Rivalries That Still Matter In the NFL
If we are being honest, nobody does rivalries better than college football. For example “War Eagle” (Auburn) versus “Roll Tide” (Alabama) is given nearly life or death importance. The National Football League however has its fair share of rivalries as well. A good rivalry in professional sports is like a fire. To burn with a scorching flame it needs three things. A rivalry is sparked when teams routinely stand in each other’s way. A rivalry needs big moments that creates disdain for the opponent on both sides. Finally a rivalry needs to truly matter. A rivalry should be an all out bloodbath, a brutally excitement that elevates the moment. A truly current rivalry is must watch TV, even if you are not a fan of either team. I highly recommend that you have your chinstraps buckled and your mouth pieces in, as we look at the most important rivalries in professional football, today.
There are plenty of rivalries that don’t really matter. These rivalries lack the big moments that give it relevance. While the history is rich, these rivalries need to be reignited. For example, when Kansas City and Oakland have played in recent years there has not been a lot at stake. The Cowboys and Redskins are a rivalry and to their fans its important. Yet the Cowboys and Redskins have been such under achievers nobody else cares. One of the most historic rivalries is Cleveland vs. Pittsburgh. The problem is the one sided nature of the rivalry. Pittsburgh has had great success and Cleveland has sputtered. Cleveland hates Baltimore with a passion unknown to the rest of mankind. They have a reason; Baltimore took their team and won two Super Bowls. Yet this is not a rivalry, at least one that matters. When quarterback Joe Flacco, has only lost one game to Cleveland in 6 years, how is that a rivalry?
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There is no rivalry which burns more furiously than the Ravens and the Steelers. Both sides hate each other. Sure you have the never ending six-rings-your-insignificant chant from Pittsburgh fans but this denial is of the weak variety (It should be easy to determine which side I am on). The Steelers hate us and we hate them, its that simple. With the hate there is an undying respect. We hate each other because we are constantly fighting for the same prize. We respect each other because we both fight valiantly and understand it could go either way. When Baltimore plays Pittsburgh, it is almost always a hard fought and highly contested game that comes down to the final play. The Ravens and Steelers play twice a year. There have been mega sized moments that went in both directions. The Steelers beating the Ravens in the 2008 AFC Championship; Flacco reclaiming the upper hand for Baltimore with a 92 yard touchdown, drive that completed the 2011 series sweep as examples. Being the most hyped match ups of the year qualifies this as a truly important rivalry.
The Baltimore Ravens are one of those few teams that have multiple mega sized rivalries. The Ravens and Patriots are a rivalry. With 3 playoff meetings (2 of them being in back to back AFC Championships) a natural rivalry ensued. The Patriots and Ravens find more and more ways to dislike each other. In Baltimore, quarterback Tom Brady is crowned the queen of the sissies. In New England, Ray Lewis and Terrell Suggs have assumed the role of public enemy number 1. Personally, I have never felt the animosity towards New England as a Ravens fan. I have an ultimate respect for the Patriots and admire Brady’s competitive nature. Baltimore continuously outplays them in the post season. The 2011 AFC Championship was lost by Ravens miscues; I save my resentment towards Lee Evans and Billy Cundiff. There is no denying the rivalry however. It has all three components in an angry surplus.
The entire AFC East loathes the New England Patriots. The Patriots just keep plugging away, racking up division titles. The Dolphins did manage to sneak a division title in 2008. The Jets however have been the Patriots most relevant rival. This is due to the complete opposite styles of the two head coaches, Rex Ryan and Bill Belichick. The boastful Rex Ryan and his team which loudly takes shots at the Patriots is what stirs the pot. This is one of the most emotional rivalries in all of sports even if it is largely one sided. Both teams get under each others skin and it is must see TV.
Speaking of must see TV, that is exactly what the 49ers vs. Seahawks is. I classify this as the second most meaningful rivalry in the NFL. If I did not have such a Maryland centric point of reference maybe I would favor this NFC West showdown. What makes this rivalry so compelling (besides Richard Sherman and Michael Crabtree) is the similarities between these teams. They are both physical, tough grind it out kind of football teams. This was on display in the NFC Championship game this past year. It was a classic gladiator like fight in which the Seahawks came away victorious. With the Seahawks as reigning Super Bowl champions it must be a tough time to be a 49ers fan.
We cannot get through a meaningful conversation about rivalries and skip the NFC North. Much like the AFC East every team loathes the Patriots; in the NFC North despises the Packers. Green Bay and Chicago have one of the longest rivalries. The rivalry stays current because of big meetings like the 2010 NFC Championship despite Green Bay continuously beating Chicago.
The Vikings and Packers is a little one sided as well but it remains relevant in the big picture. This is mostly due to Packer legend Brett Favre and his run with the Vikings. Gary Breeze, a Vikings fan I know from work told me how he felt about this. “I couldn’t really handle Brett Favre as a Viking,” Breeze told me about rooting for his longtime enemy. Gary told me that there is a real smugness he gets from Packers fans, as if because they have a great history they are superior. This rivalry could never cool down because of the close proximity between Green Bay and Minneapolis.
The last rivalry I’d like to highlight is the one between the Denver Broncos and the San Diego Chargers. Like most rivalries these two teams are division foes with a long history. Throughout the years it has been a back and forth. I looked up the all time record on Pro-football-reference.com (a great source for statistics). The Broncos lead the Chargers in the all time series 59-48 which is fairly competitive. The rivalry was especially present this past season. Mike McCoy, formerly the Broncos OC was the first year head coach with the Chargers. Once Denver and San Diego revealed the weaknesses of the Chiefs, the Chargers were the only legit threat to the Broncos. Denver out dueled the Chargers at home in the playoffs. The rivalry seemed to be renewed and refreshed. There is just something about Rivers vs Manning and their personalities that spark such a rivalry building contrast.
Rivalries enhance the moment. There is something about that tension in the air, the weight of the games and the thrill that comes with a win and utter despair that leaves you beyond repair. Rivalries are enhanced by rich history but are constantly renewed through pivotal shifts of power. Many great rivalries have faded or burn hot but are irrelevant to the common NFL fan. A true rivalry is about pride and passion for your team and the loathing and active animosity towards anyone who stands in your team’s way.