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When Weaker Teams Sweep Stronger Teams

On Thursday, the Jets travel to Buffalo to face the Bills. Last year, New York went 10-6, but was swept by a Buffalo team that went 8-8. But that wasn’t even the oddest result of last year: 10-6 Seattle got swept by 7-9 St. Louis, and that wasn’t the oddest result last year, either.

The Ravens swept the Steelers last year, which wouldn’t ordinarily be notable. Except Baltimore went just 5-11 last year, while Pittsburgh went 10-6! Both games were very close: the first of those games was started by Mike Vick, involved two missed field goals by Josh Scobee in the final four minutes, and required kicks by Justin Tucker of 42 yards at the end of regulation and of 52 yards in overtime to secure the win.

The second one, though, was the true shocker: even though the game was in Baltimore, it was started by Ryan Mallett. For Pittsburgh, Ben Roethlisberger struggled mightily, completing just 24 of 34 passes for 220 yards with 0 TDs and 2 interceptions. The Steelers were 10-point road favorites, but lost, 20-17, when Roethlisberger’s 4th-and-15 pass fell incomplete.

Pittsburgh won 62.5% of its games last year, and Baltimore won just 31.3% of its games; that’s a difference of 31.3%, which ranks as the 5th weirdest result among division sweeps. The weirdest? That came in 1988, when the 11-5 Vikings were swept by the 4-12 Packers. The table below shows the top 100 or so weirdest division sweeps, and the Jets/Bills example from last year only ranks 51st:

RkTeamOppYearTm RecOpp RecDiff
1MINGNB19880.6880.2500.438
2GNBCHI20070.8130.4380.375
2DALWAS19950.7500.3750.375
4CHICRD19510.5830.2500.333
5PITBAL20150.6250.3130.313
6WASNYG19770.6430.3570.286
7WASPHI19750.5710.2860.286
8NYJSEA19810.6560.3750.281
9FRNCLE19250.6500.3930.257
10NYGWAS20110.5630.3130.250
10ARISFO20040.3750.1250.250
10DENKAN20000.6880.4380.250
10PITCIN19980.4380.1880.250
10BUFNWE19950.6250.3750.250
10MIANYJ19800.5000.2500.250
10BUFBAL19800.6880.4380.250
17BALSFO19690.6070.3570.250
18PRVPOT19270.6070.3850.223
19MINGNB19800.5630.3440.219
20NYGPIT19550.5420.3330.208
21SEASTL20150.6250.4380.188
21DALNYG20090.6880.5000.188
21ARISFO20070.5000.3130.188
21TAMNOR20020.7500.5630.188
21WASDAL20010.5000.3130.188
21BALCLE20010.6250.4380.188
21WASDAL20000.5000.3130.188
21STLCAR20000.6250.4380.188
21CARATL20000.4380.2500.188
21TAMDET19980.5000.3130.188
21NYJBUF19970.5630.3750.188
21MIABUF19940.6250.4380.188
21DENRAI19910.7500.5630.188
21INDNWE19890.5000.3130.188
21PHIWAS19880.6250.4380.188
21RAISEA19830.7500.5630.188
21PITCIN19800.5630.3750.188
21MIANYJ19780.6880.5000.188
39RAMCRD19380.3640.1820.182
40CHIRAM19380.5450.3640.182
41OAKBOS19630.7140.5360.179
41BOSNYT19610.6790.5000.179
43GNBDET19820.6110.4440.167
44MINGNB19870.5330.3670.167
45DETSFO19520.7500.5830.167
45PITWAS19490.5420.3750.167
47KANSDG19890.5310.3750.156
48CHIDET19680.5000.3570.143
48NYTBOS19600.5000.3570.143
50SFORAM19720.6070.4640.143
51NYJBUF20150.6250.5000.125
51ATLTAM20150.5000.3750.125
51KANSDG20130.6880.5630.125
51MIABUF20130.5000.3750.125
51KANOAK20100.6250.5000.125
51ARISFO20090.6250.5000.125
51HOUJAX20090.5630.4380.125
51NYJMIA20090.5630.4380.125
51NORCAR20060.6250.5000.125
51SFOARI20060.4380.3130.125
51SEASFO20060.5630.4380.125
51JAXHOU20060.5000.3750.125
51STLSFO20050.3750.2500.125
51JAXHOU20040.5630.4380.125
51MINGNB20000.6880.5630.125
51MIANYJ20000.6880.5630.125
51OAKDEN19990.5000.3750.125
51WASDAL19990.6250.5000.125
51BUFMIA19960.6250.5000.125
51WASARI19960.5630.4380.125
51CINCLE19950.4380.3130.125
51KANSEA19900.6880.5630.125
51RAMNOR19810.3750.2500.125
51DETCHI19800.5630.4380.125
51MIANYJ19790.6250.5000.125
51SEAKAN19790.5630.4380.125
51OAKKAN19790.5630.4380.125
51PITPHI19560.4170.2920.125
51WASNYG19550.6670.5420.125
51DETRAM19530.8330.7080.125
81DALSTL19700.7140.6070.107
81PITCLE19620.6430.5360.107
83BUFHOU19630.5360.4290.107
83CLEWAS19620.5360.4290.107
85DETMIN19720.6070.5000.107
86PHIWAS20080.5940.5000.094
86TENBAL19970.5000.4060.094
86CLECIN19890.5940.5000.094
89NYGBKN19410.7270.6360.091
90GNBCRD19340.5380.4550.084
91RAMCHI19570.5000.4170.083
91WASPIT19560.5000.4170.083
93CLENYG19520.6670.5830.083
93GNBCRD19350.6670.5830.083
95SFOATL19750.3570.2860.071
95NWENYJ19730.3570.2860.071
97CHIGNB19710.4290.3570.071
97MINCHI19680.5710.5000.071
97RAMCHI19640.4290.3570.071
97SDGOAK19630.7860.7140.071
97DALSTL19620.3930.3210.071
97DTXNYT19600.5710.5000.071

Do you remember any of these? Any fond memories worth sharing? And how about the 1953 Rams/Lions? In 1952, the Rams lost in Detroit in the division tiebreaker playoff game (both teams went 9-3 while playing in the same division) after being swept by the Lions in the regular season; after an 0-3 mark against the Lions (and then a victory over the Browns to capture the title), it was clear that Detroit had Los Angeles’ number, right? But in 1953, the Rams avenged those losses by sweeping the Lions. The problem? Detroit went 10-2 that year, with only those Rams blemishes on their schedule, allowing Detroit to again win the division, and again beat Cleveland for the NFL crown.

  • sacramento gold miners

    This is where the rivalry factor comes into play, a weaker team can still play inspired football to eek out a win. In the Ravens upset at Baltimore, they also went 9-18 on third down conversions, as the Steelers defense had a bad game. We see this on the college level as well. In 2007, second ranked West Virginia somehow lost 13-9, to a Pitt team, in a huge upset.

  • JeremyDeShetler

    2 thoughts.

    1) In a similar vein, using SRS difference might provide an interesting list of most unlikely upsets (or sweeps), if you haven’t done a post like that.

    2) It wasn’t a sweep, but the one game that stands out in my mind is Dallas’s 1989 Week 9 win at Washington. Washington was two years removed from a Super Bowl title, both forwards and backwards. They finished 10-6, 1 game behind the 2nd wildcard in the final year before the playoffs switched to 6 teams per conference. I believe they would have lost the tiebreaker to Don Majkowski’s Cardiac Pack that year if the playoff system had changed.

    Dallas, of course, ended 1-15 with that 13-3 win being their only victory. It was the first year for Jimmy Johnson and Troy Aikmen although Aikmen didn’t start the game. It was one of Steve Walsh’s 5 starts that year and he was a pedestrian 10-30-142-0-0. Former Chiefs 1st round pick Paul Palmer ran for a career best 18-110-1 to help fuel the win.

  • sacramento gold miners

    Related to this topic is how a weaker team with an inferior QB can still pull out a victory. Sometimes the stronger opponent doesn’t have as much knowledge of a QB who has seen limited action. That QB can make just enough plays to keep drives alive, and put his team in position for the W.

  • Richie

    Yeah, I remember that 1925 Frankford Yellowjackets team. They were awesome. Their BB Two-Bits Homan was virtually unstoppable. The funny thing is, when the Cleveland Bulldogs swept them, they did it by shutout in both games! (Remember, there was a Canton Bulldogs AND a Cleveland Bulldogs that year.)

    The other odd thing that season was Frankford’s games against the Pottsville Maroons. In the first matchup, they shut them out 20-0. But 2 weeks later, in their second week 11 game, the tables were turned and the Maroons shut out Frankford 49-0! I remember it vividly, because that game knocked me out of my survivor pool.

    • Tom

      Yeah, the Maroons just couldn’t be stopped that day…they could probably handle the 1985 Bears I bet. What a team…the Pottsville Maroons…

  • #21 SEA – RAI

    The first football game I remember at all was the 1983 AFC Championship Game. My favorite team, the Seahawks, were 9-7 in the regular season, but pulled off a stunner in Miami ousting defending AFC champs and rookie phenom Dan Marino from the postseason (you can watch this entire game on YouTube, BTW — the last quarter is quite exciting) to set up a match with the AFC West champion L.A. Raiders. The Raiders were 12-4 in the regular season but two of those losses were to the Seahawks.

    I distinctly remember in the lead-up to the game, listening to a novelty song on the radio about the Seahawks going to the Super Bowl. (“Bye, bye Raiders… it soon will be… Seattle Seahawks… champs of the A-F-C…”)

    So of course the Raiders summarily crushed the Seahawks 30-14, in a game that could have been 45-0 if the Raiders had not let up in the fourth quarter. The Raiders went on to win the Super Bowl, and the Seahawks made their first Super Bowl in the other conference a mere 22 years later.

    • Richie

      It’s funny, I always liked the silver-helmet Seahawks. But ever since they went to the dark blue helmets, they feel like a different team to me, and I have been anti-Seahawk.

      • I like the older uniforms as well (but it could just be nostalgia, as I tend to like every team’s older unis better). The less highlighter green, the better. The “color rush” game is going to be tough to watch.

        • Tom

          Can’t stand that Color Rush crap…seriously. I’m alright when they do that old time stuff (except for those honey bee Steeler throwbacks), but the Color Rush is just lame…this is football, not La Cage aux Folles…

  • kevin trammo

    I sadly remember Seattle sweeping the Jets in 81. the Jets went 10-2-1 in their last 13 games during the regular season with both losses to Seattle. For some reason during the Seattle expansion years, they owned the Jets, with a few embarrassing losses mixed in . If the Jets win either of those games, especially the 4 point loss at Seattle which featured a missed PAT and a FG ( i think) the Jets win the division and get a first round bye. Such is life for a Jets fan.

  • I remember the 1999 Oakland-Denver example (#51). At the time, I felt like Shanahan had done a poor job with the team (and I was 14. Don’t hold me to that now.), and what people kept saying to defend him was, “He swept the Raiders. He knows how to make the team care when it matters!”
    I kept wondering why he didn’t care the rest of the season when they went a combined 4-10.

    • Richie

      This reminds me of all the people who say that Tom Brady is going to come back this year with a pissed off attitude and destroy the league.

      Does that mean one of the greatest QB’s of all time has been holding back during his career so far? He can only maximize his abilities if he’s mad?

      • Yep. And every “clutch” player in any sport ever. David Ortiz apparently lollygags around until late in a close game then buckles down.

        What’s really strange is that it simultaneously denigrates and elevates the player. He’s more talented than we know because he’s usually not trying his hardest, but he also doesn’t care enough until the circumstances are right TO try his hardest.

  • Roger Kirk

    The 2004 49ers were not only historically bad but achieved their 2-14 record in a way unlikely to be duplicated. In week 5 they trailed the Cardinals 28-12 midway through the 4th quarter, then scored 2 touchdowns and 2 2-point conversions to tie and won 31-28 in overtime. In week 14 the 49ers led the Cardinals 28-3 midway through the 3rd quarter. The Cardinals went on to tie the game and the 49ers won 31-28 in overtime. BTW these two teams appear on the above table 4 times in a 6-year span from 2004 to 2009.

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