The Most Surprising NFL Winners in History

While the 2021 NFL season concluded some months ago, the shock of Cincinnati’s run to the Super Bowl is still echoing around the football world. Having not won a playoff match in 31 years, the Cincinnati Bengals dethroned two-time defending AFC Champions the Los Angeles Rams to claim a spot in the Super Bowl. Despite narrowly losing in the final, the Bengals have been an inspiration to many sides. We look at three other teams from history that have shocked fans with their unlikely victories.

The 2001 New England Patriots

In 1997, the New England Patriots made an excellent surge to reach Super Bowl XXXI. However, by 2001, the side had slipped back to mediocrity, failing to make another deep playoff run in the five years following Super Bowl XXXI.

With a few players left from their strong 1996 squad, the New England Patriots made a run to the AFC final in 2001. They were heavy underdogs against the favoured Pittsburgh Steelers, yet led by Tom Brady, they pulled off a shock upset to claim the AFC title. Having won a place in Super Bowl XXXVI, the New England Patriots then pulled off another unexpected victory, defeating the St. Louis Rams’. With an incredible offence known as “The Greatest Show on Turf”, Kurt Warner’s Rams were not strong enough to resist the mastery of Tom Brady, who architected a drive that climaxed in a game-winning field goal.

This Super Bowl XXXVI win was to be the first of six for this New England Patriots team.

The 1999 St. Louis Rams

Speaking of the St. Louis Rams, they were also involved in one of the biggest upset seasons in NFL history.

At the start of the 1999 season, a St. Louis Rams’ win would not have been viewed as a major upset. They had made some favourable moves pre-season, acquiring Marshall Faulk, Trent Green, and Torry Holt, all high-calibre players. However, before the first game of the year, Trent Green suffered a debilitating groin injury, leaving the St. Louis Rams on the rocks. Enter Kurt Warner, who took the NFL by storm—so much so that he now has a Netflix movie made about his rise. Warner led the St. Louis Rams to the Super Bowl XXXIV, where a 73-yard touchdown and some desperate defence sealed the unlikely win.

Fast forward two decades and the Rams are currently sitting 4th in the AFC. Odds at have the Los Angeles-based team as underdogs heading into their match-up against the Las Vegas Raiders this Friday.

The 1981 San Francisco 49ers

Last but not least, the 1981 San Francisco 49ers pulled off one of the biggest surprise wins in NFL history.

Most surprising was the 49ers turnaround from two years earlier. In 1980, they had a 6-10 record, which was transformed to 13-3 in the 1981 season. This regular season record was spearheaded by triple rookie defensive backs including Ronnie Lott who would claim a spot in the Hall of Fame, as well as a strong offense through Joe Montana.

The San Francisco 49ers came up against Cincinnati’s Bengals in the Super Bowl XVI, racing out to a big lead, before hanging on to win 26-21.