Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

16 Jan 2006

FO on FOX: Great Playoff Upsets

Was Sunday's Pittsburgh win the greatest upset in the history of the NFL playoffs? Not even close. Here's a look at the top ten non-Super Bowl upsets, with the Indianapolis Colts on the other side of the upset at number one.

Posted by: Michael David Smith on 16 Jan 2006

32 comments, Last at 19 Jan 2006, 12:44pm by andrew


by andrew (not verified) :: Mon, 01/16/2006 - 6:33pm

The 1975 Rams were one of the all-time dominant teams in the regular season, going 12-2 behind defensive end Jack Youngblood and linebacker Isaiah Robertson, who led a defense that allowed only 135 points, by far the fewest in the league and the second-fewest in NFL history for a 14-game season.


The 1969 Vikings team that wen to Superbowl IV allowed 133, and somehow the 1977 Falcons, who went 7-7, allowed only 129 points in the final 14 game season.

by D. B. (not verified) :: Mon, 01/16/2006 - 6:40pm

I don't know how reliable the site is, but I have a link showing that the term "upset" didn't actually come from that race...Sorry, I guess I'm just skeptical of things that sound too convenient. Maybe that's why I like this site so gosh darn much...

by Hit me baby one more time! (not verified) :: Mon, 01/16/2006 - 6:52pm

Did anyone besides people like Bobman honestly take the Colts seriously? I mean, did it never occur to all the Colts fans who have been clogging up this website with their sugar-plum fairy predictions since about week 8 that the Colts were a product of a weak schedule? I think Colts fans, which seems to include every major media analyst in the country, let the tail wag the dog this year and assumed that playing the Arizona Cardinals to the wire meant that they were not the soft, indoor dome team that they are.

by Mike K (not verified) :: Mon, 01/16/2006 - 7:03pm

Now... this kind of list is always subjective, but how can anyone seriously rank any playoff game as a bigger upset than Jacksonville over Denver?

Denver started that year 13-0, while Jacksonville started the year 4-7, and only made the playoffs because Morten Andersen shanked something along the lines of a 19-yard game-winning field goal attempt wide. (Forgive me if the length of the field goal attempt is wrong. All I remember is that it was really short...)

For the record, I am a Steeler fan. But there's no way any Marty Schottenheimer playoff loss can top a list of "upsets".

by Will Allen (not verified) :: Mon, 01/16/2006 - 7:36pm

Great piece, and it illuminates how irrationally quarterbacks are viewed by football fans.

by DJAnyReason (not verified) :: Mon, 01/16/2006 - 7:59pm

Re: 4

Mike, the Broncos went 13-0 in 1998, when the won the SB. In 1996, when they lost to the Jags, they lost their 4th game, @KC

by Ryan Mc (not verified) :: Mon, 01/16/2006 - 8:02pm

A good list of games. I think a lot of fans would have rated the Steelers a particularly strong number 6 seed though.

re #3: I know I'm not going to make any friends on this site with this comment, but maybe the DVOA ratings which had Indy as number 6 in the league after week 10 (I think this was the scenario, please forgive me if some of these details are slightly off) were actually the correct ratings and didn't require correction?

by Tim L (not verified) :: Mon, 01/16/2006 - 9:49pm

To me, there was no bigger shock than watching Jacksonville come from behind and pull away from Denver in 1996. I've been watching NFL playoffs since 1970, and that game took the cake. The Indy win against KC the year before was not a great shock--I was at least as surprised by the Colts walking all over San Diego the previous week.

If I were to add an honorable mention to the list, it would be the Packers jumping all over San Francisco in 1995 and coasting to a 27-21 victory.

by John (not verified) :: Mon, 01/16/2006 - 10:54pm

I have the Colts-Chiefs '95 game at #2 on my list.

#1? A seemingly forgotten playoff game.
Vikings at Saints in 1987. I thought the Saints (12-3 overall; 2-1 in scab games) were a better team than the Vikings (8-7, 0-3) and 49ers (13-2, 3-0). I was shocked Minnesota went into New Orleans and won 44-10. I'm sure the Saints postseason inexperience was a key factor, but still 44-10? Blew my mind.

by andrew (not verified) :: Mon, 01/16/2006 - 11:17pm

#9 - I remember both the Vikes/Saints and Vikes/Niners games that year vividly, and the Niners one was the bigger upset, at least in the public perception. Not just that they won the division (the teams split the season series in a pair of close (2pt games)), but the way their stretch run was a steamroller tour de force (last 5 games going into playoffs):

score opponent
38-24 Cleveland - AFC central 23-12 Green Bay
41-0 Chicago - NFC central champs
35-7 Atlanta
48-0 LA Rams

Cleveland was viewed at the time by many as the best in the AFC, they had lost to Denver in the AFC title game the year before and were a popular superbowl pick.

Chicago was 10-2 at the time, this after going 15-1 and 14-2 in the two years prior.

I recall them being bigger "lock" favorites than Indy was this year, easily. It wasn't just the record. They had demolished the best teams in the NFL that year.

by Nick (not verified) :: Mon, 01/16/2006 - 11:24pm

Re #1

FYI - it's a scheme called the Gritz Blitz by a little known - at the time - Defensive Coordinator named Jerry Glanville. That Falcons team had one of the great outlier performances in the history of the NFL, the only real star on the team was Claude Humphrey who would retire because he hated the gimicky scheme so much.

by Tim (not verified) :: Mon, 01/16/2006 - 11:30pm

That MIN-SF upset in 1987 really sticks in my mind as well. The 49ers had not just Pro Bowl players, but Hall of Famers on that team. Anthony Carter pulled a Steve Smith.

by Will Allen (not verified) :: Tue, 01/17/2006 - 12:02am

That Vikings team had talent, however. Doleman made several pro-bowl teams, and Millard had about 20 sacks one year from the tackle position. Joey Browner was a good strong safety, and Carl Lee was a good corner. On offense, Gary Zimmerman, a HOF finalist, anchored the line at offensive tackle, and Tim Irwin was a good, although not great, right tackle. I think perennial pro-bowler Randal McDaniel had begun his career at left guard. Anthony Carter was one of the best wr in the league at that time, and Darren Nelson was a very versatile and valuable rb.

Don't forget, after beating the 49ers, the Vikings played the Redskins for at RFK very tough, losing the conference title only 17-10, and missing sending the game into overtime when a pass of about 10 yards or less was dropped in the end zone in the waning seconds.

I'll always remember Hank Stram, who evaluated match-ups as well as anyone, predicting a Vikings upset over the 49ers, because he believed the Vikings' personnel did match up so well with them. Those Vikings' teams of the late 80s did underachieve somewhat, possibly because their quarterback play was not consistently good.

by Will Allen (not verified) :: Tue, 01/17/2006 - 12:35am

Another remarkable Vikings playoff upset took place in 1977, when they were 9-5, and playing the Rams in L.A.. Although the Rams were only one game better in w-l, they were #4 in points scored, and #2 in points allowed in the NFL, while the Vikings were ranked #16 and #13 respectively. Also, the Vikings had gotten crushed in L.A. earlier in the season 35-3, with the Rams getting vengeance for a series of heartbreaking playoff losses (outdoors in those days) in Minnesota over the previous eight years.

The Rams were supremely confident about getting a chance to engage in a little more payback on their home field, during the playoffs. However, the weather turned, and the game ended up being played in an absolute deluge, with wind as well.

Bud Grant, about the best bad-weather coach I ever saw, recognized that after the first quarter passing the ball would become difficult, and came out throwing on every down. The Vikings scored a touchdown on their first possession, and the slop-fest which ensued resultd in a 10-7 Vikings victory. The Vikings got smoked by the Cowboys in the conference final, further proving they had no business beating the Rams, while this heartbreaking defeat meant the end of Chuck Knox's stay in L.A.

by Bobman (not verified) :: Tue, 01/17/2006 - 2:23am

RE #3
HMBOMT... well, just me, most of the media so-called experts (admittedly, a sorry bunch, but they have a combined million years experience at this stuff, which might just be worth something and if you think they are all fans of one team, perhaps your tinfoil hat is a little too tight), the sharp tacks who run this operation who have a decidedly non-Colt bias except for Ned (not anti-Colt, just that you are not necessarily Colt fans), AND DVOA, a fairly objective source. So yes, others took the ponies seriously. The early soft sked mirrors historic championship teams that had soft skeds (theory being it helped them stay healthy), and when everyone (including, I am sure, you) said they'd have stout tests with Cincy, Pitt, and Jax and, lo-and-behold, they breezed through them, yes, I'd say most everyone thought they were for real.

Including the Vegas guys who installed them as 9-10 point favorites; these guys are way smarter than I am (and I'd venture to say you are) about this and they make serious money with this thing called gambling, because they usually know where to draw a line and which side to stand on, so they were fooled too. Most people, short and tall, fat and thin, dumb and smart, thought Indy would win.

If you did not think they were for real, my friend, I'm taking you to Wall Street tomorrow morning with a pocket full of 100s and we're gonna make us some money.

The last three games, STILL were not a portent of the playoff loss--they rested injured pro-bowlers and did fairly well. The SD game was a 2-pointer with 2 minutes left (or were you busy not taking them seriously, so you didn't follow it?) with three D starters sitting out. Against Seattle they moved the ball at will the first two drives (Harrison and a couple D starters stayed at home) before sitting regulars on O and letting Jim Sorgi make a Pro-Bowl run. And against Arizona... okay, that's hardly worth mentioning. The playoff ganme was their worst effort of the year, or at least of the past 12 weeks or so. And still, they lost by 3 pts to a team that might be the eventual champs. Man, they must suck.

I think you are giving too little emphasis to the Colts' poor coaching and game plan, and the superior Pitt play and game plan.... They were cover-your-eyes awful for the first quarter; they got outplayed and outcoached, and somehow made it a game until about 15 seconds remained.

Calling them poor denigrates Pittsburgh, as well. They played a damn good game. But still only won by 3.

As far as media bias goes (you a Rush Limbaugh fan, by any chance? It's one of his tropes, you know....), I think the streak made a lot of people excited about Indy, and it gave them something to write about not related to Drew Rosenhaus and TO. It was an easy pill to swallow. After James Dungy's suicide, Tony Dungy (who may be a too-nice guy) got some extra votes from the media and non-Indy fans alike. I think he'd trade every one of his 102 wins and accolades to have his son back.

Didja watch the game, or, because they were not worth taking seriously, were you off using your superior intellect to cure cancer or something like that? If you remove one, microscopic ass-bob of Tarik Glenn on a 2nd and goal TD after a 94 yard drive (those soft dome-playing pansies must have TRICKED the manly Steelers on that drive), the 4 point swing gives the Colts the win. Likewise, missing a similar twitch of Faneca's in the 4th qtr gave Pitt five additional minutes of ball time, time the Colts might have used, since they were pretty hot on O right about then. But the way it was called is the important thing and the Colts didn't stop Pitt then, so the loss is on them and tyhe win just as importantly was Pitt's. But I don't think Indy is as pathetic as you claim. They're worth taking seriously, this year, next year, for the foreseeable future. I can't imagine an easier road for them every coming along again, but that's why they play the games.

by Jason (not verified) :: Tue, 01/17/2006 - 4:44am

There is 1 HUGE Flaw with the article.

2. 1996 — Jacksonville Jaguars 30, Denver Broncos 27

"But everyone knew the Denver Broncos, whose 13-3 record made them the best team in football, would make quick work of Jacksonville the following week."

That's funny, in 1996 Geen Bay finished #1 in Points Scored AND #1 in Points allowed. The book on Dominance also rated Green Bay 1996 as the #1 Most Dominant Super Bowl Champion if I recall. One can hardly just casually mention the 1996 Broncos as the Best team that year.

*Even though FO ranked the 1998 Falcons over the 1998 Vikings the Vikings at Home were considered a GIGANTIC Favorite and I think should have made the list

by Tootie (not verified) :: Tue, 01/17/2006 - 6:14am

#16: As a vikes fan, that was the worst kind of way to lose. However, the list excludes Super Bowl and Conference Championship games, so the Vikes-Falcons Gary Anderson screw-up special can't be included.

by RowdyRoddyPiper (not verified) :: Tue, 01/17/2006 - 12:55pm

Bobman, good response, sorry for the loss. I took the Colts very seriously, so seriously in fact that when the Steelers were up by 18 with about a quarter to play, I kept the Champagne on ice and completely corked. They can put up points in the blink of an eye. I think the proper analysis is the lack of coaching and game planning. As I don't know Manning's role completely (he does call the plays on O correct?) I don't know how much is on him. I can tell you one thing; it's a pretty weird feeling to watch Cowher out coach someone in the playoffs, but a feeling I will hopefully get used to.

by JaketheSnake (not verified) :: Tue, 01/17/2006 - 4:22pm

C'mon, the greatest upset AND greatest choke ever was the Buffalo Bills come from behind victory, with Frank Reich at the helm, over the Houston Oilers team that had like 23423523523 Pro-Bowlers

by Jerry (not verified) :: Tue, 01/17/2006 - 8:20pm

Re #15:


If the Colts get the TD instead of the FG early, they go for 1 instead of 2 after their last touchdown, and who knows what happens when it's tied then?

And before you complain too much about the officiating, I'll give you the two false starts you mention if you give me the interference and the interception.

Having said that, I have to add that I didn't feel comfortable until they sacked Manning on fourth down, and then when I was ready to go book the flight to Denver, Bettis fumbled. It took a long time for my heart rate to return to normal; I'm sure you were no different. And it was still a hell of a season for the Colts.

by CA (not verified) :: Tue, 01/17/2006 - 8:20pm

Re: 19

The Bills were at home and had the better record. They had played in the previous two Super Bowls. I don't care that Jim Kelly wasn't playing; that was no upset. I can't find the line for that game, but I assume that the Bills were favored.

by Cody (not verified) :: Tue, 01/17/2006 - 8:52pm


I agree, some folks have been saying that if not for the Glenn assbob when they missed Faneca's and what not, and that the Colts kept it a close game. The penalties obviously swung towards the colts. The missed Faneca false start on 4th was probably the biggest penalty break the Steelers got. The Colts got a blown PI, Randle El had a step on his man and with his speed may have taken that one all the way, giving the Steelers 28 points at the end. For sake of arguement, lets say that if they called the Faneca bob that the Colts would have scored on the ensuing drive. That would make the score 28/17. Next botched call was the Polamalu interception with 5 minutes remaining. Would have eaten at least 2 minutes, maybe would have been a kick or touchdown. Either way, if you assume the Colts march over the Steelers becase of the Faneca FS for a TD. (Which is a bigger assumption than a score off the miscalled ARE PI) And fix the other crap calls, Indy is looking for 11 points late in the 4th. Game was not nearly as close as the score suggests.

by andrew (not verified) :: Tue, 01/17/2006 - 9:08pm

#14 - It was a 14-7 Vikings win, not 10-7.

Chuck Foreman scored in the first, and Sammy Johnson scored in the 4th quarter to put up Minnesota 14-0 before Haden finally got the Rams on the board, too little, too late. The Rams and Vikings had about the same rushing yardage (149 LA, 144 Minn) but the Vikings needed 20 more carries to get theirs (49 to 29). I'm not sure about throwing on every down. Bob Lee threw only 10 passes (completing 5, for 57 yards). Haden was worse however, 14-32, 130 yards and 3 INTs that killed the Rams.

Tarkenton was out for the season with a broken leg, but had played in the regular season loss to the Rams that year.

by Bobman (not verified) :: Tue, 01/17/2006 - 9:31pm

Cody, I agree the game was not as close as the score suggests (unlike the game during the regular season--take away the 80 yarder to Harrison and a dumb on-side kick, and it's too close for my comfort). And if the Colts had won, it would have been "wrong" for a few reasons--the refs, for one, and the small matter that I don't think they deserved it. (next job for me: appellate court judge!)

Rowdy, thanks. Good luck. I see a Steeler team that came out and took on, and trashed the "best team in football" and I did not see that in Denver last week vs the suddenly clumsy Pats, but maybe Denver's saving their savagery for this week, or the next. Good luck. Safe flight.

Jerry, you're right a hell of a season and they return a hell of a team. As do a bunch of others. I cannot wait. But next year I may approach it like I used to approach hockey season as a Rangers fan: "The season is interesting, but I won't pay serious attention until the playoffs." I doubt I'll ever be able to do that for the NFL, but I'm threatening to... you hear me, Tony Dungy?!?!

I wish the game was not so physically brutal so they could just indulge my selfishness and play year-round. Of course Aaron and the FO crew would be unfairly worked to the bone then.

Oh, wait, is this #24 and a multiple of you-know-what? Dare I make one final genuflection for the season? Naah. I'll save that for multiples of 7 for a while (Mr. Roethlisburger)....

by Will Allen (not verified) :: Tue, 01/17/2006 - 9:43pm

Thanks for refeshing my memory, andrew. Funny, I looked up the seasonal points scored and allowed rankings for that year, to confirm it was as large an upset as I remembered, and that the Rams smoked the Vikings earlier in the season, but I didn't look at the boxscore from the playoff game to see if my memory of the game was accurate; it is still such a vivid childhood memory for me that it feels as if it cannot be in error. I wonder how many of Lee's (he being the qb instead of Tarkenton, of course, increased the upset nature of the outcome) ten passes came in the first touchdown drive.

by Larry R. (not verified) :: Tue, 01/17/2006 - 9:56pm

I don't know if this is the right column to write this but Aaron & FO are so far off base with there rankings they are worse than the officiating this weekend on their power rankings. Come on give me a break I was beginning to start thinking your power rankings have some merit! But now it’s ranking them on the team you thought should win not who was best. The Steelers beat the Colts in every part of the game! But best of all I am going to laugh my butt off when the Seahawks beat the Panthers. Go Hawks!

by John (not verified) :: Wed, 01/18/2006 - 2:46pm

In the 1977 Vikes-Rams playoff tilt, Bob Lee connected on 5 of 6 passes on the Vikings 70 yard 1st quarter drive, which culminated in a 5-yard touchdown run by Chuck Foreman.
Where do you fellows get the old boxscores? Media guides or someplace else?

by Will Allen (not verified) :: Wed, 01/18/2006 - 4:07pm

Thanks, John, for confirming that my memory is not completely shot. Lee had six of his ten pass attempts, and all of his five completions, on that first quarter possession, before passing the ball became extremely hazardous. It really was a remarkable game in many ways.

I don't think the site I looked at had the boxscore for the game, merely the result, which I overlooked in deference to my faulty memory.

by Nuk (not verified) :: Wed, 01/18/2006 - 6:22pm

To answer MDS's question at the end: This loss to the Steelers was more painful. I had Superbowl expectations shattered this year. In '95, it was a mediocre 9-7 team that elated me by winning two playoff games. I couldn't ask for anything more then.
Or was this just a rhetorical question?

by Jerry (not verified) :: Wed, 01/18/2006 - 6:50pm

Re #24:


I have a strong recollection of leaving Heinz Field in single-digit temperatures at the end of last year's AFC Championship. I have an equally strong recollection of leaving after the Eagles game when the Steelers had put their second consecutive pounding on a previously-undefeated team. And when I watched Tommy Maddox lose a couple of winnable games this season, I was comforted by the knowledge that 15-1 didn't guarantee anything in the postseason.

You still have the win in Foxboro to savor, and if the Colts are an 11-5 sixth seed next year, well, you know what can happen.

by andrew (not verified) :: Thu, 01/19/2006 - 12:44pm

#27 - I get my old playoff box scores from my old Street & Smith's football encyclopedia. My copy only covers 1960-1993, but it is an invaluable resource for that time period. It doesn't have play-by-play though. I need an updated version of it.

What it does have is every score of every game, stats for each team in every year, box scores of every playoff game, team recaps, recaps of the championship games and a full page on each superbowl, and breakdowns for each player's career. It isn't the everything guide but for a long time it was my main resource and I still consult it often for its time period.

by andrew (not verified) :: Thu, 01/19/2006 - 12:44pm

doh - edit that last post. I meant to say St. Martin's press, not Street & Smith.