Hey, upsets happen!
Since the 1970 merger, the NFL has played 100 conference championship games, in which one full third of them were won outright by the underdog. They almost split evenly by conference over the years — 17 to the NFC, 16 to the AFC.
Here’s a look back at the worst beatings in history for both conferences — both the team that beat the biggest of the NFL point spreads, and the team that beat their line by the biggest margin.
But first, a review of the four Super Bowls between teams who the sportsbook set as underdogs in their conference championships.
Super Bowls That Weren’t
Some years, underdogs win the day on conference championship Sunday, and both the unexpected teams punch their tickets to the Big Game. Frozen in history, Super Bowl matchups are remembered as though they were destined to happen, but a few classics occurred between teams that eked out a conference win as underdogs. Including the very first conference championships, both won by the dogs.
Super Bowl V
While the Baltimore Colts won a defensive battle over the Dallas Cowboys, many expected the Super Bowl to be the Oakland Raiders coached by John Madden against the San Francisco 49ers. Madden would have to wait another six years before getting back to (and winning) the championship.
Super Bowl XV
Tom Flores’ first Super Bowl win coaching the Oakland Raiders to a win over the Philadelphia Eagles wasn’t thought to be the matchup that was supposed to happen. Bookmakers expected instead to see Don Coryell’s San Diego Chargers getting beaten by Tom Landry’s Dallas Cowboys.
In a miserable NFC Championship game, Cowboys’ quarterback Danny White and running back Tony Dorsett fumbled more than Philly quarterback Ron Jaworski did, and the Eagles won 20-7 as short underdogs.
Super Bowl XXXV
Pundits didn’t look ahead to the Baltimore Ravens steamrolling the New York Giants at the hands of linebacker Ray Lewis who won MVP. Maybe they expected the Giants, but the Minnesota Vikings were the short favorite in the NFC Championship game (more on this shortly).
The Ravens were expected to lose to Jon Gruden’s Oakland Raiders in the AFC Championship Game, but on that particular Sunday, somehow, Trent Dilfer played less poorly than Rich Gannon, and the Ravens won another defensive battle as six-point dogs by a 16-3 final.
Super Bowl LIII
Tom Brady’s sixth Super Bowl ring, earned in a win over the Los Angeles Rams, was instead projected to be Drew Brees’ best shot at one more championship over the Kansas City Chiefs. Both the Chiefs and Saints lost their conference championship games as field-goal favorites.
The biggest conference championship upsets of all time coincidentally cluster in a four-year span around the turn of the 2000s. But some dishonorable mentions in the earlier years are worth noting.
NFC 1975: Despite losing to Dallas in their season opener that year, the Los Angeles Rams were laying 6½ points to the Cowboys in their conference championship rematch. But Rams quarterback Ron Jaworski threw two interceptions to Dallas Cowboys’ QB Roger Staubach’s four touchdowns, and the Cowboys punched their Super Bowl ticket 37-7. (The Cowboys would go on to lose the Super Bowl as touchdown underdogs to the Steelers.)
AFC 1985: They’d split their divisional series during the regular season, but when the Miami Dolphins earned a bye week into the playoffs, they were lined as 5½-point chalk against the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship. The Patriots destroyed Don Shula’s Dolphins that Sunday, as Miami turned the ball over six times giving the Patriots a 31-14 win and a trip to the Super Bowl. (The Bears would go on to stomp the Pats 46-10.)
American Conference Upsets
Jan. 27, 2002: New England Patriots (35½) at Pittsburgh Steelers (-10)
Even though they had won an improbable Super Bowl against the St. Louis Rams just two seasons before, the New England Patriots were catching 10 points on the road against the number-one seeded Pittsburgh Steelers.
Tom Brady tweaked his ankle midway through the game, giving way to the man he made his backup, Drew Bledsoe. New England’s defense held the Steelers’ star running back and human bowling ball Jerome Bettis to eight (8) yards on nine (9) attempts and picked off quarterback Kordell Stewart three times.
A 49-yard touchdown return by Antwan Harris off a blocked field goal blew the game open in the second half. The Patriots went on to win by a 24-17 final.
Oddly, the Titans beat the Jaguars in both of their division meetings that year. But those losses were the only two making Jacksonville’s 14-2 regular-season record. Coming out of their bye week, the Jags ended Dan Marino’s career on a humiliating 62-7 beating. (That’s not a typo.) Oddsmakers installed them as touchdown favorites at home.
The Jaguars carried a 14-10 lead into the half, but the Titans uncorked the game in the second half scoring 23 unanswered points, including a safety and an 80-yard kickoff return for a touchdown on back-to-back plays. Tennessee would beat the point-spread margin by 26 points in a 33-14 final.
National Conference Upsets
The Minnesota Vikings and coach Dennis Green earn special dishonor as the titleholder of both worst upsets in the NFC.
Only a field-goal loss midway through the year separated the Minnesota Vikings and a perfect record. The Randall Cunningham-led offense shredded defenses all season long. They emerged from their bye week to trounce the Arizona Cardinals and were laying double digits hosting the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC Championship.
The Falcons fell behind by 13 points before the half but managed to scrape back with two touchdown receptions to Terance Mathis, the second of which came with just a minute left to tie the game. In overtime, the Vikings failed to deliver the dagger in the form of a long Randy Moss reception. It would take four possessions, but the Falcons would manage to drive 70 yards to set Morten Andersen up for the game-winning field goal, a 30-27 final.
Jan. 14, 2001: Minnesota Vikings (-1) at New York Giants (41½)
While they were comparable teams, the oddsmakers considered the Vikings the superior side. Both teams earned a bye week, but the New York Giants held a slightly better record and the home-field advantage. But now the Vikings had quarterback Daunte Culpepper and still had Randy Moss, and so the oddsmakers set them as a one-point road favorite.
What followed was one of the great dismantlings in playoff history. The Giants beat the Vikings 31-9 in first downs, 42:22 to 17:38 in time of possession, and won the turnover differential by three. Giants’ quarterback Kerry Collins threw five touchdowns in contrast to Culpepper’s three picks. Running back Robert Smith was held to 44 yards. Randy Moss failed to catch any of his seven targeted passes. Minnesota failed to score, and the Giants took their foot off the gas after taking a 34-0 lead into the locker at the half.
New York would only score another touchdown early in the second half, clown-hammering the Vikings by a 42-point margin against the number, a 41-0 final.