforgettable NFL moment.
At the end of the first quarter, the Raiders were up 7-0. By the end of the first half, the Raiders led 21-3. But Washington was favored to win. Could the previous year’s Super Bowl champs rally and take control in the second half?
Then came the third quarter of Super Bowl XVIII. The Raiders were up, yes, but not yet secure in their lead. The 18-point differential could easily be diminished by a couple of successful end zone runs by the Redskins or even one touchdown and a few field goals.
So the Raiders couldn’t relax. Not yet.
Raiders Pursue a Still-Larger Margin
Sure enough, the Redskins scored a touchdown, bringing the score to 21-9.
Then Marcus Allen of the Raiders made a touchdown, bringing the score to 28-9. Still, it seems, the Raiders didn’t count on victory.
Then, still in the third quarter, young Marcus Allen was handed the ball and ran left. He was blocked by Washington’s Ken Coffey. This is where announcers thought the play would end.
But Allen ran back to his starting point and began another run, this time through the teeming mess of players right in front of him.
Strangely, although he ran right through the middle of the chaos, no one could seem to touch him. Later, Allen would comment that it felt like time had come to a halt and that only he was moving at speed.
Allen turned this play into a 74-yard run to touchdown, bringing the score to 35-9. This was the moment that the Raiders knew they had won the Super Bowl.
The team flooded the field, and teammates remember it as a moment of such jubilation, such joy that the teammates who were there would be forever bound together by the experience.
The Raiders would go on to score another three points in the game, but by this point, it was irrelevant.
Los Angeles were the triumphant underdogs of the day, beating the previous year’s champions with a score of 38-9 in one of the biggest Super Bowl upsets of all time.
Super Bowl XXXVII
Date Played: January 26, 2003
Teams Playing: Oakland Raiders vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Why This Was an Upset: The Buccaneers had a losing reputation and no championship appearances, and they trumped the Raiders, who were three-time Super Bowl champs
In a game known as the Pirate Bowl because both teams were named for the vicious privateers that roam the seas, the Raiders were favored to win by four points.
The Raiders were Super Bowl veterans, having already won the championship game three times in the team’s history.
The Buccaneers were known for being one of the losingest teams in football. After the Tampa Bay franchise was established in the 1970s, the team lost its first 26 games. From the mid-1980s into the 1990s, the team had more than a dozen back-to-back losing seasons.
The Raiders came into Super Bowl with a confident attitude and with the league-leading offense.
The Buccaneers had never before made an appearance at a Super Bowl, which was no surprise to anyone. But Tampa Bay came into the game with a young coach, Jon Gruden, and a solid defensive line.
It was the Tampa Bay defense that proved to be the stronger force in this game.
In the first quarter, both teams scored three points. The second quarter shocked the Raiders. Mike Alstott, Tampa Bay’s multi-talented fullback, who was just as comfortable as a blocking beast as he was a runner and a passer, made the first Super Bowl touchdown in history for the Buccaneers.
This second quarter was the one that showed the Raiders that they were going to have to dig deep and show up in a way that they hadn’t anticipated if they were going to have a shot at the title.
The Buccaneers prevented Oakland from scoring at all in this critical second quarter, while ultimately making two touchdowns and a field goal, giving Tampa Bay 17 points for the quarter to Oakland’s zero.
Despite the fact that the great receiver Jerry Rice was playing with the Raiders in this Super Bowl, Tampa Bay made interception after interception.
These Guys Came Out of Nowhere
Spectators were confused; it was like the Bucs, these newcomers to the championship game, had come out of nowhere and were bringing the heat to what was meant to be a relaxed Raider sweep.
The Raiders fought back in the third quarter, gaining six points. But the Buccaneers were nimble and focused throughout the game, and it felt like the Raiders were scrambling.
It’s true that the Raiders lost their starting center on game day. He was in the hospital, and they had to start with a substitute. But the Raiders were a veteran team, and this shouldn’t have been enough to shake them up.
Defensive players are tough, but Tampa Bay’s were also fast, and the Raiders had a tough time gaining yardage.
The Buccaneers should have been feeling outgunned and intimidated as they faced the superstar Raiders on this famous Sunday at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego. But if they felt this way, they sure didn’t show it.
Six touchdowns and a couple of field goals later, the Tampa Buccaneers walked off the field as Super Bowl champions. The final score was 48-21, a shocking 27 points over Oakland.
After their role in of the biggest ever Super Bowl upsets, the Buccaneers could sail back into Tampa Bay as heroes.
Super Bowl XXII
Date Played: January 31, 1988
Teams Playing: Washington Redskins vs. Denver Broncos
Why This Was an Upset: The Broncos were favored to win, but the Redskins starting quarterback came back into the game after injury to play one of the most historic and triumphant quarters in football history
Imagine you’re a Redskins fan. You’re at the Super Bowl. Excitement is high, and expectations are even higher. But Coach has put in a starting quarterback that you just aren’t too sure about.
Doug Williams had a disappointing season, only playing two games during the regular season, and his record for that was 0-2. Furthermore, he came into the season as a backup player.
So why did Redskins coach Joe Gibbs play Doug Williams as his starting quarterback in the most important game in football? He must have had a premonition.
The Broncos scored early, with John Elway throwing a touchdown pass within the first two minutes of the game. Redskins fans were worried. Then the Broncos scored on a field goal.
Just when Redskins fans thought that the first quarter couldn’t go any worse, their quarterback twisted his leg. Doug Williams had to come out of play, and the Redskins had to put in their second-string quarterback.
You could tell by looking at the faces of the Washington fans at this point that they thought they had lost the game before it had really begun.
The Quarterback Returns
Then Doug Williams came back into the game, and everything changed. Already feeling the pressure of being the first black quarterback to start in a Super Bowl, he knew he had to play better than he’d ever played.
In the opening play of the second quarter, Williams threw a pass to Redskins wide receiver Ricky Sanders, who ran the ball into the endzone for an 80-yard touchdown. The kick was good.
At that point, the score was Broncos 10, Redskins 7. Washington fans were starting to breathe again.
Just a few minutes later, Williams threw for another touchdown. Still in the second quarter, the score was 14 Redskins, 10 Broncos.
But wait, Williams handed off to Smith, who took the ball all the way to the endzone for Washington touchdown number three. It was the third touchdown for the Redskins of the game, but also, unbelievably, the third touchdown of the quarter.
Washington was up 21 to Denver’s 10, and the quarter wasn’t over yet.
Just minutes later, Williams threw another touchdown pass, setting a record for most touchdowns in one quarter. The Washington Redskins made 35 points in one quarter.
The Broncos didn’t score another point in that game, although the Redskins did go on to score again to secure their victory in one of the biggest Super Bowl upsets ever.
Final score, Doug Williams 35 — John Elway 10.
Most Upsetting Super Bowls
We’ve already looked at the biggest Super Bowl upsets in history. Now let’s look at the most upsetting Super Bowls that have been played. These are ones that, for whatever reason, left fans and teams alike feeling particularly discontented with the outcome.
Super Bowl XLVII
Date Played: February 3, 2013
Teams Playing: Baltimore Ravens vs. San Francisco 49ers
Why This Super Bowl Was Upsetting: A power outage shut down the game and the stadium for half an hour
As any sports fan knows, an extended break in play can either revive a team or cause them to lose momentum.
Before the power went out during the third quarter of Super Bowl XLVII, the Ravens had been dominating the field, making touchdown after touchdown. At the end of the first half, the Ravens were leading 21-6.
When the third quarter started, Jacoby Jones made yet another touchdown for the Ravens, bringing the score to 28-6. It seemed that the Ravens would walk away with this win since it would be very difficult for the 49ers to catch up.
But then the power went out, and both teams had a chance to regroup. The 49ers came back strong, giving Baltimore a serious run for its money. The Ravens, however, were able to maintain their lead for a final score of 34-31, but not without some serious worry on their part.
Super Bowl LIII
Date Played: February 3, 2019
Teams Playing: New England Patriots vs. Los Angeles Rams
Why This Super Bowl Was Upsetting: The most expensive Super Bowl in history ended up being the least exciting Super Bowl ever
Fans paid up to $50,000 to attend this game. They made hotel reservations a year in advance. Spectators flew in from everywhere to attend this Super Bowl. According to CNN, 150,000 people flew into the Atlanta airport because of the big game.
The Patriots were repeat champions. The Rams ostensibly had one of the best offenses in the NFL. This was sure to be a great game, right?
There’s the coin toss, and here’s the kickoff! And the first quarter brings us…nuttin’. N-U-T-T-I-N! At the end of the first quarter, the score was an underwhelming zero to zero.
Then the second quarter was underway. Surely things would start heating up now that the teams had gotten their bearings and started settling into their rhythm.
The highlight of the second quarter, and therefore of the entire first half, was a field goal, made good by the Patriots. Big deal. The score at the end of the first half was 3-0.
In the third quarter, the Rams made a valiant attempt to tie up the game, and they succeeded! The score was 3-3 at the end of the quarter! Yawn.
In the final quarter, the Patriots made one touchdown and one field goal, increasing their score by more than 300%! The final score was a very disappointing 13-3 in favor of the Patriots.
Producer Andy Cohen complained on Twitter, “This is like watching Ambien.” Agreed. We just hope someone brought out chairs for the cheerleaders. Standing still for hours on end is not easy.
Wrapping up Our List of the Biggest Super Bowl Upsets
The Super Bowl creates many superlative moments, and we all love a surprise in sports (unless your team is defending champ). These biggest Super Bowl upsets on our list are just a fraction of the emotional moments of the Super Bowl for fans, players, and perhaps especially coaches.
You can read about more highlights from Super Bowl history on the following pages.