Ranking the Top 5 Biggest Outright Upsets in Super Bowl History
The Super Bowl has become an integral part of American culture in part due to a seemingly incomprehensible number of prop bets and the ubiquitous nature of Super Bowl betting. And even though you can now bet at top NFL sportsbooks in more and more states, it’s really the on-field action (and the commercials!) that has captivated hundreds of millions of viewers.
In 54 Super Bowls, underdogs have covered 24 times out of 52 occasions and pushed twice. That parity for fans, as well as bettors, has added an extra layer of excitement to the most viewed annual television event in the United States.
Of those two dozen underdogs to beat bookies’ expectations, 17 have won outright. That includes five teams that entered the games as double-digit underdogs.
Super Bowl LV will not join the list, as oddsmakers favor the Kansas City Chiefs by only 3 points over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the opening line. No spread was greater than five points (Super Bowl 50) in the 2010s, either. Here’s a breakdown of the special list of the biggest outright upsets against the spread in Super Bowl history.
5) Super Bowl XXXII – Denver (+11) over Green Bay
The Packers, led by Hall-of-Fame quarterback Bret Favre on offense and fellow Canton inductee Reggie White on defense, were coming off a championship in Super Bowl XXXI and expected to cruise to a second the following year. Bookmakers made the Packers 11-point favorites over the upstart Broncos.
But the Broncos had a Hall-of-Fame quarterback of their own in John Elway and, perhaps more importantly in that game, he had another Hall of Famer to run the ball.
Denver running back Terrell Davis put together one of the most impressive individual performances in Super Bowl history, rushing for 157 yards and three touchdowns, including the game-winner in the fourth quarter – all while battling migraine headaches.
Off Davis’ heroics, the Broncos outrushed the Packers and held an edge in time of possession, taking a 17-7 lead and holding on for a 31-24 win, giving Denver its first ever NFL championship and easily topping bookmakers projections.
Bonus Fact: Davis is the last running back to win the Super Bowl’s MVP award.
T-3) Super Bowl IV – Kansas City (+12) over Minnesota
In the fourth-ever installment of what we now call the Super Bowl, the more venerable National Football League teams were still considered superior to the former squads on the upstart American Football League. This was the last game played before the leagues merged. Though an AFL squad had come out victorious in the prior game (a contest you’ll read more about later), the more established NFL team received a lopsided advantage in the minds of bookmakers in Super Bowl IV.
Once again, the underdog would come out on top against not just the point spread but the game overall.
Under legendary coach Hank Stram, Hall-of-Fame quarterback Len Dawson and five more future Canton inductees on defense, the Chiefs rolled the heavily-favored Vikings in a game that not only brought Kansas City a championship but reaffirmed the strength of the soon-to-be former AFL teams.
A 12-point underdog, the Chiefs would go on to win by 16. Kansas City scored the game’s first 16 points and never looked back in the lopsided victory.
Bonus Fact: Minnesota went on to play in three more Super Bowls, entering each time as an underdog, and failed to cover or win in any of them.
T-3) Super Bowl XLII – New York Giants (+12) over New England
A game with one of the largest point spreads in Super Bowl history would prove to be one of its most exciting.
Down 14-10 with less than three minutes left in the fourth quarter, New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning led his team on what would become one of the most legendary drives in NFL history. Even more memorably, Manning scrambled on third and 5, avoided a sack, and found backup wide receiver David Tyree for an incredible pass where Tyree famously pinned the ball to the top of his helmet while being tackled.
The Giants would score on a game-winning touchdown pass from Manning to Plaxico Burress just a few plays later, cementing one of the wildest endings imaginable to the Big Game.
New York’s swarming defense, led by future Hall of Famer Michael Strahan slowed down New England’s record-setting offense, trailing only 7-3 at halftime. The low score helped make a Giants cover seem a near certainty, despite the fourth-quarter drama.
For Giants fans, the upset win over the previously undefeated and heavily favored Patriots made the game even sweeter.
Bonus Fact: The Giants would upset the Patriots again four years later in the Super Bowl, albeit as much smaller underdogs at only 2.5 points. Neither Burress nor Tyree were still with the team for the rematch.
2) Super Bowl XXXVI - New England (+14) over St. Louis
It may seem shocking for newer NFL fans that the Patriots were once an unproven upstart, especially given that the franchise has made nine Super Bowl appearances since the 2001 season. But the Patriots were once of the biggest underdogs in the game’s history.
A then-unproven Tom Brady had led the Patriots through a turbulent regular season. Injured for the AFC championship game, he would return for the Super Bowl as a two-touchdown underdog.
That was in part due to the Patriots unexpected journey to the Big Game but perhaps even more so because of their opponent.
The high-flying Rams, led by former MVP quarterback Kurt Warner and fellow MVP running back Marshall Faulk, had been the best team in the league during the 2001 season. After a narrow win in Super Bowl XXXIV, handicappers and much of the American public expected the Rams to cruise to a second title in three years.
Instead, the Patriots put together one of the best defensive efforts in Super Bowl history.
New England held the Rams’ prolific offense to three points at halftime, while Brady and the offense scored two touchdowns against the St. Louis defense, going into the break with a 14-3 lead. The Rams would score two touchdowns of their own in the fourth quarter to eventually tie the game, but Brady led a remarkable drive with under two minutes left in regulation that set up Adam Vinatieri’s 48-yard, game-winning field goal.
It instantly became one of the most iconic moments in Super Bowl history – and launched a Patriots dynasty that would spark many more iconic Big Game memories.
But for Patriots bettors, a cover against the lopsided spread was all but assured thanks to a legendary first half by the team’s defense.
Bonus Fact: The Patriots have been favored in all but one of their Super Bowl appearances since that victory in New Orleans. The lone exception came in Super Bowl XLIX, when New England entered the game as a pick ‘em against the defending NFL champion Seattle Seahawks.
1) Super Bowl III – New York Jets (+18) over Baltimore
There may be no single game more responsible for the Super Bowl’s popularity, or the modern’s NFL long-standing success, than the Jets' stunning upset over the Baltimore Colts.
Before Kansas City entered Super Bowl IV as lopsided underdogs, the upstart Jets faced even tougher odds. Few outside the Jets locker room thought New York could compete with the loaded Baltimore Colts, a powerhouse in the more established NFL.
But the AFL champions featured Joe Namath, who was undeterred by media (and Las Vegas) projections that his team would be stomped by the Colts. Broadway Joe uttered his now infamous guarantee of a win. Outdueling fellow future Hall of Fame quarterback Johnny Unitas of the Colts, Namath staked the Jets to a 16-0 lead and never faltered nor threw a TD pass in a shocking 16-7 win.
It was a stunning blow to Colts bettors, but an easy cover for those who backed the Jets. More so than anyone could have imagined after that game, it would help spark much of the reason hundreds of millions of dollars are wagered on the Big Game every year.
Bonus Fact: All four of the biggest underdogs to win outright have done so in games that also went under the total.
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