Saturday, February 5, 2011

The X Greatest Super Bowl Upsets of All-Time

With about 24 hours 'til the kickoff of 'Super Bowl Sunday' between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Green Bay Packers tomorrow, this year's contest has all the makings of a true classic. Both teams are among the oldest – and winningest – franchises in the history of the NFL. They've got potent offenses and stringent defenses. Their fan bases are notorious and passionate, each with signature paraphernalia. Unless either team wins by more than two touchdowns, history will look back on this game kindly.

However, I think it's the upsets that draw the greatest intrigue among casual and die-hard fans because they have much more taglines and stories to tell beyond the final score. And besides, who doesn't love an underdog winning it all with more skeptics than believers heading into the big game? As such, here are what I consider to be the ten greatest Super Bowl upsets of all-time. Number one may surprise you.

10. Super Bowl VII: Miami Dolphins over Washington Redskins (1973)
I know what you're thinking. "How is this an upset when one team was aiming for perfection?" Simple, they played a creampuff schedule in the regular season and were finally about to be tested in the upcoming Super Bowl. Such is the case for the 1972 Miami Dolphins. All but two of their victories came against teams that finished over .500. And in both cases, those two opponents (Kansas City and the New York Giants) didn't even make the playoffs.

Meanwhile, the Washington Redskins were as close to perfection as could possibly be. They finished 11-3 in the regular season with the number one overall seed in the NFC. In the playoffs, they held both of their opponents (Green Bay and Dallas) to a field goal. As icing on the cake, the Redskins were powered by running back Larry Brown, who was named the NFL's MVP and the Associated Press's Offensive Player of the Year for 1972.

Then again, maybe it was time a team went undefeated.

When the Super Bowl kicked off, it suprisingly became a defensive struggle. The Dolphins scored a touchdown in both the first and second quarter, leading the Redskins by 14 at halftime. For Washington, they only crossed midfield once during the first half. No one scored in the third quarter, but the game was still in reach when Garo Yepremian attempted a 42-yard field goal for the Dolphins. The kick was blocked and returned by the Redskins for a touchdown with a little over two minutes to go in the game. Instead of an onside kick, they gambled with a deep kickoff return. It worked, and Washington got the ball back with over a minute left (after using up all their timeouts). Unfortunately, they went nowhere with their final drive, and the Miami Dolphins became the first (and so far, only) team to finish a whole season with a perfect record.

9. Super Bowl XLIV: New Orleans Saints over Indianapolis Colts (2010)
Wait, who dat?

Yes, in spite of the 13-3 record held by the New Orleans Saints and their offense leading the league in scoring, some figured the team had more sentimental value off the field than in their chances to win the Super Bowl on the field. The memories of Hurricane Katrina ravaging the city in late August 2005 was still fresh, and the team, led by quarterback Drew Brees, used the catastrophe as bulletin board material to continue motivating each other up leading into this game.

Their opponent, the playoff-experienced Indianapolis Colts, went 14-2 in the regular season and had a legitimate shot of becoming the second team in three years to capture a perfect 16-0 regular season. Managed by first-year head coach Jim Caldwell and quarterbacked by NFL MVP Peyton Manning, the Colts were the objective favorite to win the game. A Colt victory would, among other things, solidify Manning's role as one of the best quarterbacks of all-time.

At kickoff, the game was largely in the Colt's favor. They led 10-0 at the end of one quarter, and held a slim 10-6 lead at halftime. Indianapolis was set to receive the ball at the start of the second half, but New Orleans head coach Sean Payton made a gutsy call to start the half with an onside kick, in order to fool the Colts' special teams unit. It worked. New Orleans recovered, and when they did, they also came up with the momentum, as well. Still, the game was a seesaw battle 'til the very end. The Colts were driving down the field in the final minutes of the game, trailing 24-17, and Peyton Manning was leading yet another fourth quarter rally he's accustomed to doing. But on the Saints' 26 yard line, Manning threw his lone interception of the game, and it cost his team dearly. Saints cornerback Tracy Porter returned the pick for six points, and it all but sealed the victory for New Orleans. The Saints went on to beat the Colts 31-17, Drew Brees was named Super Bowl MVP, and they became the ninth team to win the Super Bowl on their first try.

8. Super Bowl XVII: Washington Redskins over Miami Dolphins (1983)
A decade after playing each other to assure or deny perfection on the Dolphins' part, both Washington and Miami met up in the Super Bowl. This time, the roles were reversed.

The Dolphins were powered by their "Killer Bees" defense and third-best rushing attack in the league, despite having a league-worst passing offense. They went 7-2 in the strike-shortened 1982 NFL season. The Redskins, meanwhile, went 8-1, had the highest passer rating among any NFC quarterback in Joe Theismann, and the first placekicker to ever win the MVP in Mark Moseley. So why was Washington not favored heading into the Super Bowl?

The answer's quite elementary, really. Of the 45 players on the Redskins' roster, more than half (26) were signed as free agents, 14 of whom were never drafted into the NFL. Washington's mere presence in the Super Bowl was astonishing, to say the least.

But when the Super Bowl started, that factor was tossed out of the equation. Both teams alternated in their scoring drives the first half, and Miami led 17-10 at halftime. It was the final time the Dolphins would score during the game. The Redskins held them to just two first downs the rest of the way, and Washington methodically moved down the field to chew plenty of time off the clock and continually pin the Dolphins deep in their own territory. A 20 yard chip shot in the third quarter, coupled with two touchdowns in the fourth quarter, provided the Redskins plenty of offense as their defense was practically invincible. With the final score of 27-17, Washington won their first Super Bowl.

7. Super Bowl XVIII: Los Angeles Raiders over Washington Redskins (1984)
Unfortunately for these same Washington Redskins, they soon realized success in football is often fickle, and that it takes just one demoralizing defeat to humble a whole team into mediocrity. Such was the case in their (failed) bid to become the fourth franchise to repeat as Super Bowl champs.

The Redskins vastly improved upon their winning campaign the year before. In 1983, Washington went 14-2, and both their losses came by just one point. Additionally, their 541 points scored in the regular season stood for fifteen years until the Minnesota Vikings broke that record in 1998. Quarterback Joe Theismann won the MVP, and the team's defense allowed the fewest rushing yards in the league. By comparison, the Redskins were significantly better.

However, the Los Angeles Raiders were good in their own right. Jim Plunkett, Todd Christenson, and Marcus Allen led the offense, while their defense was built around Pro Bowlers Howie Long, Rod Martin, and Lester Hayes (among others). If anything, the Raiders were a formidable match for the Redskins. It's just that Washington was better than them in every way possible, including a comeback victory over these same Raiders earlier in the regular season.

Lo and behold, the Redskins folded faster than a cheap tent once the big game started. In one of the more lopsided Super Bowl victories of all-time, the Los Angeles Raiders made people easily forget that the Washington Redskins were favored to win. The Raiders scored three touchdowns in three different fashions during the first half: they blocked a punt and recovered it in the end zone, caught a pass from their own quarterback, and returned an interception for a touchdown. Los Angeles led 21-3 at the half, but the carnage was not yet over. Though they gave up a one-yard rushing touchdown, the Raiders didn't let the Redskins score any more. Running back Marcus Allen ran for two touchdowns in the third quarter, and an easy 21 yard field goal in the fourth proved to be the final scores of the game. The Raiders handedly won 38-9 on "Black Sunday" for the first Super Bowl title in franchise history.

To date, it's the only Super Bowl won by a team based in Los Angeles.

6. Super Bowl XXV: New York Giants over Buffalo Bills (1991)
The 1990 Buffalo Bills bolted out of the starting gate and never looked back. They went 13-3 during the regular season, clinched the number one overall seed in the AFC, and absolutely annihilated the Los Angeles Raiders in the conference championship game (51-3!) to make their first Super Bowl. Behind quarterback Jim Kelly, running back Thurman Thomas, and anchored on defense by Bruce Smith, the Bills were fortified to win the first Super Bowl for the team's historically bad franchise.

Their opponent was the New York Giants, a team that in some ways was a mirror image of the Bills. They too went 13-3 in the regular season and won their way into the Super Bowl with a sharp quarterback in Phil Simms and a future Hall of Fame defender in Lawrence Taylor. In addition, the Giants lead the league in fewest points allowed on the season at 211.

So why the edge to Buffalo? Near the end of the regular season, Simms was injured with a broken foot during a game against, of all teams, the Buffalo Bills and thrust long-time back up Jeff Hostetler as starting quarterback. He was good, but not as great as Simms. And besides, many didn't expect the Giants' defense to contain the Bills' offense, which scored nearly 100 points in both their playoff games preceding the Super Bowl, nor the Giants' offense to keep pace with the Bills' high-octane offense.

When the Super Bowl rolled in, the atmosphere was fervent. Due to the ongoing Gulf War in the Middle East, many people turned toward this game as a symbol of American patriotism. And boy, did it come through. Both teams exchanged field goals in the first quarter and touchdowns in the second quarter. Only a safety against the Giants proved to be the difference, as the Bills led by two at halftime. But by the second half, New York's defense really tightened up and limited Buffalo to just a touchdown into the fourth quarter. Meanwhile, time consuming offensive drives by the Giants were critical in slowing down Buffalo, and provided New York with a touchdown and a field goal on two of those drives, giving them a 20-19 lead. But there was still enough time for the Bills to make one final charge in the fourth quarter. They made several conversions and eventually set up a 47 yard field goal for Scott Norwood with eight seconds left. The kick sailed wide to the right, and the Giants held on to win one of the more dramatic Super Bowls in its history.

It is still the only Super Bowl (to date) to be decided by a single point.

5. Super Bowl XXXII: Denver Broncos over Green Bay Packers (1998)
Both teams entered this Super Bowl with quarterbacks at different crossroads in their careers. On the one hand, there's Brett Favre of the Packers. Favre, who won his third-consecutive NFL MVP and the previous year's Super Bowl, was in his prime and making his mark as one of the league's elite quarterbacks for many years to come. On the other hand, there's John Elway of the Broncos, a quarterback who's long since paid his dues with the same team and led them to previous Super Bowls, only to suffer humiliating defeats each and every time. Some people wondered if this was Elway's final chance to win that elusive first title. And if was going to come, the task on hand would be an arduous one.

The Super Bowl started out like it was going to be another repeat championship for the Packers. Green Bay received the opening kickoff, and Brett Favre led his team for a touchdown and the first points of the game. However, John Elway didn't let that discourage him. He and running back Terrell Davis ran for short 1 yard touchdowns, and kicker Jason Elam converted a remarkable 51 yard field goal to put Denver in the lead. Favre drove the Packers for another touchdown, but the score remained 17-14 in favor of the Broncos. At the start of the second half, the Packers recovered a fumble early in the third quarter which led to a 27 yard field goal by Ryan Longwell. Later that quarter, Elway was spun around like a helicopter while extending a Bronco drive deep in Packers territory, another lasting image in Super Bowl history. That was followed up by Davis' second, and the team's third, 1 yard touchdown two plays later. By the fourth quarter, both defenses began tightening up as the offenses attempted to score again. Favre tied the game up at 24 with another passing touchdown, but Elway put the game away with his leadership down the field and Davis' third, and the team's fourth, 1 yard rushing touchdown. Green Bay had a shot to tie near the end, but they couldn't convert on the drive. The Denver Broncos finally won the Super Bowl, 31-24, and upon receiving the Vince Lombardi trophy to the winning team, Broncos owner Pat Bowlen famously said, "This one's for John (Elway)."

4. Super Bowl IV: Kansas City Chiefs over Minnesota Vikings (1970)
Following the events that transpired in Super Bowl III, many people still weren't convinced that the AFL was as good as the NFL. In the weeks leading up to Super Bowl IV, those convictions could not be silenced. The NFL's participant, the Minnesota Vikings, led that league in total points scored (379) and fewest points allowed (133). Quarterback Joe Kapp was named the team's MVP as a testament to his toughness for a protective position (even then). But nothing could compare to their defensive front line, arguably the most intimidating in the NFL at the time. Nicknamed the "Purple People Eaters", Alan Page, Carl Eller, Jim Marshall, and Gary Larsen were all named to the Pro Bowl team and helped their overall defense record fifty sacks on the quarterback all season. Representing the AFL were the Kansas City Chiefs, a team who couldn't seem to catch a break all season long, even though they had an 11-3 record. However, the addition of the wild card by the AFL prior to the 1969 season allowed the Chiefs to make the playoffs, despite not winning their division, a prerequisite that seemed imperative in order to get to the Super Bowl. As a result, the Chiefs were derided for their presence. They could've cared less. They beat the New York Jets and the Oakland Raiders to get to the Super Bowl, where they were double-digit underdogs to the Vikings.

As soon as the Super Bowl started, it was Kansas City that looked like the hungrier team. On their first possession, the Chiefs kicked a (then) Super Bowl record 48 yard field goal using an unorthodox soccer-style place kick that is now commonplace in today's NFL. The Chiefs managed to kick two more field goals later that half, and they added a touchdown for a 16-0 halftime lead. The Vikings were anything but themslves that half. Fumbles and interceptions highlighted Minnesota's plight, and it only got worse from there. The Vikings defense looked insipid, and their quarterback had more than half his passes drop for an incompletion. Minnesota was able to put up a rushing touchdown with four and a half minutes left in the third quarter, but Kansas City responded three minutes later with a touchdown of their own that put a dagger through the Vikings' hearts. No one scored in the fourth quarter, and the Chiefs held on to win 23-7.

The Chiefs became the first team to lose a Super Bowl, then subsequently win another one at a later time. (They lost the inaugural title game to the Green Bay Packers three years earlier.)

It was also during this game that the Chiefs used a little known sports beverage to help fuel their performance leading up to – and during – the Super Bowl. After their championship run, the drink garnered national prominence as rehydration clinically tested to improve athletic performance. That drink was Gatorade, and today, it consumes upwards of 90% of sports beverages in the United States.

3. Super Bowl III: New York Jets over Baltimore Colts (1969)
This was the original Super Bowl upset. It was a matchup against the champions of the NFL (Baltimore) and the AFL (New York), when both were still separate leagues. (They merged after Super Bowl IV as a "new" NFL.) However, many considered this a mismatch because of the wide-held belief that the NFL had vastly superior competition between their teams. After having the Green Bay Packers win the first two Super Bowls, the NFL's represetative for the championship game was the Baltimore Colts, a team that went 13-1, was coached by future Hall of Famer Don Shula, and quarterbacked by MVP Earl Morall, who took over for long-time starter Johnny Unitas when he was injured in the final exhibition game before the regular season began. There was no way they could possibly lose.

In fact, the only one with the cojones to predict a Jet victory was their own quarterback, "Broadway" Joe Namath. He went so far as to guarantee his team would beat the Baltimore Colts. Coming from him, that was a hoot. He was portrayed by the media as a very mellow and laid-back quarterback who couldn't be an effective leader. But like all great quarterbacks, Namath knew when to turn on the jets come game time.

New York was responsible for the first four scores of the game, a seven-point interception and three subsequent field goals. By the time Baltimore got on the board with a touchdown of their own, only 3:19 remained in the game. They got into the red zone after recovering an onside kick, but turned the ball over on downs, and the Jets wer able to essentially run the clock out. The image of Joe Namath wagging his index finger heading toward the tunnel after the game is one of the most iconic images in Super Bowl history.

2. Super Bowl XLII: New York Giants over New England Patriots (2008)
In what is perhaps one of the greatest upsets in recent sports history, the New York football Giants came in as pure snow white underdogs. They faced a Patriot team that is, by all acounts, the most statistically dominant team in NFL history. The Patriots scored 589 points, the most by any one team during the regular season. New England had eight Pro Bowlers on the team, including quarterback Tom Brady, who threw an unprecedented 50 touchdowns during the regular season, and wide receiver Randy Moss, who caught 23 of Brady's TDs – both NFL records. They completed a perfect regular season by beating these same New York Giants on their turf, and the +315 point differential the Patriots accumulated was the best single-season mark in NFL history. 19-0 was practically within their reach.

The Giants, on the other hand, were kind of lucky to be in the playoffs. One of their top players from the previous year, running back Tiki Barber, retired. Quarterback Eli Manning, brother of Indianapolis Colts QB Peyton Manning, struggled for consistency, throwing 23 touchdowns and 20 interceptions on the year. Unlike the Patriots, the Giants only had one Pro Bowler: defensive end Osi Umenyiora. To top it all off, if they were to go to the Super Bowl, they would have to win three consecutive road games. They did, beating the Buccaneers in Tampa Bay, the Cowboys in Dallas, and the Packers in Green Bay, in that order. The only ones preventing the New England Patriots from achieving perfection were the scrappy New York Giants.

Many people expected the Super Bowl to be a rout on the Patriots' part, but the Giants surprised a following audience by keeping the game much closer than anticipated. In fact, to start the game, the Giants took nearly ten minutes off the game clock before finally kicking a field goal. The Patriots responded later in the second quarter with a 1 yard touchdown run by Lawrence Maroney. It stayed that way 'til the end of the half. While practically everyone expected the Patriots to be on top, few (if any) expected they'd be up by only four points, or even scoring only seven through one half of play. There was no scoring during the third quarter, and it wasn't until the fourth quarter that things finally started getting dramatic. The Giants opened up that quarter with a touchdown pass to David Tyree, and it gave them a 10-7 lead. With under three minutes to go, the Patriots scored what appeared to be the game-winning score, a short touchdown pass by Brady to Moss. (Gee, where have I heard that before?) With 2:42 left in the game, all the Patriots had to do was stop the Giants' next drive. They never did. In one of the most incredible plays in Super Bowl history, Giants quarterback Eli Manning evaded several defenders on a long third down before heaving the ball down field where Tyree caught the ball against his helmet with less than a minute to play. On the very next play, Manning threw another touchdown pass, this time to Plaxico Burress. New England got the ball back with thirty five seconds to go, but they couldn't orchestrate another last minute comeback they seemed to able to pull off at will. New York won 17-14, Eli Manning won the Super Bowl MVP (who along with his brother Peyton the previous year, became the first brothers to win the game's MVP), and the Giants shocked the football world. But there was one more upset that defied greater odds than what New York had to overcome.

1. Super Bowl XXXVI: New England Patriots over St. Louis Rams (2002)
Nothing tops an underdog with the weight of the world on their shoulders coming back and winning on the final play of the Super Bowl.

That's what happens when you're a so-so team called the Patriots playing in the title game just months after a national tragedy.

9/11 changed a lot of things, and the Super Bowl was one of them. The original logo was designed to symbolize the festive mood of the city. But after the September 11 attacks, an alternative logo was created to reflect national pride in the months after that heinous act of terrorism. In addition, the Super Bowl was pushed back a week until February 3 to accomdate this national tragedy. (Every Super Bowl since 2004 has been played on the first Sunday in February.) And it gave an underrated team from New England a chance to recapture American glory.

At the start of the 2001 season, the New England Patriots got off to a sluggish start. They lost their first two games, and even their starting quarterback – Drew Bledsoe – to an injury for several weeks during that second game. Bledsoe's replacement was the #199 overall pick in the 2000 NFL Draft out of the University of Michigan named Tom Brady. Under Brady's tutelage, the Patriots managed to finish strong with an 11-5 record and a playoff berth. Besides Brady, their offense and defense were stacked with unsung heroes who bucked the odds and beat the Oakland Raiders in the infamous "Tuck Rule Game", followed by a close win against the Pittsburgh Steelers on the road to get to the Super Bowl.

Their competition? Only the St. Louis Rams, a.k.a. "The Greatest Show on Turf". Highlighted by quarterback Kurt Warner, the NFL's MVP, and running back Marshall Faulk, the NFL's Offensive Player of the Year, the Rams' offense was a force to be reckoned with. They led the league in offensive yards (6,930) and scoring (503), and their defense gave up a respectable 271 points, exactly 200 points less than the year before. Furthermore, the bulk of this team had already won the Super Bowl two years ago against the Tennessee Titans in what is arguably the most dramatic conclusion to any Super Bowl. Clearly, the Rams were head and shoulders above the Patriots.

When the Super Bowl got started, St. Louis was first to strike with a 50 yard field goal midway through the first quarter. It remained scoreless through that first quarter, but the Patriots seized control over the second quarter. An interception by Ty Law was returned for a touchdown and, on a separate drive by St. Louis, a fumble recovery by New England led to a touchdown pass by Brady to David Patten. The Patriots led 14-3 at the half, and it was the first time all season the Rams trailed by more than 8 points at halftime. The Rams continued to make mental mistakes into the third quarter, and the Patriots were able to get a field goal out a drive of theirs. But like all great teams, St. Louis would not go down without a fight. In the fourth quarter, Kurt Warner ran for a 2 yard touchdown and he later threw a 26 yard touchdown pass to Rick Proehl, the latter of which tied the game up at 17 with 1:30 left to play and no timeouts left for New England. However, young Tom Brady wasn't about to take a knee and force this game into overtime. Instead, he marched his team down the field like an experienced veteran and set up a last second field goal to win the game. Kicker Adam Vinatieri nailed the 48 yard attempt as time expired, and the Patriots stunned the Rams, 20-17, for their first Super Bowl title. (It was the first time a Super Bowl was won on the final play.)

The rest, as they say, is history.

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