There’s a famous scene in The Shawshank Redemption where Morgan Freeman sits before the parole board and tells them he does not know the meaning of the word rehabilitated. The same truth applies to the word upset in the NFL. Many fans would tell you there is no such thing as an upset, especially in the NFL playoffs.
To give you an example, in the last 10 years, the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds in each conference have played for their respective championships only once and that was last year. In this age of parity in the NFL, a No. 6 seed can win it all with the term upset rarely being applied.
However, there is that rare instance where a team that did so well during the regular season loses to a team whose performance was nowhere near as impressive and it usually happens during the Divisional Round. Here are the most shocking upsets in NFL playoff history.
5. San Diego 23, Indianapolis 17 (OT)
Jan. 3, 2009 – San Diego
The Chargers started the season 4-8 before winning its last four games to clinch the AFC West title. Since the 8-8 Chargers were a division champion they hosted Peyton Manning and the 12-4 Colts, one of the wild card teams, but records would not matter in this game. San Diego running back Darren Sproles amassed 328 all-purpose yards and the Chargers shut down Indianapolis’ rushing attack, as the game went into overtime. San Diego then got the ball first and marched down the field, with Sproles finishing the upset with a 22-yard touchdown run. The win made the Chargers the first team to not have a winning record until after the first round of the playoffs, although the next team would eclipse that notoriety.
4. Seattle 41, New Orleans 36
Jan. 8, 2011 – Seattle
The 11-5 Saints were defending world champions, while the 7-9 Seahawks were the first team with a losing record to make the playoffs in a full season. Seattle hosted as the NFC West champions, but New Orleans was still a 10-point favorite. The Saints jumped out to a 10-0 lead, but the Seahawks came back to go ahead 34-20 with 9:54 left in the third quarter. The Saints closed that gap to 34-30 with a little more than four minutes remaining. Then on the ensuing drive, the Seahawks handed the ball to Marshawn Lynch, who broke nine tackles on a 67-yard touchdown run. The play, known as “Beast Quake” because of Lynch’s nickname and the fact that the Seattle fans’ reaction registered on a seismograph, sealed the victory. The play cemented Lynch’s position with the Seahawks, who would go from the first losing team to win a playoff game to Super Bowl champion three years later.
3. Minnesota 36, San Francisco 24
Jan. 3, 1988 – San Francisco
San Francisco finished 13-2 and entered the playoffs as the No. 1 seed after the bizarre strike-shortened, replacement player-supplemented 1987 season. Joe Montana led the league in passer rating and Jerry Rice caught a then-record 22 touchdown passes in only 12 games. The Vikings squeaked in to the playoffs at 8-7, but in this Divisional Round matchup, their offense would have a banner day. Wide receiver Anthony Carter caught 10 passes for 227 yards as Minnesota jumped out to a 20-3 halftime lead and never trailed. San Francisco fans best remember the upset because Bill Walsh replaced Montana with Steve Young in the third quarter. The quarterback duel kick started the 49ers’ near-threepeat at the end of the ‘80s.
2. Jacksonville 30, Denver 27
Jan. 4, 1997 – Denver
The Broncos started the season 12-1 and rested its starters for the final three games after securing the No. 1 seed. The Jaguars, in only their second year as an expansion franchise, won their last five games to make the playoffs at 9-7. Fourteen-point favorite Denver jumped out to a 12-0 lead, but Jacksonville stormed back on the strength of 140 rushing yards by Natrone Means and clutch passing by Mark Brunell, to go ahead 13-12 at the half and stretch it to a 10-point cushion early in the fourth quarter. The Broncos cut the deficit to 30-27 with a 15-yard touchdown pass from John Elway to Ed McCaffrey with 1:50 left in the game, but the Jaguars secured the onside kick and scored one of the biggest upsets in playoff history.
1. New York 37, Green Bay 20
Jan. 15, 2012 – Green Bay, Wis.
The defending Super Bowl champion Packers had steamrolled through the regular season en route to a 15-1 record, while the NFC East champion Giants were 9-7. The two teams’ Divisional Round matchup started off fairly uneventful with New York holding a 13-10 lead. Giant quarterback Eli Manning threw a 37-yard Hail Mary touchdown pass to Hakeem Nicks as the second quarter ended to take a 20-10 halftime lead (Ironically, the Packers returned the favor in last weekend’s wild card game.). The Packers never recovered and the Giants pulled away to win. New York would go on the beat the Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI, becoming the first 9-7 team to do so, but no win was as shocking as the upset of Green Bay.
— Written by Aaron Tallent, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Tallent is a writer whose articles have appeared in The Sweet Science, FOX Sports’ Outkick the Coverage, Liberty Island and The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter at @AaronTallent.