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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 96 regular season games, with the Dolphins having a 56–39–1 advantage as of December 2013. 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 in New England's favor, 54–52–1, 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. This includes the game, known in NFL Lore as the Monday Night miracle where the Jets erased a 30-7 lead after three quarters and won the game in overtime. 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. The Bengals lead the series 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 Browns head football coach Paul Brown was terminated by Art Modell. After his time with the Cleveland Browns, Brown made the decision to create a team of his own, giving birth to the Cincinnati Bengals franchise. 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).
The two teams have played each other twice a year since becoming division rivals in 1970, the lone exception being 1982, when the annual matchup in Cincinnati was canceled due to the player's strike; the teams only met in Week 2 in Pittsburgh that season just before the start of the strike. Originally placed in the AFC Central following the AFL–NFL merger, the two teams currently compete in that division's successor, the AFC North.
The rivalry is not quite as historic as the Bengals–Browns rivalry, however, many Bengals fans consider the Steelers to be their greatest rivals, much like Cleveland Browns fans. (Steeler fans, however, often consider the Baltimore Ravens as their top rival.) It is disputed which is the more widely bitter rivalry, but this specific rivalry is often ranked as one of the NFL's most bitter, chiefly due to the Steelers having more championships and the events of the 2005 wild card playoff game between the two teams. Similarly, these are the only two AFC North teams to experience Super Bowl losses, with each team losing two.
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 Raiders lead the series 60–47–2, including the playoffs. During the AFL days in the 1960s and up to 1976, this rivalry was very lopsided, with the Raiders going 26–6–2, including 14 consecutive wins from 1965–1971. The Broncos defeated the Raiders in the 1977 AFC championship, en route to the first Super Bowl appearance. The Raiders won 13 out of 15 meetings from 1988–1994, and held a 49–20–2 series lead by 1994. However, the Broncos reversed their fortunes against the Raiders when Mike Shanahan became the Broncos' head coach in 1995. Shanahan coached the Raiders in 1988 before being fired four games into the 1989 season, and later became involved in a lengthy contract dispute with Raiders' owner Al Davis. The Broncos went 21–7 against Oakland during the 14 seasons that Shanahan coached the Broncos (1995–2008). As of 2013, the two teams have met 17 times on Monday Night Football, the most frequent pairing in Monday Night Football history.
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. 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 San Diego Chargers' rivalry with Oakland dates to the 1963 season, when the Raiders defeated the heavily favored Chargers twice, both come-from-behind fourth quarter victories. One of the most memorable games between these teams was the "Holy Roller" game in 1978, in which the Raiders fumbled for a touchdown in a very controversial play. On November 22, 1982, the Raiders hosted their first Monday Night football game in Los Angeles against the Chargers. San Diego led the game in the 1st half 24–0 until the Raiders came into the 2nd half and made a huge comeback and won 28–24. Oakland leads the series 57–47–2.
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 2015.
The modern matchup was 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 result was the same for the two teams in the 2013 AFC Divisional playoff game as New England cruised to a 43–22 victory. The next scheduled game will be played November 16, 2014 at Lucas Oil Stadium.
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 modern rivalry dates back to the 2003 season when Bill Parcells took over as Cowboys head coach. After he left, Wade Phillips coached the Cowboys to a division winning season in 2007 only to see the team fall to the Giants in the 2007 Divisional playoff game, in what proved to be the final playoff game in Texas Stadium history. Since then both teams have found a knack for winning on the other's home field. The Giants sport a 4-1 record at AT&T Stadium with the only loss coming in the 2013 season opener. Likewise the Cowboys are 3-1 at MetLife Stadium with their only loss coming in the teams 2011 season finale. Both teams combine for a total of nine Super Bowl Championships with the Giants winning the two most recent trophies.
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 New York leads the rivalry, 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 teams met four times in the 2011 calendar year, and the Packers won all four. They met on January 2 in the 2010 regular season finale, then three weeks later in the NFC Conference Championship Game en route to winning Super Bowl XLV, and then they had both meetings in the 2011 regular season. The 2013 regular season finale served as a playoff game for the NFC North Division Championship, which Green Bay won 33–28 scoring a 48-yard touchdown on fourth-and-8 with 38 seconds left.
The Bears–Lions rivalry is an NFL rivalry between the Chicago Bears and Detroit Lions. The franchises first met in 1930 when the Lions were known as the Portsmouth Spartans and based in Portsmouth, Ohio. They moved to Detroit for the 1934 season. The Bears and Lions have been division rivals since 1933 and have usually met twice a season since the Lions franchise began.
This rivalry is also the longest-running annual series in the NFL as both teams have met at least once a season since 1930. (Due to the 1982 strike, the Bears–Packers rivalry was not played that season.) However, one of the two meetings between both teams was cancelled during Week 3 of the 1987 season, which does not make this rivalry the longest-running continuous series in the NFL (that feat belongs to the Lions–Packers rivalry, who have met at least twice a season since 1932 without any cancelled meetings).
The Lions–Packers rivalry is an NFL rivalry between the Detroit Lions and Green Bay Packers. They first met in 1930 when the Lions were known as the Portsmouth Spartans and based in Portsmouth, Ohio. The team eventually moved to Detroit for the 1934 season. The Lions and Packers have been division rivals since 1933 and have always met at least twice a season since 1932, without any cancelled games between both rivals (as of today). This is therefore the longest continuously-running rivalry in the NFL.
The Lions–Vikings rivalry is a rivalry between the Detroit Lions and Minnesota Vikings. The Lions and Vikings have been battling since the Vikings entered the league in 1961. Minnesota has dominated the series; however, Detroit has given the Vikings, a usual contender for the NFL playoffs, many close games over the years.
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.
At 85 games played, the series between the Falcons and Saints in the NFC South is the oldest and most established rivalry in the division. Born one year apart, the Saints and Falcons were the first two NFL franchises in the Deep South (Dallas being arguably southern but not in the traditional Deep South). They have shared many of the same players, such as Morten Andersen (the leading scorer in both franchises' histories), Bobby Hebert (who quarterbacked for both teams in the 1990s), and Joe Horn (the Pro Bowl Saints receiver who left for the Falcons in 2007). They have also drawn coaches from the same families, and even shared a head coach: recent Falcons coach Jim L. Mora is the son of longtime Saints coach Jim E. Mora, and former Falcons and Saints coach Wade Phillips is the son of former Saints coach Bum Phillips. Although rarely noted by the national media - no doubt due to both teams' long stretches of futility until the opening decade of the 21st century - games between the Falcons and Saints have riveted their respective regions for more than 40 years. Fans of both teams consider the other their most important and hated opponent.
ESPN.com writer Len Pasquarelli has cited the rivalry as one of the best in all of sports: "Every year, bus caravans loaded with rowdy (and usually very inebriated) fans make the seven-hour trip between the two cities. Unless you've attended a Falcons-Saints debauchery-filled afternoon, you'll just have to take my word for how much fun it really can be."
Atlanta leads the series 45-40 (44–40 regular season, 1–0 playoffs). From 2006 onward, the teams have become consistent playoff threats, New Orleans appropriated three division titles in 2006, 2009, and 2011, while the Falcons made the playoffs in 2008 and captured the division in 2010 and 2012. Both teams have reached the Super Bowl (the Saints won Super Bowl XLIV over the Colts 31–17, while Atlanta lost Super Bowl XXXIII to the Broncos 34–19).
The Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers became divisional rivals in 2002, when Seattle moved to the NFC West. However, it wasn't until 2011 that the match-up became a true rivalry. The 49ers won the division in 2002, but didn't have another winning season until 2011. Meanwhile, the Seahawks made the playoffs five straight times from 2003–2007 and appeared in Super Bowl XL.
In 2010, the Seahawks hired former USC head coach Pete Carroll, who took the Seahawks to the playoffs in his first year, and the rivalry started growing in 2011 when the 49ers hired former Stanford head coach Jim Harbaugh, who also took his team to the playoffs in his first year. Carroll and Harbaugh had been intense rivals as college head coaches, and the rivalry followed them into the NFL.
The rivalry took off in 2012, when the two teams posted winning records and made the NFC playoffs during the same year for the first time. The teams split their games, with the Seahawks defeating the 49ers 42–13 on national TV in a week 16 game that kept the division race alive until the final week. San Francisco ultimately won the division by a half-game and advanced to Super Bowl XLVII, while the Seahawks lost in the NFC divisional round.
In 2013, the teams again split their games, and the Seahawks won the division by a game and went on to win Super Bowl XLVIII, defeating the 49ers in a controversial NFC Championship game. All three 49ers-Seahawks game were highly anticipated that season, and most sports analysts called it the best rivalry in the NFL. Now ever since then the San Francisco 49ers and the Seattle Seahawks fans are always eagerly awaiting this divisional round matchup.
Seattle leads the series 16–15.
The rivalry between the 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. The two teams have contested 129 matches, in which San Francisco leads 64-62-3. After the Rams relocated to St. Louis (in 1995), the rivalry lost its geographical lore, although games are still intense. 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 with Dallas leading the postseason series 5-2.
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 from 1981–90. 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, ending 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.
Recently, the rivalry has cooled down from its peak in the 1980s.