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The Five Biggest Point Spreads in NFL History

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Jul 11, 2008
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Figure 1 The NFL always throws up some apparent mismatches every season

Although the NFL is designed to be one of the most evenly balanced leagues in sports, there are occasions when two teams come together that seem to be playing at different levels. Number one draft picks do not guarantee success in football and there are blowouts in every season.

If you are trying to predict outcomes of NFL games you may not always find the most attractive of odds when the teams are so mismatched. The idea of spread betting is supposed to even up the chances of both teams winning for you. But sometimes the point spread is so big that it seems almost impossible.

We are going to look at some of the biggest point spreads in modern football history – and find out whether there was enough evidence for them to be offered in the first place. A large point spread will surely only spur on the supposed weaker team to prove the doubters wrong and a favorite may well end up being over-confident. Here’s what happened on five famous occasions.

San Francisco 49ers vs. Atlanta Falcons 1987

The 49ers were one of the best NFL teams of the 1980s. With the likes of Joe Montana and Jerry Rice, San Francisco boasted an incredible offense that led the franchise to four Super Bowl victories. The 49ers had won the big show just two years previously and Atlanta was a notoriously weak team.

So a point spread of 24 for a 49ers win may not have seemed so surprising. When you consider the fact that this was a season hit by a players walk out – but one that San Francisco’s major stars refused to join in with – the gap between the two teams might well have been thought to be even wider.

But, in one of the most poorly attended games in the history of the NFL, the Falcons actually played quite well. San Francisco still won, of course. But the difference was just eight points in the end. The 49ers went on to enter the playoffs with the best record in the league but fell to the Vikings in the divisional playoffs.

San Francisco 49ers vs. Cincinnati Bengals 1993

Fast forward a few years and we have the 49ers once again heavily favored by the bookies, this time against the woeful Cincinnati Bengals. San Francisco was still one of the best teams in the league, although Joe Montana had made way for Steve Young by this point.

The Bengals had come into the season amid a lot of upheaval, with a number of top players leaving. A 0-10 start to the year had no one backing Cincinnati to do anything and even a win against the Raiders the week before didn’t make the bookmakers change their minds of setting the spread at 24 points.

But, once again, the talent gap was not as apparent on the field, with the 49ers only winning by 21-8. The Bengals still finished bottom of the AFC Central with the worst record in the entire league, while San Francisco made it one step further along than in 1987, losing to the Cowboys in the NFC Championship game.

New England Patriots vs. Philadelphia Eagles 2007

By the 2000s, it was the New England Patriots that had created a dynasty behind the legendary Bill Belichick and the great Tom Brady. The team had won three of the last five Super Bowls and was a big favorite to go all the way again. The 25 points spread was just an indication of the difference between the two teams.

The Pats had beaten the Bills by a 46-point margin only the week before and would go on to become the first team to finish a regular season undefeated since the NFL moved to a 16-game campaign. The Eagles starting QB was also out with an injury.

The Eagles would actually end up scoring 28 points, with the Patriots winning by just a solitary field goal. Brady and co would still make it to the Super Bowl that season. But they would end up on the wrong side of a shock win for the New York Giants, the only team to score more points against them than the Eagles.

Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers 1976

For the San Francisco 49ers of the 1980s and the New England Patriots of the 2000s, see the Pittsburgh Steelers of the 1970s. Under the leadership of Terry Bradshaw, this Steelers team was one of the most iconic in the history of the game and had just won back-to-back championships.

The Buccaneers, in contrast, were a brand new expansion team that was breaking all kinds of records for poor play and ended up finishing 0-14 on the season. At this point, the Bucs were just 0-11 and the Steelers needed a win to clinch a playoff berth. A 27 points spread was perhaps to be expected.

This was one time when the massive points spread was vindicated though. Pittsburgh held its opponent to just 85 yards all day and won by a scoreline of 42-0. It is still the only time an NFL team has covered a spread of more than 20 points.

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Figure 2 Football can be unpredictable

Denver Broncos vs. Jacksonville Jaguars 2013

The Broncos had one of the best offenses in football at the time of this matchup and Peyton Manning had been leading his team to an average of around 46 points a week. Opponents had been scoring relatively highly as well but the Jags could only muster just over 10 a week at this stage of the season.

The 28 points spread must have seemed acceptable then, considering just how far apart these two teams were. When the Broncos took an early 14-0 lead, those estimates might have even seemed on the conservative side.

But the Jags came back before the half and even a late surge from Denver could only give them a 35-19 win. The Broncos finished the regular season with the best record in the league but ended up humiliated in the Super Bowl, losing to underdogs Seattle by a massive 35 points.