Every sport has its great rivalries; they range from tame and fun to fierce and tense. In a sport like Major League Baseball, the effect that a rivalry game can have is much more watered down when teams such as the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants play each other 20 times per year.
But in the NFL, that’s not the case. Division rivals only play two games against each other per year, and non-division rivals may get just one or even no head-to-head games. Some sides are dominating, while others can’t seem to get over the hump. Here are the five best rivalries in the NFL.
1. Philadelphia Eagles and Dallas Cowboys
Due to the existence of the New York Giants and Washington Redskins, you could probably make a case for several different great rivalries in the NFC East. But the Philadelphia Eagles and Dallas Cowboys are not only rivals on the field, but they seem to have some serious animosity between the two fanbases. For what it’s worth, this rivalry might be bigger for the Eagles and their fans than it is for the Cowboys, who have no shortage of teams and fans that hate them.
The two teams have battled for division supremacy over the last few years, with the pinnacle coming in a late-season matchup in 2014. With both teams 9-4 heading into the final three games of the season, the Cowboys went to Philadelphia and took a 28-24 lead into the fourth quarter. A 25-yard pass from Tony Romo to Dez Bryant for a touchdown sealed the deal, and Dallas made the playoffs while the Eagles went home.
2. Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers
This rivalry goes back to the early days of the NFL and it’s still going strong in recent years. When Lovie Smith first arrived as coach in Chicago, he wouldn’t lay out winning the division or the Super Bowl as his No. 1 goal; instead his goal was to beat the Packers. Just last year, Packers coach Mike McCarthy said that he planned to “kick Chicago’s ass” in their season opening matchup with the Bears. Even when one of the teams isn’t particularly good — and in recent years, that’s been the Bears — the rivalry is just as fierce.
Over the last few years, Chicago had to deal with Brett Favre’s reign of terror, and then it was the Packers’ turn with Smith’s defense, which featured Brian Urlacher, Lance Briggs, and Charles Tillman at the time. The two teams saw the peak of their tense opposition in 2010 when they matched up in the NFC Championship game at Soldier Field. Bears quarterback Jay Cutler sprained his knee in that game and had to exit in the second quarter, and the Packers moved on to win the Super Bowl.
3. San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks
This is a more recent rivalry that’s still developing, but it’s fun nonetheless. In the old days, you’d have to say that the San Francisco 49ers’ biggest rival would be the Cowboys, but with how great Seattle has been in recent years and some tight playoff races in the NFC West, there’s no question that this has become one of the best and most fun rivalries in the NFL.
Unfortunately, the 49ers are no longer on the same level as the Seahawks talent-wise, but that doesn’t mean the games don’t sting for the fans if their team doesn’t win. The pinnacle of the rivalry between the 49ers and Seahawks came in the NFC Championship game in 2013, when the Seahawks went into the fourth quarter trailing San Francisco 17-13. Quarterback Russell Wilson put the team on top with a touchdown pass to wide receiver Jermaine Kearse, and Seattle never looked back — winning the game and eventually the Super Bowl.
4. New England Patriots and Indianapolis Colts
When you’re the best team in the league over a long stretch, there’s probably a lot of teams that view you as their rival. But consistently, there’s no bigger rival for the New England Patriots than the Indianapolis Colts. Since 2000, the Patriots are 4-1 against the Colts in the playoffs, including back-to-back wins against them in 2013 and 2014, with the latter coming in the AFC Championship game.
In that span of time, the Pats also lead Indianapolis in Super Bowl victories, 4-1. The biggest pain for fans of the Colts has to be the loss to the Patriots in 2014, which has become known as the Deflategate game. The Colts were absolutely embarrassed by New England, losing the game 45-7, which makes it seem as though the amount of air in the ball probably didn’t factor into the outcome too much. Either way, it stung for the Colts and their fans.
5. Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens
This rivalry is as much about the fact that both teams have been consistently good in the same division for 15 years as it is about proximity. Since 2001, the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens have met in the playoffs four times, with the Steelers taking three of the matchups. They knocked off the defending-champion Ravens 27-10 that year in the divisional round of the playoffs. The two would match up yet again in the 2008 AFC Championship game, with the Steelers winning 23-14 before going on to beat the Arizona Cardinals in the Super Bowl.
The Ravens would finally get some revenge in the postseason in 2014, beating the Steelers 30-17 in the wild card round before losing to the Patriots a game later. Since 2000 — a span of 16 seasons — the Steelers or Ravens have won the AFC North division all but four years. The two teams have been remarkably equal, with a 21-19 all-time head-to-head record in favor of the Steelers and each team winning two Super Bowl trophies since the turn of the century.
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