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As with all sports leagues, there are a number of significant rivalries in the National Football League. Rivalries are occasionally created due to a particular event that causes bad blood between teams, players, coaches, or owners, but for the most part, they arise simply due to the frequency with which some teams play each other, and sometimes exist for geographic reasons.
Purely geographic rivalries are rare in the NFL, since crosstown rivals do not play each other nearly as often as in other leagues that have more games (and therefore more opportunities to play other teams). For example, Major League Baseball teams face every other league opponent at least three times in the regular season, and within a division as many as 19 times. In recent years, the NFL changed its scheduling formula to ensure every possible matchup happens within a four-year span, not counting pre-season games or the Super Bowl. A main factor in the fact that crosstown rivals are almost always in opposing conferences is history: in the two current markets (New York/New Jersey and San Francisco Bay Area) that have two NFL teams, two have one team (Jets in New York, Raiders in Oakland) that was a member of the American Football League. As part of the AFL–NFL merger, all AFL teams had to be retained, even if it meant multiple teams in one metropolitan area. The newly merged league opted not to go through an extensive geographical realignment, and instead, the AFL formed the basis of the AFC, and the old NFL formed the basis of the NFC; as a result, each team ended up in an opposite conference from their crosstown rival. This allowed the combined league to retain both existing television partnerships of each league—NBC for the AFL/AFC, and CBS for the NFL/NFC—instead of choosing one or the other (ABC joined the mix in 1970 with Monday Night Football).
Games can be classified in three main categories:
The league's teams do not play, and do not have rivalries with, teams outside the league.
The NFL sportscasters, journalists, and fans typically use the terms "division rival" or "divisional rival" instead of "intra-divisional rival", and "conference rival" (also "NFC rival" or "AFC rival") instead of "inter-divisional rival". The use of a prefix such as "inter-" is reserved solely for games between opponents from different conferences.
The oldest NFL rivalry, dating back to when the league was founded in 1920, consists of its two remaining charter members: the Decatur Staleys/Chicago Bears and Chicago/St. Louis/Phoenix/Arizona Cardinals. The longest rivalry is between the Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears (they did not play each other in 1982 due to the player's strike, though). It dates back to 1921 and is currently approaching 190 games, with 48 Pro Football Hall of Famers and 21 league championships between the two teams. The longest continuous rivalry in the NFL is between the Detroit Lions and Green Bay Packers, as they have played each other at least twice every season since 1932. In the AFC, the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cleveland Browns have the longest rivalry with over 120 games, two in the playoffs, and 10 league titles between them. The "turnpike rivalry" as it is called is only separated by a two-hour drive and began during the 1950 NFL season. Both teams were NFL franchises predating the AFL that formed the basis of the AFC, and were moved to the AFC when the leagues merged in 1970.
No team in the NFL has faced a team from another league since 1969 (1961 if the AFL is ignored), and as such, interleague rivals do not exist. Though certain teams from opposing leagues (e.g. the Hamilton Tiger-Cats' and Toronto Argonauts' enmity toward the Buffalo Bills over the Bills Toronto Series) have fostered a rivalry for fan base and popularity, under current rules, the NFL cannot, and will not, schedule an actual game (even an exhibition game) against a non-NFL opponent, making such a rivalry academic.
In the AFC East rivalry between the Buffalo Bills and Miami Dolphins, the 2 teams have played over 90 regular season games, with the Dolphins having a 55–36–1 advantage as of December 2011. The teams have also met four times in the NFL playoffs. The Bills are 3–1, including a victory in the 1992 AFC Championship Game.
Games between the New York Jets and New England Patriots have often played out the fierce Yankees–Red Sox rivalry in Major League Baseball, as New York City and Boston are approximately 3½ hours apart by car. More recently, the Jets have tried to overcome the Patriots domination in the division and the conference, facing them in the playoffs twice in a five-season span. The Patriots defeated the Jets 37-16 in the 2006 playoffs, while the Jets won 28-21 in the 2010 playoffs. The series is tied 51–51–1 entering 2012 while the Patriots lead the playoff series 2-1.
In the Dolphins–Jets rivalry, they have often competed for divisional supremacy, and have played a number of classic games. Currently, the Jets lead the series 47–43–1, while the Dolphins have won the lone playoff meeting, defeating the Jets in the 1982 AFC Championship Game.
The rivalry between the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC North is one of the most intense in the NFL, often for divisional supremacy. They are also known for fielding tough, hard-hitting defensive squads, giving their games an extra element of physical intensity.
The two teams have met in the playoffs three times, all resulting in Steelers wins. They are the only teams in the AFC North to win the Super Bowl, and possess a combined 8–2 record in the game (the Ravens won in both their appearances, all others came from the Steelers).
This rivalry has produced two of the highest scoring games in the NFL history. With their September 16, 2012 win in Cincinnati, the Bengals improved their record in the series to 42–37.
Geography and a shared heritage add to this rivalry. Cleveland (Northeast) and Cincinnati (Southwest) are on opposite corners of the state and essentially split Ohio. In 1963 legendary Cleveland Brown's head football coach Paul Brown was terminated by Art Modell. After his time with the Cleveland Browns, later decided to create the Cincinnati Bengals. The colors of each team are similar, since Paul Brown chose the exact shade of orange used by the Browns for the Bengals, and the Bengals original uniforms were identical to the Browns uniforms, excluding the word "Bengals" on the helmet.
The Bengals and Browns first played in 1970. Previously, the Bengals were a part of the AFL. After the AFL–NFL merger, the Browns and Bengals were placed in the AFC Central Division. They have played twice a year since 1970, except in 1982 (Player's strike-shortened season) and 1996–98 (Cleveland Browns relocation controversy). They have never met in the playoffs.
The Browns–Steelers rivalry is one of the most storied in the American Football Conference and NFL. With 120 meetings and counting, it is the oldest rivalry and surpasses other AFC rivalries by at least 5 contests. The two divisional foes have a natural rivalry due to the commonalities between the cities. It is sometimes called the Turnpike Rivalry because the majority of driving route between the two cities are connected via the Pennsylvania and Ohio Turnpikes.The Steelers lead the rivalry.
The Chiefs–Raiders rivalry is considered to be one of the NFL's most bitter. Since the AFL was established in 1960, the Chiefs and Raiders have shared the same division, first being the AFL Western Conference, and since the AFL–NFL merger, the AFC West.
The Chiefs lead the regular season series 54–50–2 The Chiefs won the most recent matchup 27-7 while setting the Guiness World Record for noise at 137.5 dB. The Chiefs are one of two teams in the NFL with a winning record against the Raiders (alongside with the New England Patriots, with 10 or more contests).
The Colts–Patriots rivalry is one of the NFL's most famous. The two teams combined for four Super Bowl victories (three by the Patriots) and seven American Football Conference Championships since 2001, while both are noted for their organizational excellence.
The nature of this rivalry is somewhat ironic because while the Colts and Patriots were AFC East division rivals from 1970–2001 (dating back to the Colts' time in Baltimore), their intensified enmity wasn't prevalent until Indianapolis was moved into the newly formed AFC South following the 2001 season as part of the NFL's realignment. The two teams did not meet in 2002 but have met every year from 2003–12. From the first game of the rivalry's renewal (a 38–34 Patriots victory highlighted by a last-second goalline stand) the rivalry has been bitterly close: following New England's 31–24 win in 2011 the Patriots lead the series with seven wins (two in the playoffs) versus five wins (one playoff) for the Colts, and the Patriots hold a slim lead in points scored, 319–305. The Colts and Patriots have met every year since 2003 as both teams often finished in the same position in their divisions. The other AFC East teams have only been able to play the Colts when the East and South divisions were scheduled to play a full interlocking schedule; they will do so again in 2012.
The modern matchup is often headlined as a contest between Pro Bowl quarterbacks Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, who together have won six NFL MVP awards in eight years (2003–10; four by Manning). Tom Brady received his first start against the Colts after an injury to then-starter Drew Bledsoe, and proceeded to defeat the Colts in his first six games against them in the next years, including the 2003 AFC Championship game and a 2004 AFC Divisional playoff game. The Colts won the next 3 matches, notching two regular season victories and a win in the 2006 AFC Championship Game on the way to their win in Super Bowl XLI. The Patriots' 2007 quest for a perfect season included a comeback 24–20 victory in their final visit to the RCA Dome. The Colts won the next two; in their 2009 Super Bowl season they won 35–34 following a 4th and 2 call by Bill Belichick. The 2010 matchup was Indy's first trip to Gillette Stadium since 2006; a last-minute Manning interception ended a 31–28 Patriots win. In 2011, the Patriots beat the Colts without Manning playing, 31–24.
In 2012, the Patriots rudely welcomed Colts rookie quarterback Andrew Luck to the rivalry, returning two interceptions thrown by the first pick of the 2012 NFL Draft for touchdowns en route to a 59-24 blowout.
The rivalry between the Dallas Cowboys and Washington Redskins is called the top NFL rivalry of all time and "one of the greatest in sports" by Sports Illustrated. The two franchises have won 31 combined division titles and ten NFL Championships, including eight combined Super Bowls. They are the two wealthiest franchises in the NFL. The rivalry started in 1960 when the Cowboys joined the league as an expansion team. During that year they were in separate conferences, but played once during the season. Since 1961, Dallas has been in the same division as the Redskins.
The rivalry between the Dallas Cowboys and Philadelphia Eagles has been one of the higher profile rivalries in the NFL over the past three decades, characterized by bitterly contested games that are typical of the NFC East, with both teams often contesting for the division crown.
The rivalry between the Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants dates back to 1933. However, the competition began to heat up when both teams came to relative prominence in the 1940s and 1950s. The rivalry is mainly based on the two teams being in the same division in the NFL since 1933 and the geographic New York City–Philadelphia rivalry. It is ranked by Sports Illustrated as amongst the top ten NFL rivalries of all-time at #4. However, the geographic rivalry between the Eagles and Giants is well known in football circles, meriting mention on ESPN.com.
The rivalry is the oldest of the NFC East and has been one of the best rivalries in the NFL in the 21st century. The Giants and Eagles have met four times in the playoffs. The Giants won in 1981 & 2001, and the Eagles won in 2007 & 2009.
The Giants and Redskins have a storied rivalry. While this rivalry is in the Giants favor, there have been great periods of competition between the two teams, most notably during the 1980s where they clashed for division titles and super bowl championships. Between 1982–91 they combined for 8 division titles and 5 Super Bowl titles, two by the Giants (1986, 1990) and three by the Redskins (1982, 1987, 1991). The rivalry was dormant due to the Redskins recent struggles, then revived in the 2011 season when the Redskins beat the eventual Super Bowl champions twice in the regular season, while 2012 saw it intensify both on the field (the Redskins overtook the Giants to win the division) and off it (during the off-season, an NFL commission led by Giants' owner John Mara imposed harsh salary-cap penalties on the Redskins, who were convinced Mara maliciously used his league-wide powers to advance his own team's interests; after the Redskins beat the Giants in December, owner Daniel Snyder, accepting post-game congratulations from a team employee, loudly replied that "I hate those motherfuckers"). The two teams met in the playoffs twice, both games resulting in blowouts.
The strike-shortened 1982 NFL season did not include a Bears-Packers game. Because of this, it is not the longest continuous rivalry. That goes to the Lions-Packers, who have played at least twice each season since 1932.
The rivalry has led to the Chicago–Milwaukee/Wisconsin rivalry being seen in other sports, like the Brewers–Cubs rivalry in Major League Baseball and Bucks–Bulls rivalry in the National Basketball Association.
The Packers–Vikings rivalry began in 1961, when the Vikings entered the league as an expansion team. The rivalry is known for being very close, both in the all-time series and in each game. It is also considered to be one of the most intense rivalries in the NFL, due these close games, the fact that both teams have often fought for the NFC North title, and the fact that the two states in which these teams reside (Minnesota and Wisconsin) have a rivalry in many sports, seen between the Timberwolves and Bucks, and the Big Ten rivals, the University of Wisconsin and University of Minnesota. Events such as Randy Moss mooning the Green Bay crowd in the first playoff game between these two teams (won by the Vikings), and former Packer great Brett Favre's move to the Vikings have created more resentment between these teams.
The rivalry between the San Francisco 49ers and St. Louis Rams began in 1950. The rivalry became one of the most intense in the NFL in the 1970s as the two California based teams (the Rams then played their home games in Southern California) regularly competed for the NFL's NFC West Division title. After the Rams move to St. Louis in 1995 the rivalry lost its geographical lore, though games are still intense no matter what the standings indicate. The cultural differences between the West Coast (where the 49ers are based) and the Midwest (the home base for the Rams) also added to the intensity of the rivalry. Sports Illustrated considers it the 8th best of all time in the NFL.
The bitter rivalry between the Dallas Cowboys and San Francisco 49ers began in the 1970s and reached prominence during the 90's. For three straight seasons from 1992 through 1994 the two teams met in the conference championship game. Each was a hotly contested battle whose winner went on to win the Super Bowl in every one of those seasons. The NFL Top 10 ranked this rivalry to be the tenth best in the history of the NFL. San Francisco has played Dallas in seven postseason games.
The rivalry between the Giants and 49ers is rooted in the 1980s when both teams were on the rise and would combine to win six Super Bowls in the 1981–90 stretch. During that stretch there were five postseason meetings between the two teams.
The 49ers defeated the Giants in the first two meetings (the 1981 NFC divisional round 38–24 and again in the divisional round, this time in 1984, winning 21–10) en route to victories in Super Bowl XVI and Super Bowl XIX. The Giants would defeat the 49ers in the next three playoff meetings; in the 1985 Wild Card round the Giants defeated the defending Super Bowl XIX champions 17–3, then crushed the 49ers 49–3 in the divisional round of the 1986 playoffs en route to winning Super Bowl XXI, the first in the history of the Giants franchise. This game is memorable for nose tackle Jim Burt's hit on Joe Montana that knocked him out of the game in the second quarter; Montana's pass on this play was intercepted by Lawrence Taylor and Taylor ran in a 34-yard touchdown.
The two teams met again in the 1990 NFC Championship Game. In one of the most physical football games ever played the Giants upset the 49ers 15–13, ruining their hopes of winning three Super Bowls in a row while the Giants went on to win their second Super Bowl in franchise history in Super Bowl XXV. The 49ers got their revenge in the 1993 playoffs when they defeated the Giants in the divisional round 44–3 in the last game of Lawrence Taylor's and Phil Simms' careers.
While the two clubs have hosted a few more playoff meetings in the two decades since, the rivalry has cooled notably from its high during the eighties.