The Super Bowl is where upsets go to die. If this annual football extravaganza were a ball, Cinderella wouldn't make it past the doorman. There have been 41 of these games played, and only four of them could be considered true upsets (and two of those were of the mild variety).
What follows is a reflection on those four upsets, in ascending order of shock value. Needless to say, should the New York Giants beat the undefeated New England Patriots this Sunday -- the Pats aiming for their fourth championship of the decade -- each of these games will move down a notch in the ranking of Super Shockers.
4) Super Bowl XXXII (January 25, 1998): Denver 31, Green Bay 24
It took John Elway four Super Bowls to get it right, but this was his crowning moment. Somehow, a quarterback near the top of every passing record in the book will be remembered for the "helicopter" dive he made near the end zone, the grit of a 37-year-old future Hall of Famer helping make the difference against the favored defending champs.
Green Bay had gone 13-3 in 1997, led by their own Hall-bound quarterback, Brett Favre, who had been named MVP an unprecedented three straight seasons. But this was Bronco tailback Terrell Davis's coming-out party. Davis scored a Super Bowl-record three rushing touchdowns, the last with under two minutes to play for the winning margin. The disappointment of three losses in the big game for Elway was as forgotten as those orange jerseys the Broncos once wore.
3) Super Bowl XXV (January 27, 1991): New York Giants 20, Buffalo 19
Each of these teams was 13-3, so on the surface it may have appeared to be precisely the kind of matchup we'd like every winter. But while the Bills -- a franchise that had yet to lose a Super Bowl, remember -- sent out a pair of Hall of Famers in their backfield (quarterback Jim Kelly and tailback Thurman Thomas), the Giants countered with a backup quarterback (Jeff Hostetler had replaced the injured Phil Simms in December) and a "washed-up" running back (33-year-old Ottis Anderson had rushed for 784 yards in the regular season.) The Bills had the top-scoring team in the NFL, while the Giants defense (led by linebacker Lawrence Taylor) had given up the fewest points in the league.
New York coach Bill Parcells squeezed the clock like no Super Bowl audience had ever seen. Running the ball 39 times (primarily Anderson's work) and asking Hostetler for short-to-intermediate pass completions, the Giant offense held the ball for more than 40 minutes. (If score had been points-per-minute, this was a blowout for the Bills.) And in the ultimate "bend-but-don't-break" defensive effort, the Giants allowed the Bills only enough yardage for placekicker Scott Norwood to send his game-winning field-goal attempt wide right, dooming the poor Bills to three more years of unfulfilled Super Bowl dreams.
2) Super Bowl XXXVI (February 3, 2002): New England 20, St. Louis 17
We tend to forget that Tom Brady entered the 2001 season as the Patriots' backup quarterback, behind Drew Bledsoe. (Not since the Yankees' Wally Pipp took a seat in 1925 has a replacement altered the course of a sport's history so dramatically.) New England won the AFC East with an 11-5 record, but they hardly seemed to match up with the Rams' "Greatest Show on Turf," a 14-2 juggernaut that had averaged a league-best 31 points per game. This was the pinnacle of St. Louis quarterback Kurt Warner's career, as he'd won his second MVP in three years, even with Hall of Fame-bound tailback Marshall Faulk sharing the backfield. The Patriots, at this time, were a no-name bunch. (How many of you remember Troy Brown, the team's top receiver? What about Antowain Smith, their top rusher?)
St. Louis outgained the Patriots by 160 yards and overcame a late 17-3 deficit to seemingly crush the glass slipper. But Brady carved his name into granite with a last-minute drive that led to Adam Vinatieri's 48-yard, game-winning field goal as time expired. This was certainly the most patriotic Super Bowl in history. Played merely five months after the attacks of September 11, 2001, it was a brief nationwide celebration as America continued to mourn its losses. And what could be more American than a team of underdogs -- one that took the field as one, as opposed to the traditional individual introductions -- taking down the glamor boys?
1) Super Bowl III (January 12, 1969): New York Jets 16, Baltimore 7
If Rocky Balboa had had the temerity to guarantee victory over Apollo Creed, then actually beaten the champ, we would have had a Hollywood tale along the lines of Super Bowl III. What the world actually saw at the Orange Bowl that fateful day was the legend of Joe Willie Namath come to life.
The American Football League, having just completed its ninth season, was still trying to prove it belonged on the same field as the NFL. Its representatives in the first two Super Bowls had been slapped silly, losing by 25 points in 1967, then 19 a year later. And the 1968 NFL champion Baltimore Colts were a mighty bunch. Coached by Don Shula, with Johnny Unitas backing up(!) Earl Morrall at quarterback, Baltimore had blitzed through a 13-1 regular season in which only four opponents scored more than 10 points. Coach Weeb Ewbank's Jets had gone 11-3, edged Oakland, 27-23, for the AFL title, and were certainly thrilled just to be in Miami for the big event. Right?
Namath guaranteed victory for his underdog squad. Sometime between poolside photo-ops, Namath managed to claim his team would not only be competitive with Baltimore, but would win the game. A quarterback who had thrown more interceptions (17) than touchdown passes (15) that season attached a target firmly to his bright white helmet.
The script held, of course. Namath completed 17 of 28 passes for 206 yards, while Morrall tossed three interceptions before being relieved by the 35-year-old Unitas. Three field goals by Jim Turner made the difference in the final score. And two years later, Namath's raised index finger is still the image of pro football's greatest upset, the NFL and AFL merged.
Top that, Eli.