Among NFL point spreads, the biggest scrutiny to the sportsbook comes at the end of the season. With the Super Bowl betting handle the largest of the year (and an extra week to bet it) no other game faces as much sports betting analysis as the Big Game.
But it doesn’t always work out that way. Even when championships featured disparate NFL teams with vast point spreads, the heavy favorite doesn’t always get the win.
Here are the top five Super Bowls where the underdogs with the biggest point spreads and lowest expectations to win pulled off the unthinkable and shipped the straight-up Super Bowl win.
Keep Your Points, We’re Taking This Straight-Up
#5 – Super Bowl XXXII – Jan. 25, 1998
Denver Broncos 31, Green Bay Packers 24
Spread: Packers -11
In hindsight, expecting the Green Bay Packers to lay double digits was maybe a stretch.
Maybe it was because they were the reigning Super Bowl Champions, led by none other than Brett Lorenzo Favre, who had just picked up his third consecutive MVP award. Or maybe it was because their opponent, the Denver Broncos led by long-in-the-tooth John Elway in his 15th season, lost three Super Bowls going back a decade before (by an accrued score of 136-40). Or maybe it was because the NFC carried a 13-year Super Bowl-winning streak going into the game.
Whatever the cause, Green Bay blasted into the postseason with only a few close losses on the year, while Denver stumbled down the stretch, nearly costing themselves a Wild Card. Bettors who took the double-digit points with the Broncos were not disappointed.
Thanks to a couple of turnovers, the Broncos carved a 10-point lead going into the halftime break. (The halftime show was a celebration of the 40th anniversary of Motown.) And while a three-touchdown cushion against the spread is a good lead, Denver backers didn’t feel completely comfortable after Green Bay’s third-quarter field goal tied the game back up, 17-17.
The signature play of the game — the moment Denver bettors could cheer they’d cash the +11 tickets and the Broncos might actually win this thing — came on a third-and-six play late in the third quarter, where Elway scrambled and dove for the first down. What became known as “The Helicopter” led to a go-ahead score for the Broncos. (Elway was 37 years old at the time.)
The Broncos would score again, after the Packers came back again to tie the game in the fourth quarter. Left with less than two minutes, the Broncos stopped the Packers’ comeback drive at the Denver 31.
Denver Broncos’ owner Pat Bowlen emblematized the upset with his hoisting of the Lombardi Trophy, declaring “This one’s for John!” (Though, John would also go on to win the next year’s one as well.)
#4 – Super Bowl IV – Jan. 11, 1970
Kansas City Chiefs 23, Minnesota Vikings 7
Spread: Vikings -12
If not for the No. 1 entry on our list, this Super Bowl would have carried a much greater historical significance.
Back a lifetime ago, the National Football League swallowed the American Football League whole. Though that was what the American league wanted, the National league was still concerned about facing sanction by the U.S. government for possibly being a monopoly. The point is, these leagues didn’t play regular-season games against each other. (They’d merge the following year into conferences, and play inter-conference matches after that.)
So when it came to the single game they played at the end of the year — the AFL-NFL World Championship Game — it was hard to make direct comparisons to handicap the teams. Save it was a given the National league, established since the 1920s, was superior to the more recently founded (1960) American league.
In this case, bookies set the Minnesota Vikings as 12-13 point chalk. The Vikes averaged 27 points per game, allowing 9.5 per game on defense. Their formidable “Purple People Eaters” defense was expected to throttle their opponent, the Kansas City Chiefs, who many considered fortunate to have upset the Oakland Raiders in the American league championship.
The Vikings’ vaunted defense had its hands full with quarterback Len Dawson, as they played bend-don’t-break giving up three field goals, and then kind of broke when Kansas City scored a late touchdown in the first half. After five drives, Minnesota had come up with no points and headed to the locker room down 16-0. (The halftime show was a re-enactment of the Battle of New Orleans, not sponsored by Pepsi.)
Bettors with Chiefs’ +12 felt confident about their bets early on, and had a four-touchdown edge over the spread. While the Vikings started to mount a comeback with a third-quarter touchdown, that was quickly quashed by a 46-yard pass to Otis Taylor for a touchdown, putting the Chiefs up 23-7. With a scoreless fourth quarter, that’s how the game would end.
#3 – Super Bowl XLII – Feb. 3, 2008
New York Giants 17, New England Patriots 14
Spread: Patriots -12½
In hindsight here, it seems remarkable the line wasn’t more than 12½. It did open higher, so some market movers had bets as high as +13½ on the New York Giants.
Football writers had already prepared their pre-writes about how the New England Patriots were the greatest team in the history of the league. They set scoring records on their way to a perfect 16-0 regular season and soundly won their way to the Super Bowl. The Giants, on the other hand, had already exceeded the season’s expectations by clinching a Wild-Card spot the week before their season finale.
As luck would have it, that final regular-season game was against the Patriots — then 15-0 and looking to finish off their perfect regular season — scheduled for a special Saturday presentation. (The ratings were epic.) In a decision that went against his usual game theory, Patriots’ coach Bill Belichick played the team’s starters in full, to win the otherwise meaningless game. So too did Giants’ coach Tom Coughlin, taking New England to the wire in that game, the Patriots ultimately prevailing 38-35.
By the time the Giants ran the gauntlet of their three playoff games leading up to the Super Bowl, the final of which was an overtime win over the Packers, they came into the championship as heavy underdogs. (They paid at least +400 on the moneyline.)
Plodding first-quarter drives and defense carried the first half that saw far less scoring than expected, and the Patriots carried a 7-3 lead into the half. (Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, in case you were wondering.) Giants’ backers cheered on a scoreless third quarter and a go-ahead fourth-quarter New York touchdown. With a 10-7 lead, it seemed certain the underdog would cash and could possibly win outright.
The Pats would take back the lead, 14-10, setting the Giants up for a game-winning drive and the iconic play from this Super Bowl. On a broken play from their own 44, and the Giants’ quarterback Eli Manning nearly in the grasp pitched an almost uncatchable ball to David Tyree over 30 yards away. What resulted, of course, was the “Helmet Catch” an improbable grab by Tyree, setting New York up on the Patriots’ 24-yard line. They’d score a few plays later on a 13-yard Plaxico Burress reception, leaving only 39 seconds on the clock, and giving New York the upset.
#2 – Super Bowl XXXVI – Feb. 3, 2002
New England Patriots 20, St. Louis Rams 17
Spread: Rams -14
Before they played Goliath to the Giants, the Patriots assumed the David role against the “Greatest Show on Turf.”
The St. Louis Rams, that aforementioned greatest show, were a great team made greater with the promotion of short-term mad-genius Mike Martz to head coach. With Kurt Warner showing up as the storybook answer to a team’s prayers at quarterback, they arguably could have been vying for their third consecutive Super Bowl, if not for a stumble in the previous year’s playoffs against the Saints.
The New England Patriots, on the other hand, were forecast for a mediocre year made miserable when their veteran quarterback Drew Bledsoe sheared a blood vessel, an injury that would cost him weeks of playing time. He was replaced by a nameless sixth-round afterthought, who was said to have won their next game against the Colts because no one had any tape on him.
Bledsoe’s injury lingered, and New England struggled to get back to a .500 record by November under a team now led by defense and their new game manager under center, T. Brady. (He’s number 12 — they gave him Matt Cavanaugh’s old number to remind him he’s a bum.) They lost to St. Louis in Week 10, though the Patriots’ defense managed to injure a handful of Rams’ starters out of the game and kept the loss to within a touchdown.
By the time the Super Bowl came — and New England managed to escape their divisional game on a weird technicality known as the “tuck rule” — the Patriots were catching two touchdowns, and it was a reasonable argument that 14½ was a better line. There was debate to start Drew Bledsoe, until it was finally confirmed they’d dance with the one they brung, Tom Brady.
It might seem presumptive to think Patriots backers could have felt good about their bet before the coin flip, but that’s what happened. Before even the national anthem, the Rams’ followed the tradition of introducing their team members as individuals. In the eerie political aftermath of 9/11, New England announced (in both the broadcast and to the stadium PA) that they would be introduced as a team — and proceeded to storm onto the field in the fashion that every team has since followed.
It also helped New England’s cause it played smash-mouth defense, held the high-octane Rams to a single field goal in the first half, and scored twice, once on a Ty Law Pick-Six, taking a 14-3 lead into the half. (It was a big, patriotic U2 thing. Bono had the flag jacket. You remember.) Patriot backers who were getting the two touchdowns stopped being concerned they’d win that bet once St. Louis was kept scoreless in the third quarter, and started believing the Patriots could indeed pull off the upset.
St. Louis clawed back to tie the game 17-17 inside of the two-minute warning. Returned to their own 17, no timeouts and 1:37 on the clock, this Tom Brady started hucking balls in an effort to see if they could get somewhere around the Rams’ 35 and kick a game-winning field goal. Noted video-game brand and color commentator John Madden suggested in real-time that Tom Brady’s head was full of rocks plan was flawed, and should instead play for an overtime win.
Five completions and a ball spike later, Adam Vinatieri kicked the game-winning field goal of a Super Bowl as time expired. It cleared the crossbar, and the Patriots upset sparked the New England dynasty that would last for two decades.
#1 – Super Bowl III – Jan. 12, 1969
New York Jets 16, Baltimore Colts 7
Spread: Colts -18
This is the game mentioned in the No. 4 entry, which preceded it when the AFL winner would face the NFL winner for its statutory beating.
That’s how the first two NFL-AFL championships played out, as the Green Bay Packers won the NFL championship (their fifth of seven), and went on to hang more than 30 on their AFL opponent while giving up only a couple of scores. Oddsmakers set a two-touchdown line for each of those games, and the Packers more than covered. When it came to the third match, an adjustment was made.
The new powerhouse team of the 1968 season (and winners of the Coastal Division) boasted the biggest point differential that year. In the postseason, they beat the Vikings by 10 at home and then traveled to Cleveland to slaughter the Browns 34-0. The Colts had returned to success under coach Don Shula.
Former Baltimore coach Weeb Ewbank had found his way to a team in the AFL in 1963 that was once-called the Titans but switched to the Jets. They’d been struggling as a .500 franchise in this new league using former players as coaches, including Bulldog Turner. Ewbank posted three consecutive seasons with a 5-8-1 record after the team rebranded as the Jets.
Within the confines of the AFL in the late 1960s, the Jets gradually improved with their quarterback and well-known party monster Joe Namath. Enough so that their 11-3 record in the 1968 season was enough to clinch a playoff berth. They edged the Oakland Raiders 27-23 to earn their spot to get smoked by the Baltimore Colts at the Orange Bowl.
With two weeks leading up to the game, and a seemingly endless supply of booze, it was inevitable Namath would provoke the media and poke the bear. He opined his backup was better than the Colts’ starting quarterback, Earl Morrall, he was provoked into guaranteeing his team’s victory. They were still two-touchdown underdogs.
Anyone who backed the Jets as dogs was rewarded with a miserable first half from the Colts. Lou Michaels shanked a 27-yard field goal attempt. After being set up on the Jets’ 12-yard line from a fumble recovery, Morrall threw an interception in the Jets’ end zone. New York scored a touchdown, the Colts missed another field-goal attempt (41 yards) and the Jets went to the locker room at the half with a 7-0 lead. (Florida A&M’s marching band with a rousing rendition of “America Thanks” — on par with Prince’s performance.)
At some point in the third quarter, Jets’ backers felt confident they could cash the +14 point spread, as the Colts’ defense managed to hold New York to field goals instead of touchdowns. Baltimore benched Morrall for legendary veteran Johnny Unitas to see if he could spark the offense. That didn’t work but did result in a last-ditch effort to put up a touchdown and stop the pending shutout. Sadly, it would be another 26 years before the NFL would adopt a two-point conversion, so despite recovering an on-side kick, the Colts were still down two scores. They failed to make one, and the Jets pulled off what is “regarded as one of the greatest upsets in both American football history and in the recorded history of sports”. (Says so right on Wikipedia.)
As noted, early bookies would need another round before they’d learn, since the AFL team the following year was still catching double digits.