Picking the Best Rivalry in Each NFL Division
Sports as a whole are often defined by rivalries, and the NFL is no exception. It's always the most fun to get a big win against the team you hate the most, particularly in a game that has playoff implications or even in playoff games. Even in years when one team is playing terrible, beating a rival and hurting their playoff chances can re energize a losing team in way unlike any other.
NFL fans are lucky because many of the NFL's best rivalries come from teams in the same division. Because of this many rivals get to face each other twice a year, sometimes three times if both teams make the playoffs.
There are a lot of factors that go into determining the NFL's biggest rivalries. Success is one, as rivals fighting for first in the division is way more compelling than seeing bottom-feeders fight for third place. It's also important that the teams genuinely hate each other and that there have been devastating losses on both ends.
After going through each NFL division, I have picked two top rivalries. One is the top historical rivalry that has survived and stayed intense through the years. The other is the top current rivalry going into 2012 based on recent success over the last couple years.
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The AFC East is a division that goes way back with lots of classic rivalries. Every team in this division has experienced sustained periods of success, and all of them have played in at least one Super Bowl. This makes it a little tricky to pick top rivalries, as all AFC East rivalries have some meaning, mostly thanks to historical significance.
When it comes to most meaningful classic rivalries, the one between the Miami Dolphins and the New York Jets is hard to beat. The teams have played each other 93 times with the Jets leading the series 48-44-1.
Despite the Jets' regular season, it's clear that the Dolphins have been more successful as a franchise. They've got two Super Bowl titles to boast of in their five appearances while they also had an all-time great quarterback in Dan Marino, who helped them contend throughout the '80s and '90s. The Dolphins also hold the edge over the Jets in their one postseason meeting where they beat them 14-0 in the 1983 AFC Championship.
The Jets haven't had that level of sustained success; however, they frequently get in the playoffs as a wildcard team. However, regardless of records, Dolphins and Jets seem to entertain in most of their games. Memorable games include the Dolphins loss in the Monday Night Meltdown, Ken O'Brien outgunning Dan Marino 51-45 in 1986 and the Dolphins Fake Spike comeback.
Unfortunately, the current AFC East landscape doesn't have nearly as much parity. The New England Patriots have owned the division, winning eight of the last 10 division titles. Even in the Pats' off years, they only lost the division on tiebreakers once to the Jets and once to the Dolphins.
Although the Patriots-Dolphins rivalry is a good one, it doesn't compare to the Patriots-Jets rivalry since the Jets have been more competitive in the last 10 years. Patriots-Jets has had tons of meaning, especially since Rex Ryan started coaching the Jets in 2009. It's always fascinating to see which approach is victorious, the Jets' trash-talking bravado or the Patriots' stoic silence.
This rivalry is also intense because of the Boston-New York rivalry, one of the fiercest in all of sports. The Patriots would seem to have the edge, having won three Super Bowls this decade while they also lead the series against the Jets 53-52-1. It's actually an extremely close rivalry, and with the Jets' playoff win in the 2010 AFC Divisional Round, this rivalry is still up there with the best of today's NFL rivalries.
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The AFC North is the NFL's black and blue division, a place where football is played in cruel elements with even crueler hitting. Every team prides itself on defense, and many divisional games in the AFC North are low-scoring slugfests.
With none of the teams playing in a large market city, they face an uphill battle in becoming a popular team on a national level. Each team has managed to do that, admittedly to mixed success. Three of the teams' classic franchises have been around for more than 40 years, while the other team has found lots of success in its brief 15 year existence.
Far and away the Pittsburgh Steelers are the best AFC North team both historically and currently. Their six Super Bowl titles lead the entire NFL and cast a lofty shadow over the division. It's fitting that in a division known for defense, the Steelers have had some of the best units of all-time with the '70s Steel Curtain and the 2000's defenses.
It may sound crazy today but the best historical rivalry belongs to the Cleveland Browns and the Pittsburgh Steelers, two franchises that are only located less than 150 miles apart. The Browns are a proud franchise whose glory days mostly came before the Super Bowl Era in the 1950's and the 1960's. Back then, the Browns were so good that they owned the Steelers, compiling a 31-9 record against them during those two decades.
Things changed with the rise of the Steel Curtain in the mid '70s. Since, then the Steelers have grabbed control of the rivalry and haven't looked back, as they lead the Browns 64-56. It's a shame too because the Browns and the Steelers absolutely hate each other; if this rivalry was less lopsided, it would still be one of today's top rivalries.
Interestingly, the Steelers' top rivals today are essentially the reincarnated Browns. That would be the Baltimore Ravens, a team that relocated from Cleveland in 1996. During the 2000's, it's essentially the Ravens and Steelers that have dominated the AFC North, with the Cincinnati Bengals having two relatively random seasons of success where they won the division title.
The Ravens are also the only other AFC North team with a Super Bowl title, thanks to their tremendous 2000 defense. The Steelers lead the rivalry 21-14, but those numbers are deceiving for how close this rivalry really is. Since John Harbaugh and Joe Flacco arrived in Baltimore in 2008, eight of their 10 meetings have been decided by a touchdown or less.
The Ravens-Steelers rivalry is clearly among the NFL's most intense rivalries, with both teams not afraid to show their dislike of each other. And the fact that these teams have played in three playoff games (all Steelers wins) and are constantly contending for the AFC title, makes it arguably the greatest rivalry in the NFL today.
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As the NFL's youngest division, the AFC South has sort of struggled to make a name for itself. This is even more true this year with the departure of Peyton Manning, who was the closest thing possible to being the face of an entire division.
In past years, it was easy for the Manning-led Indianapolis Colts to dominate this uninspiring division. Two of the teams are the NFL's newest expansion teams, and they have yet to have any sustained periods of success. The other two teams are older but had to relocate from Baltimore and Houston before starting over in their current cities of Indianapolis and Nashville, respectively.
The Colts are the most historically successful team with a nine-year streak of playoff berths, seven of which were AFC South titles. They also have two Super Bowl titles to their name, while the Tennessee Titans are the only division rival to even make it to the big game.
That's why it's fitting that the Colts-Titans rivalry is the top classic rivalry in the division. While still a relatively young rivalry, these are the only two teams to win AFC South titles prior to the Houston Texans emergence last season. While the Titans have fluctuated with records all over the place during Jeff Fisher's tenure as head coach, there have been several seasons where they offered a serious threat to the Colts.
There was also the angle of Manning going against a Tennessee team; he did, after all, play college football at the University of Tennessee. And although he never said anything bad towards the Titans, it is telling that Manning chose to play for a less talented Denver Broncos team than for his former division rival. With his departure, the Titans will now to look to get an edge in this series which the Colts are currently leading 11-6.
The Colts-Titans rivalry can no longer stay as the AFC South's top rivalry thanks to Manning's departure and the Colts' major step backwards. Both teams do have promising futures, though, thanks to young quarterbacks Jake Locker and Andrew Luck. For now, though, the preeminent AFC South rivalry belongs to the Texans and the Titans.
There's some serious bad blood between both teams thanks to the Titans' former identity as the Houston Oilers. Diehard Oilers fans refuse to forgive Titans owner Bud Adams, which creates an undeniable tension whenever these teams play each other, one that even spills over onto the field. Who can forget the image of Andre Johnson and Cortland Finnegan exchanging blows during a 2010 game?
Last year, each team won their game in the opposing team's stadium. The Titans have historically been better, as they lead the series 14-6. However, with the Texans finally putting together a roster that could contend for multiple Super Bowls, they are likely going to catch up in the series and make this rivalry a popular one that gets way more national attention.
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With four original AFL teams that have all experienced sustained periods of success, the AFC West is a great division with tons of intriguing rivalries. Only the NFC East can claim to be a more successful division, but that shouldn't take away anything from what the AFC West teams have accomplished.
For nearly 50 years, these teams have competed in the same division, so the hostility between all of the teams is intense. That makes it difficult to speculate as to which rivalry is the most intense in the division, both historically and today.
My historical pick is the Kansas City Chiefs-Oakland Raiders rivalry.This bitter rivalry has been so meaningful for so long, particularly in the '60's and the '70's, which was when each team was at their peak. The Chiefs lead the rivalry 56-49-2, which includes three postseason games.
Despite trailing in the series, the Raiders have been the more successful franchise. They have three Super Bowls to the Chiefs' one Super Bowl title. Interestingly, in the postseason, the Chiefs have a 2-1 edge over the Raiders, with the Chiefs winning the most recent matchup 10-6 back in 1991.
With the Raiders putting together back-to-back 8-8 seasons and the Chiefs getting injured players back from their 2010 division championship, this rivalry could be reignited this decade. Two of their last four games against each other have gone to overtime. And now, with the AFC West looking wide open, it's even possible that these two teams could become the best in the division.
However, they do not get my vote for the top AFC West rivalry of today. That goes to the Denver Broncos and San Diego Chargers, who have been the two teams that have consistently been in the mix for the AFC West title during the last 10 years.
It seems that every year now, the Chargers and Broncos face each other at least once with first place in the AFC West on the line. Even though the Chargers have a major edge in that category, with four straight division titles and five out of six from 2004-2009, the Broncos have often been right behind them in second place. The Broncos have won two division titles of their own in this time span, first in 2005 and most recently in 2011.
To be honest, though, the rivalry has been slightly diminishing due to the fact that the Chargers have mostly owned the Broncos lately, with Philip Rivers commanding a 9-3 record against them. When you bring into factor the heartbreaking 2008 and 2009 seasons, where the Broncos literally choked away the division and finished just out of the playoffs, it's easy to understand why they hate the Chargers. And despite the recent success, the Chargers still trail the Broncos in the series 55-48-1, so their hatred is understandable as well.
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Twelve Super Bowl titles have been won by members of the NFC East, which is four more than the next best division. And with all four of the teams coming from large-market cities, there is always major drama coming from the NFC East. Every single team in this division has a storied rivalry with every other team, which is why every NFC East rivalry is basically locked in for at least one prime-time game a year.
It makes matters even more complicated that the NFC "Beast," as some call it, is full of teams that consistently contend. Many years, the NFC East will send two teams to the playoffs, and several times, they've even sent three.
The success of the NFC East teams and the hatred they share among each other makes it a thankless task to pick out which rivalries are the most intense. Any way you slice it, there are certain to be angry fans arguing that a different rivalry should be at the top. Understanding that, I will be treading very carefully as I break down my picks for top NFC East rivalries.
When it comes to all-time rivalries, the Dallas Cowboys-Washington Redskins rivalry is very hard to beat. These are the two wealthiest teams in the NFL, and they have combined for eight Super Bowl wins. While the Cowboys have a 62-40-2 lead on the regular season series, the Skins are 2-0 against Dallas in the playoffs.
Even with both teams in a state of decline recently, they still tend to show up and play their hearts out whenever they meet. It's that basic understanding no matter how bad the season is going, things will be better if the Redskins beat the Cowboys and vice versa. With all the success, money and hatred in this rivalry it is quite possibly the greatest NFL rivalry of all-time and maybe even the greatest rivalry in all of sports.
As stated above, both Dallas and Washington are in various states of decline, so their rivalry is not the best modern one. That honor instead goes to arguably the most successful NFC franchises of the last decade, the New York Giants and the Philadelphia Eagles.
The Giants have won two Super Bowl titles and have been a playoff team or just outside of the playoffs every year since 2005. The Eagles have played in five NFC Championships under Andy Reid, and they have made the playoffs nine of the last 12 years. Therefore, it's safe to say that nearly every time these teams have played in the last decade, it's been for the NFC East lead.
Right now, the Giants lead the rivalry 83-75-2, and they boast four Super Bowl titles to Philly's zero. The Eagles can take solace in knocking the Giants out of the playoffs in 2008 as well as the Miracle at the New Meadowlands, which ended up costing the Giants a playoff trip. Their playoff record is tied at 2-2, and with both teams favored to fight for the NFC East title this season, football fans would love to see a fifth playoff game between these teams.
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There's something to be said for time in football rivalries. When it's a rivalry that it is relevant now as it was when your grandpa was young, then it has stood the test of time.
Although this is referring to the NFL's longest rivalry between the Green Bay Packers and the Chicago Bears with 80 years and counting, it can also refer to the NFC North. This is the grandaddy division of the NFL, and that's not just because Brett Farve last played for the Minnesota Vikings. Based on the combined ages of its four teams, the NFC North would be 316 years old.
Three of the four teams have been around since the 1920's, while the Vikings are by no means young either, being founded in 1961. Like the AFC North, this division is a black and blue one where the teams mercilessly beat on each other no matter what. However, I think that NFC North fans would agree with me that the more appropriate name would be the Frostbite Division.
All four teams play relatively close to each other in the Northern Midwest of the United States. Green Bay and Chicago play in outdoor stadiums, which have resulted in many of the coldest games in NFL history. Even with Detroit and Minnesota playing their games indoors, it can be hard simply walking to the stadium in the brutal Michigan and Minnesota winters.
It should be no surprise that Bears-Packers comes in as the top historical rivalry here. This one has everything from legendary coaches on both sidelines to a combined 22 championships between the teams to 48 combined Hall of Fame players.
The all-time lead goes to the Bears 92-86-6. The Packers though have been chipping away at the lead, with wins in six of their last seven against the Bears, including the NFC Championship in 2010. While the Bears have eight pre-Super Bowl era championships, it irritates their fans to no end that the Packers have four Super Bowl titles to the Bears' one.
This is also the rare instance, where it's fair to say that history is just as good as the present. The Bears-Packers rivalry is also the top NFC North rivalry today as both teams have dominated the NFC North the last 10 years.
While it's true that the Vikings won two divisional titles in this timespan, other than that, they have ranged from unimpressive to awful. The Detroit Lions, even with their recent resurgence, are still the Lions. The Bears and Packers are the teams to beat in the NFC North, and their two regular season games remain among the most anticipated of next season.
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When division realignment occurred in 2002, fans of the four teams in the NFC South had to absolutely thrilled. Here were four franchises with countless years of losing and zero Super Bowl titles between them. Now, at least one team from the NFC South would be guaranteed a playoff berth every year.
So began the history of the NFL's most unpredictable division. In the 10-year history of the NFC South, there has never been a repeat division champion. In fact, many years, the worst team from the year before comes back and wins the division title.
It's frankly a confusing division to follow and an impossible one to predict. Obviously, none of these teams are really perennial losers anymore, as each of them has made the playoffs at least once in the last five years. Every team in the division has made exactly one Super Bowl appearance, with the New Orleans Saints and Tampa Bay Buccaneers walking away victorious in theirs.
All the parity of the division makes it difficult to determine which rivalries, if any, are worthy of being included among the best in the NFL. I would say historically Saints and Buccaneers perhaps rises above the other ones. Both teams tend to play each other close, and no one team has dominated the rivalry.
Right now, Saints lead the series 23-17, which isn't surprising as the Saints have now made the playoffs three years in a row. The Bucs, meanwhile, struggle with consistency, as they fluctuate from losing to winning records seemingly on a yearly basis. Yet even so, the Buccaneers did defeat the Saints once in both 2009 and 2011 despite the fact that they would finish nearly 10 games behind them in both seasons.
For modern rivalries, the NFC South has been blessed by two consistent contenders over the last four years. Those are the Saints and Atlanta Falcons, teams that are stacked with great players and particularly great quarterbacks. The duels between Matt Ryan and Drew Brees have finally given the NFC South an exciting rivalry that now has playoff implications basically every year.
The Falcons lead the season series 46-40 while also winning the only playoff meeting between the teams. However, since Ryan came in at quarterback and Mike Smith at head coach, the Saints have won six of the last eight games. With four of these games coming down to a field goal, it's a rivalry that is quickly growing in intensity.
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In terms of division rivalries, the NFC West may very well be the most dull and uninteresting division. Three of the four teams are West Coast teams, meaning that the media's East Coast bias would count as a strike against them even if they were good.
They're not good, though; not good at all. Every NFC West team has had at least one 4-12 or worse season since the creation of their division. Only three NFC West teams have had more than 10 wins in a season: the 2003 St. Louis Rams (12-4), the 2005 Seattle Seahawks (13-3) and the 2011 San Francisco 49ers (13-3).
Yet for all the cheap shots and insults that are hurled towards the NFC West on a yearly basis, their teams have shown up in the playoffs. Both the Seahawks and Arizona Cardinals have made Super Bowl appearances in the last 10 years, and the 49ers came very close last season. Also, between the 49ers five Super Bowl titles and the Rams' one Super Bowl title, this is still a division with some proud history.
The tradition of the NFC West is shown in the rivalry between the Rams and the 49ers. When the Rams were located in Los Angeles, it was a rivalry between north and south California. Even once the Rams relocated, the teams still share an intense hatred for each other, as their rivalry now demonstrates the cultural differences between the Midwest and the West Coast.
The 49ers have more often than not had the edge over the Rams, although the series is very close, with the Rams only leading 62-61-2. Many years, the Rams were overshadowed by the Joe Montana-led 49ers, especially when the 49ers defeated them 30-3 in their only postseason game after the 1989 season. The 49ers went on to win the Super Bowl that season, which, at the time, gave them four rings, while the Rams had zero.
The Rams would have their time, though, during the Greatest Show on Turf era, where they beat the 49ers six straight times. Unfortunately since then, both teams fell into disrepair, as they were awful for the latter part of the '00s. Only recently have the 49ers become relevant again, while the Rams will have to hope that new coach Jeff Fisher can turn things around for their team, which was 2-14 last season.
This means that a new rivalry has to take the place as the best in the west currently. The Seahawks have had the most success since the division's inception with a streak of four consecutive division titles and a fifth one to make it five in seven years. So thanks to their success, they share intense rivalries with all three division rivals.
The most intense rivalry today for the Seahawks has to be the 49ers. The two teams seem to be trending upward going into 2012, and although the 9ers swept them last season, both games were exceedingly close. The season series is now tied at 13, making it a close rivalry, and hopefully, that will finally bring the NFC West to respectability in the near future.