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07 Sep 2015

Any Given Sunday: A Decade of Upsets

by Sterling Xie

You don't have to imagine a bizarro universe where the Cleveland Browns and Oakland Raiders have been more successful over the past decade than the New England Patriots or Pittsburgh Steelers. That's the world of Any Given Sunday, a weekly Football Outsiders feature examining the biggest upset of each week in the NFL. This week, Any Given Sunday turns the page to its second decade after 10 seasons running either here on Football Outsiders or on ESPN Insider as part of our ESPN content deal.

While we couldn't finagle a Decision-like hour-long special, there's room here for AGS commemoration. In 10 years, we have featured 188 total games, excluding a couple Super Bowl specials where we looked at a team's entire season's worth of losses. The history of AGS includes 18 postseason games, as well as 168 instances of an underdog of at least three points pulling off the upset.

As this article is usually geared towards the have-nots, you might not be surprised to see that the teams with the best "records" in AGS articles aren't exactly the NFL's model organizations. Here's how teams have fared when featured in AGS, sorted by descending winning percentage:

Appearances in "Any Given Sunday," 2005-2014
Team Total Games Wins Losses Win %
CLE 7 7 0 100.0%
OAK 12 11 1 91.7%
STL 10 9 1 90.0%
MIA 13 11 2 84.6%
KC 5 4 1 80.0%
ARI 14 11 3 78.6%
HOU 8 6 2 75.0%
WAS 8 6 2 75.0%
BUF 10 7 3 70.0%
MIN 9 6 3 66.7%
NYJ 13 8 5 61.5%
CHI 10 6 4 60.0%
TB 10 6 4 60.0%
CAR 9 5 4 55.6%
TEN 11 6 5 54.5%
DET 8 4 4 50.0%
Team Total Games Wins Losses Win %
SD 18 9 9 50.0%
CIN 9 4 5 44.4%
IND 16 7 9 43.8%
SF 14 6 8 42.9%
ATL 13 5 8 38.5%
PHI 13 5 8 38.5%
BAL 11 4 7 36.4%
GB 11 4 7 36.4%
SEA 11 4 7 36.4%
NYG 14 5 9 35.7%
DAL 12 4 8 33.3%
PIT 17 4 13 23.5%
DEN 13 3 10 23.1%
NO 16 3 13 18.8%
NE 14 2 12 14.3%
JAC 6 0 6 0.0%

Yes, the Cleveland Browns are somehow the only "unbeaten" team in AGS . As you might expect, much of this simply stems from Cleveland's incompetence over the past decade. In 160 regular-season games since the 2005 season, the Browns have only been favored by a field goal or more 28 times. Cleveland's undefeated record stems in part from having so few appearances in AGS, as only the Jaguars and Chiefs have been featured fewer times. You might expect most of the Browns' features to come from their 10-6 campaign in 2007, but Cleveland actually had no AGS appearances that season. The Browns did appear twice last season, when they beat the Saints and Falcons. Given the state of the 2015 squad, the Browns will likely only further their unbeaten streak if they make a reappearance this season.

On the other hand, small sample size didn't do much for the Jacksonville Jaguars, who are the only winless team in AGS at 0-6. That's surprising given how porous the Jags have been over the past four years, but maybe original AGS writer Ned Macey had an ax to grind with the franchise. All of Jacksonville's appearances came between 2005 and 2008, the exact length of the Macey administration, and the Jags haven't made a peep in AGS since. Perhaps the constantly rebuilding Jaguars need Shad Khan to shave off his mustache in order to produce the positive serendipity that would power an upset worthy of AGS. Otherwise, the Jaguars' absence is just another painful reminder of how anonymous Jacksonville has been in recent years.

On pure volume, no one tops the San Diego Chargers, who have made a league-high 18 AGS appearances. Coincidentally, the Bolts are halfway between the undefeated Browns and winless Jaguars, having gone 9-9 in their features. However, that puts San Diego behind the Miami Dolphins, Arizona Cardinals and Oakland Raiders for most total wins, as all three have won 11 times in AGS features. Basically, any Raiders win counts as AGS-worthy. Nearly a quarter of Oakland's 47 wins the past 10 seasons have been featured in AGS, including two of the team's three 2014 victories.

Whereas the Raiders have spread out their meager wealth, the Dolphins and Cardinals are two of three franchises to win at least three AGS games in one season, along with the Giants. Interestingly, all three teams finished 9-7 during their three-win AGS seasons: the 2005 Dolphins, 2008 Cardinals, and 2011 Giants. Of course, while the Fins missed out on the postseason in a loaded 2005 AFC, Arizona and New York became two of the most surprising Super Bowl participants in recent seasons. What could have been had the 2005 Dolphins, led by 34-year-old Gus Frerotte, played in the NFC?

That Frerotte-led Miami team was the team that upset the Raiders as 7.0-point underdogs in Week 12, to give Oakland its only appearance as the losing team in AGS. As for the other two teams with just one appearance as the AGS loser: St. Louis fell to the Jets in Week 11 of 2012, and Kansas City lost to the Raiders in Week 17 of 2010, the Chiefs' first home loss of the season. Then Baltimore came in and plastered them in the wild-card game the next week.

The New Orleans Saints lead the league with 13 appearances as the team that was upset in a game featured in AGS, although they were actually the winning team in the first AGS column back in September 2005. The Saints beat the Carolina Panthers that week. The Panthers actually were in the first three columns, starting the 2005 season by losing to New Orleans as 6.5-point favorites, beating New England as 3.0-point underdogs, and then losing to Miami as 3.5-point favorites.

What about individual games? Based on the spread, the biggest upset featured in AGS is a four-way tie between a quartet of 14-point dogs:

None of those games might strike you as particularly memorable, but some of the other 22 double-digit dogs featured in AGS might. The 7-9 Seahawks were famously 10.5-point home underdogs in the Wild Card round against the defending champion Saints before the legend of Beast Mode was born. The 2008 Dolphins, coming off a miserable 1-15 campaign the year before, unleashed Wildcat hell against the Patriots as 12.5-point underdogs, thus launching the most overhyped schematic wrinkle of our time.

Noticeably missing from that list is Super Bowl XLII (plus milder Super Bowl upsets, like the Saints over the Colts in 2009 or the Ravens over the 49ers in 2012). AGS has featured 16 playoff games, but no Super Bowls and only one conference championship game. The reason, of course, is that AGS tends to focus on the lessons that an upset will teach us for the rest of the season, and after the Super Bowl there is no rest of the season. Super Bowls and conference championships are generally reviewed in other columns on FO. The Ravens, perpetually playing road postseason games in the Flacco-Harbaugh era, currently lead the way with three AGS playoff wins.

The Quarterbacks of AGS

We have the team data above, but which quarterbacks have most frequently played the David and Goliath roles? You can certainly make some inferences from the table above (spoiler alert: Tom Brady and Drew Brees didn't do so well). See if you can guess the AGS leader in individual winning percentage based on the hints below:

  • He has pulled upsets for four different teams, spanning the entire AGS history from 2005 to 2014.
  • The team he beat during his first AGS upset would eventually have the last laugh, knocking this quarterback's team out of the playoffs later that season.
  • That season was also the first and last time he led a team to the playoffs as its primary starting quarterback.

Some quick qualifying info before you peek at the answer. For the following table, I included quarterbacks who started at least five AGS games, which gave us a sample of 25 players in total. A few players like the aforementioned Frerotte (3-0) and Ryan Tannehill (3-0) have fared well in smaller samples, but this mostly weeded out one-hit wonders such as Andrew Walter and Brandon Weeden. Sorted by descending winning percentage, here's the full list of "qualifying" quarterbacks:

Quarterbacks by W-L Records in AGS, 2005-2014
Quarterback Team(s) Total Games Wins Losses Win %
Kyle Orton CHI, DEN, KC, BUF 7 6 1 85.7%
Tarvaris Jackson MIN 6 5 1 83.3%
Kurt Warner ARI 7 5 2 71.4%
Matt Hasselbeck SEA, TEN 6 4 2 66.7%
Vince Young TEN 6 4 2 66.7%
Donovan McNabb PHI, WAS 8 5 3 62.5%
Andrew Luck IND 5 3 2 60.0%
Mark Sanchez NYJ 7 4 3 57.1%
Alex Smith SF 6 3 3 50.0%
Jay Cutler DEN, CHI 6 3 3 50.0%
Colin Kaepernick SF 6 3 3 50.0%
Philip Rivers SD 15 7 8 46.7%
Brett Favre GB, NYJ, MIN 9 4 5 44.4%
Joe Flacco BAL 9 4 5 44.4%
Quarterback Team(s) Total Games Wins Losses Win %
Carson Palmer CIN, ARI 9 4 5 44.4%
Matt Ryan ATL 10 4 6 40.0%
Eli Manning NYG 14 5 9 35.7%
Jake Delhomme CAR 6 2 4 33.3%
Peyton Manning IND, DEN 15 4 11 26.7%
Aaron Rodgers GB 8 2 6 25.0%
Drew Brees NO 17 4 13 23.5%
Ben Roethlisberger PIT 17 4 13 23.5%
Matthew Stafford DET 5 1 4 20.0%
Tom Brady NE 13 2 11 15.4%
Michael Vick ATL, PHI 8 1 7 12.5%
Tony Romo DAL 9 1 8 11.1%
Russell Wilson SEA 5 0 5 0.0%
* Minimum five appearances in AGS.

Congratulations if you guessed that Kyle Orton would have the highest winning percentage among qualifying quarterbacks. Orton quarterbacked just one losing AGS team -- the 2009 Broncos against the Ravens -- while four of the five teams he played had at least one AGS victory under his watch. And if the Dallas Cowboys had pulled off a Week 17 upset as seven-point dogs against the Philadelphia Eagles at the end of the 2013 season, perhaps Orton would have been a perfect five-for-five in AGS appearances.

Small sample size was a common denominator among the players and teams that fared well in these features, as no quarterback with double-digit appearances had a winning record. Drew Brees and Ben Roethlisberger led the way with 17 appearances total, yet they've each posted identical 4-13 records. Similarly, Tom Brady somehow has the same number of AGS wins as JaMarcus Russell (!). The Tony Romo hate has always been over the top, but his 1-8 record in AGS games does play into his reputation for coming up small in big moments. Other quarterbacks have similarly poor records, but the Cowboys haven't been weekly Leviathans like the Patriots or Colts, so Romo isn't suffering from the same "frequency of exposure" problems as the Bradys and Mannings of the world.

With Super Bowl expectations in 2015, the Cowboys aren't likely to provide Romo with more opportunities to boost his record. But at least he has one win, unlike Russell Wilson, who might need to wait multiple seasons before even encountering a scenario that could lead to an AGS win. Since 2012, the Seahawks have remarkably been more than 3.5-point dogs just twice. Both came during Wilson's rookie year, when Seattle was a four-point home dog to New England and a 7.5-point road underdog to San Francisco. Apart from Wilson, the only quarterbacks to have multiple AGS appearances without a win are Byron Leftwich and David Garrard, the signal-callers behind Jacksonville's wretched AGS history.

Vince Lombardi's "winning isn't everything, it's the only thing" mantra still resonates in today's NFL. But at least in the AGS universe, a losing record is almost always a good sign for the bigger picture.

Posted by: Sterling Xie on 07 Sep 2015

20 comments, Last at 08 Sep 2015, 12:42pm by Aaron Schatz


by JoeyHarringtonsPiano :: Mon, 09/07/2015 - 1:47pm

Re: 2006 Lions beating the Cowboys.

Usually it's a bad thing if your hopeless team wins a meaningless final game to cost themselves the #1 overall pick. In this case, however, it's definitely a good thing. If Matt Millen had the #1 overall pick in the 2007 draft, I'm certain he would have taken Jamarcus Russell instead of Calvin Johnson.

by mehllageman56 :: Mon, 09/07/2015 - 3:40pm

Millen is on record that he took Russell off his board after Russell's visit to Detroit. He also called Oakland to warn Al Davis against him, and Davis wouldn't listen.

by JoeyHarringtonsPiano :: Mon, 09/07/2015 - 4:31pm

Did he say that before or after it became apparent Russell had little interest in trying to play football well? I don't put it past Millen to make himself look better in retrospect.

by tuluse :: Mon, 09/07/2015 - 8:25pm

Yeah this is the same guy who drafted Mike Williams, who ate himself out the league.

On the other hand Millen did go for "tough guy" persona players, which would probably exclude Russel.

by The Ancient Mariner :: Mon, 09/07/2015 - 8:48pm

I ran across a story recently quoting someone who was in that draft room -- apparently going into the draft, the Lions had locked on to DeMarcus Ware; if he was there, he was the pick. At the last minute, one of the offensive coaches got in Millen's ear and talked him into taking BMW instead.

by The Ancient Mariner :: Mon, 09/07/2015 - 8:46pm

I can't source this, but it seems to me I remember seeing that comment of Millen's quoted in one of the draft-review stories that year.

by Scott C :: Mon, 09/07/2015 - 9:43pm

Nor would I fault Davis for not listening to him.

by MilkmanDanimal :: Tue, 09/08/2015 - 11:32am

Matt Millen vs. late-career Al Davis would be a fascinating debate of godawfully bad personnel decisions.

by theslothook :: Tue, 09/08/2015 - 11:50am

Omg...now we've reached the epitome of franchise annihilation. I'm not sure theres a clear winner. Millen will always have the 0-16 record on his head, but hey, he DID draft Calvin Johnson.

by theslothook :: Mon, 09/07/2015 - 2:59pm

I thought the saints loss to the rams was plenty memorable. That saints loss had major ripple effects int he postseason. If they win that game, they finish 13-3 and get a home game instead of having to go to SF. The pack losing meant they would get to face the Giants at home. Now, the giants might have beaten the Saints, but really that one inexcusable loss really did doom the saints that season.

by dmstorm22 :: Mon, 09/07/2015 - 4:07pm

Yeah, that loss you can argue cost them the Super Bowl.

They actually did finish 13-3 (winning the Rams game would make them 14-2). The other two losses were Wk. 1 to the Packers, and another random, bad loss to the Buccaneers - who would finish the season 4-12.

They really picked the wrong year to go 13-3.

by JoeyHarringtonsPiano :: Mon, 09/07/2015 - 4:32pm

Yea, they were nearly unbeatable in the Superdome that year. With the Packers getting upset at home, it would have been a straight shot for them get to the Super Bowl.

by Anon Ymous :: Tue, 09/08/2015 - 11:51am

It is very unlikely that the Giants would have beaten the Saints in the dome. It is also unlikely NE's makeshift (I originally misspelled that "makeshit", fittingly enough) secondary would have slowed they down either.

by tuluse :: Mon, 09/07/2015 - 3:28pm

Kyle Orton: giant killer.

by herewegobrownie... :: Mon, 09/07/2015 - 7:48pm

The table is pretty consistent with the "public team" betting effect in how NE, PIT DAL and DEN are near the bottom and CLE is at the top, but that doesn't explain Jacksonville (who are such a non-public team that they were 6-7+ point dogs against the Browns both of the last 2 games, which was silly in both cases.)

Another thing with the Browns being undefeated in this set is that any bottom-tier team beating another bottom-tier team isn't all that noteworthy, so the times the Browns were "upset," i.e. those two games against Jax, weren't that notable.

The Saints just don't seem that consistent, and have had some head-scratcher losses even at the Dome, just the same as surprising road wins (i.e. they have a losing streak against the Browns, but beat Pitt on the road and Dallas at home last year.)

by PaddyPat :: Tue, 09/08/2015 - 1:57am

If more teams were like the Saints, there would seemingly be validity to the concept of the "trap" game. I have the sense (perhaps not statistically valid) that New Orleans loses more games to weak teams before and after big game than almost any other team...

by theslothook :: Tue, 09/08/2015 - 10:47am

Is there really a pattern to Saints losses though? I feel like each one is unique in its own way. Sometimes the offense is just a no show. Other times, the defense gets annihilated like it did in that Seattle wildcard game when the hawks were 7-9.

by Scott Kacsmar :: Tue, 09/08/2015 - 12:11pm

One pattern I always thought of, but never really checked out is Brees' annual clunker in a loss against a bad team.

2006 Redskins (5-11), L 16-10
2007 Rams (3-13), L 37-29
2008 - didn't really happen this year, but a 3-pick game in Tampa Bay wasn't good
2009 - didn't happen
2010 - Browns (5-11), L 30-17 (4 INT)
2011 - TB (4-12) and STL (2-14) clunkers cost him MVP and No. 1 seed
2012 - Payton-less year; those September losses to CAR and KC (didn't have a regulation lead for half the season) were bad
2013 - STL (7-9) got them again
2014 - CLE loss was tough. The faceplants at home against CAR & ATL were stunning.

So it's mostly the Rams and some struggles with bad Bucs teams (even in wins) that shape this.

by djanyreason :: Tue, 09/08/2015 - 9:14am

So, I think one of your tables is wrong somewhere, as you have Roethlisberger with 17 appearances yet the Pittsburgh Steelers with 16. I'd say the same thing about Brees & the Saints (same numbers 17 and 16), but it's possible a 2005 Brees w/ the Chargers start snuck in there.

by Aaron Schatz :: Tue, 09/08/2015 - 12:42pm

Correct! We'll fix the Pittsburgh numbers, and in fact there are two Drew Brees games with the Chargers in here, and two Saints games with Aaron Brooks.