What Does It Take to Form a Legitimate NFL Rivalry?

Marc LillibridgeContributor IMay 17, 2013

One of the greatest rivalries in sports
One of the greatest rivalries in sportsRob Carr/Getty Images

Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines rivalry as “a state or situation in which people or groups are competing with each other.”  While I know and understand this to be the proper definition, a NFL rivalry takes on a much more passionate meaning.  In a top-notch sports rivalry, the words “despise, hate, loath” come into play.

While I agree sports and football in particular bring out the best in humans and athletes, the same can be said about the worst of mankind.  NFL fans have been shot outside the stadium in California as one example.  When an opposing player gets hurt in certain stadiums, the crowd cheers. 

While I do not condone rowdy behavior by fans or players, I understand the time, effort, money, hurt and all other emotions that go into sports.  The NFL is the top sport in the world for a reason.  Fans love the action and violence.  They love the strategy and raw emotion.  In the heat of the action, rivalries are formed and if the teams consistently play each other, the rivalry can stay intact.

I think there are three key ingredients that make up a great NFL rivalry and I will touch on all three in this article.  Granted, there may be other fringe ideas that could be added to the pot, but I feel that any other thoughts fall under the umbrella of these three main categories.



Competitive Balance

One of the greatest rivalries in all of the NFL is the Dallas Cowboys and Washington Redskins.  Not only do the mascots invoke Wild West America, but also childhood games most of us played.  The simple fact the teams have played each other at least twice a year since 1961 makes the rivalry much more heated. 

But let’s be honest.  With any rivalry, there must be good games that are not too lopsided.  In the late 1970s, the Cowboys/Redskins rivalry was as good as any in football and this rolled into the 1980s.  Each game seemed to hang on a play or two.

Even in the 1990s, when the Cowboys claimed three Super Bowl victories, the Redskins battled Dallas tooth and nail.  Between both teams, there are eight Super Bowl championships.  Every year, both fanbases circle their calendars for this matchup. 

But if one of these teams went downhill for an extended period of time, the rivalry would lose a little bit of the luster.  This happened in the 1980s with the Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears.  While that rivalry was and still is great, most Packers fans did not expect much of a game when they played the Bears in that era.  It happens in sports and in football.  And as quickly as one of the rival teams can be on top, they can fall to the bottom quickly.  That happened to the Bears in the 1990s and early 2000s.

But even when one team is weaker on paper, there is something special about rivalry games that bring out the best in the opposition.  Practices are crisper, there is an unspoken tension in the air and players’ adrenaline pumps a little bit harder during rivalry week. 

Fans and players alike know what is at stake.  As a matter of fact, when former Bears head coach Lovie Smith took over as the head man for Chicago, he said his first goal was to beat the Packers.  Statements like that can get a rivalry jump-started, but the play on the field needs to be backed up.  Just like the Cowboys versus the Redskins, the Packers and Bears rivalry is one to watch again each season.




The best rivalries in all sports but especially in football have long pasts.  The two opponents have been playing for decades and being common opponents builds the rivalry organically.  As I stated earlier, the Cowboys/Redskins rivalry dates back to 1961.  They did play before this time, but that is the year the rivalry took off. 

Part of the historical jigsaw puzzle is that each team must see each other more than once a season.  In the 1970s, the Pittsburgh Steelers and Oakland Raiders had some of the most classic games in sports history.  But since the NFL has expanded and the teams rarely face each other anymore, the rivalry is left to the archives.

We all understand the Packers versus the Bears as an outstanding rivalry, but the Packers also have a solid rival in the Minnesota Vikings.  And even though neither team has been of Super Bowl caliber for a while, there is still a familiarity with the Cleveland Browns versus the Cincinnati Bengals. 

NFL expansion and alignment has caused some natural rivalries to fall by the wayside, but others have popped up in recent years as well.  The Seattle Seahawks versus the San Francisco 49ers looks like a backyard brawl about to happen every game.  The Houston Texans and Indianapolis Colts looks like a rivalry that could take off as well.  But even these rivalries seem a bit forced, and I think it will take another decade or two before we feel the true effects and emotions that an authentic rivalry exudes.




This factor is a key to the NFC North.  Take the first two factors into consideration and then add this to the recipe.  A case can be made that all four teams have some sort of rivalry with each other.  Maybe the Minnesota Vikings versus the Detroit Lions does not invoke the same since of passion as the Packers/Bears, but each team has something to fight for and this is what makes each game a dogfight. 

Granted, if you simply used this factor as the deciding factor of the equation, the New York Jets and New York Giants would be a bloodbath.  They are so close that they share the same stadium.  But they lack the history of the rivalry and they play in different conferences. 

The battle for the local fanbase is what makes the Oakland Raiders versus the San Diego Chargers such a solid rivalry.  I have already touched on the Browns/Bengals rivalry.  And now that the New Orleans Saints and Atlanta Falcons are competitive on a consistent basis, we have seen this rivalry starting to take shape in the NFC South.

I know Commissioner Roger Goodell talks about more NFL expansion.  He has talked about putting teams in London and even Canada.  As a football historian and fan, I understand change is inevitable.  But if the growth causes the NFL to lose the key rivalries, the NFL will lose overall.  There is just something cosmically wrong about a Cowboys fan and a Redskins fan seeing eye to eye, but even they would never want to lose their rivalry.


Marc Lillibridge is a former NFL linebacker who scouted for six years in the NFL following his retirement.  He is now a certified NFLPA contract advisor for www.profootballsyndicate.com.