The Best Rivalries in the NFL Today

Russell S. Baxter@@BaxFootballGuruContributor IJune 11, 2015

The Best Rivalries in the NFL Today

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    When it comes to the NFL and rivalries, there have been some great ones throughout the years.

    But which ones do we rank as the best today?

    To make our case, we will take into account a little history between not only teams but also some individuals. Our list of eight includes six examples of team vs. team as well as one each of player vs. player and head coach vs. head coach.

    Yes, we will take the distant past into account in some instances to set the stage. Those feelings of animosity between individual and organizations don’t just fade away.

    In any case, here’s a look at the best when it comes to the encounters in which each opponent is hoping to get its worst from its foe on any particular day. And feel free to chime in with your best rivalries and memories as well.

    Enjoy.

8. Atlanta Falcons vs. New Orleans Saints

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    For years, it has been arguably the most underappreciated rivalry in the league.

    Even though the Atlanta Falcons and New Orleans Saints have not won a division title the last two years (thanks to the Carolina Panthers), there continues to be a lack of Southern hospitality between these franchises that entered the NFL as expansion teams one year apart in 1966 (Falcons) and 1967 (Saints).

    While the Saints have had the better of this series as of late—going 13-5 against Atlanta dating back to 2006 and the arrival of head coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees in the Big Easy—the Falcons swept this rivalry this past season for the first time since 2005.

    These days, Brees and Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan are the catalysts for their teams, and today’s matchups are highlighted by exciting play. And who could forget when the Saints reopened the Superdome in 2006—one year after Hurricane Katrina had ravaged the city.

    Both the Falcons (6-10) and Saints (7-9) are coming off subpar campaigns in 2014. But there have been no losers when it comes to this unsung rivalry.

7. San Francisco 49ers vs. Seattle Seahawks

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    We are willing to say that there is still some juice when it comes to this NFC West series. However, you can’t help but think that things have changed quite a bit with San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh’s departure this offseason.

    The 49ers (2012) and Seattle Seahawks (2013-14) have combined to win three straight NFC titles, and the prevailing theme in this rivalry has been physical football and plenty of defense—most of that on the part of the Seahawks. Head coach Pete Carroll and his team have now won five of the last six meetings between these clubs, including a 23-17 win in the 2013 NFC Championship Game at Seattle.

    In two meetings last season, both won by the Seahawks, the teams combined for 46 points and neither club reached the 20-point mark.

    Will that kind of hard-hitting football continue in 2015 with new head coach Jim Tomsula and new defensive coordinator Eric Mangini in San Francisco? Don’t bet against it.

6. Rex Ryan vs. Bill Belichick

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    You may call this less of a rivalry and more of a fixation, especially on the behalf of Rex Ryan, who has seen his share of “close” games with the four-time Super Bowl champion head coach. And no matter where he is, Ryan always seems to be stirring the pot (anyone for rabbit?).

    From the time he took over as head coach of the New York Jets in 2009, Ryan has seemingly had Bill Belichick on his mind. He would reference the New England Patriots sideline leader in press conferences and with admiration as well. It’s interesting to note that in each of the six years that Ryan spent with the Jets, the Patriots won the AFC East.

    Now the boisterous head coach takes over in Orchard Park and hopes to get the Buffalo Bills to the playoffs for the first time since 1999. One way to do that is to knock off the Pats, which hasn’t been the Bills’ forte as of late. Dating back to Belichick’s arrival in New England in 2000, the Bills own a 4-26 record versus the Patriots.

    As for Ryan, he fashioned a 4-9 record against the Patriots (including a playoff win at Foxborough in 2010) and lost his share of close calls. And you know he can’t wait to get after Belichick and Co. once again as the teams meet in Week 2 at Buffalo (with or without quarterback Tom Brady) this upcoming season.

    It should make for an “appealing” contest.

5. Dallas Cowboys vs. Washington Redskins

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    Not to say that the future won’t be rosy, but the real glory days of the Dallas Cowboys and Washington Redskins have been behind them for quite some time.

    The Cowboys last Super Bowl win and appearance in the NFC title game came in 1995. The Redskins last reached the Super Bowl and conference title contest in 1991.

    But the animosity between Jerry Jones' (Cowboys) and Daniel Snyder’s (Redskins) franchises was born decades ago during the days when Hall of Fame head coaches Tom Landry and George Allen patrolled the sidelines for Dallas and Washington, respectively. There were also the days of Jimmy Johnson with the Cowboys and Hall of Famer Joe Gibbs with the Redskins.

    In 2014, the teams once again split their two-game set, with both clubs winning on the road. And how’s this for a lot of history? Dating back to 1961, the Cowboys and Redskins have met twice during the regular season 53 times in the last 54 years (the exception being the 1982 strike-shortened campaign, when the teams actually last met in the playoffs and Washington would go on to win Super Bowl XVII).

    Over that span, the Cowboys have swept the 'Skins 17 times, Washington has swept Dallas on five occasions and the longtime rivals have split their two-game sets 29 times (the clubs played to ties in both 1961 and 1962). All told, 10 of the last 14 meetings between the combatants were decided by seven points or less dating back to 2008.

    In today’s version of this NFC East rivalry, the longtime feelings of animosity between the clubs have not faded one bit.

4. Chicago Bears vs. Green Bay Packers

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    Some would say this hasn’t been much of a rivalry as of late. But while the Chicago Bears haven’t necessarily been competitive in their recent clashes with the Green Bay Packers, it is always something special when two of the oldest franchises in the NFL square off.

    This past season, things got ugly for the team from the Windy City, which was blown away by the Pack by a combined 93-31 count. Dating back to 2008 and including the teams' NFC Championship Game meeting at Soldier Field in 2010, Green Bay has won 12 of the 15 meetings.

    Still, there is an air of excitement when these teams get together, and that will be the case in Week 1 this season at Chicago. When the Packers and Bears kick off 2015 against each other, it will mark the 189th overall meeting between the legendary franchises in a series that began back in 1921.

    Yes, the best days for the Bears came some time ago and this year will mark 30 years since the team shuffled off with a Lombardi Trophy in Super Bowl XX. But the series oozes professional football history, and there’s still a lot to be said about that these days.

3. Baltimore Ravens vs. New England Patriots

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    Of the six examples of team vs. team rivalries we have in this piece, this is the lone pairing that does not involve a pair of divisional foes.

    Still, the Baltimore Ravens and New England Patriots have really gotten to know each other in recent seasons. In January, Bill Belichick’s eventual Super Bowl XLIX champions rallied from a pair of 14-point deficits to beat Baltimore 35-31 in the AFC divisional round. It marked the third consecutive year that the teams met in the postseason—the clubs split a pair of conference title games in 2011 (Patriots) and 2012 (Ravens) and met for the fourth time since 2009 in the playoffs.

    What’s very interesting is the fact that the Ravens have traveled to New England a total of eight times (including playoffs) in the series history, and while they own a disappointing 2-6 record on the Patriots’ home fields dating back to 1999, both of their victories in the playoffs came at Gillette Stadium. In fact, in the history of this series that dates back to 1996, Baltimore has won just three times in 12 overall encounters.

    From missed field goals, untimely timeouts and dropped touchdown passes to controversial scores and eligible/ineligible players, courtesy of Doug Kyed of NESN.com, this series has had a lot of everything.

    And that’s a very good thing.

2. Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning

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    It is arguably the NFL’s longest-running…argument?

    Who’s the better quarterback? New England Patriots four-time Super Bowl champion Tom Brady or the league’s record holder and five-time NFL MVP Peyton Manning, who has spent the last three seasons with the Denver Broncos.

    When it comes to head-to-head encounters (which date back to 2001), it has been no contest. Including the postseason, Brady has “won” 11 of the 16 meetings. He has put up amazing numbers, throwing more than twice as many touchdown passes (31) as interceptions (13). Manning has actually thrown for more scores in this setting (33) but has also served up 22 interceptions.

    The veteran signal-callers have split their four playoff encounters, with three of them having a Super Bowl appearance on the line. Manning and his teams have actually won the last two postseason meetings with Brady—the first with the Indianapolis Colts in the 2006 AFC Championship Game and the most recent with the Denver Broncos in the 2013 AFC title tilt.

    What makes this rivalry of sorts even more significant is the all-time status of these quarterbacks in terms of career statistics. Manning and Brady are ranked first and fifth, respectively, in the NFL annals in touchdown passes.

    In any case, this never-ending debate will continue this season in Week 12 at Denver. And it is once again a chance to see two of the best players in the history of the league on the same field.

1. Baltimore Ravens vs. Pittsburgh Steelers

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    It’s almost as if the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers can’t get out of each other’s way, especially over the last seven seasons.

    In 2007, the Steelers hired Mike Tomlin to replace head coach Bill Cowher. One year later, the Ravens named John Harbaugh their new sideline leader.

    Dating back to 2008, the franchises have met a combined 17 times, with Pittsburgh owning a one-game lead (9-8) in those head-to-head encounters. Over that span, they have met in every phase of the AFC playoffs.

    This past season, the Ravens posted a 30-17 victory in the Wild Card Round. Back in ’08, the Steelers came away with a 23-14 win in the conference title game. Two years later, Tomlin’s team rallied from a 14-point deficit to beat Baltimore 31-24 in the AFC divisional round. All three contests took place in the Steel City.

    It’s also worth noting that under both Tomlin and Harbaugh, neither the Steelers nor the Ravens have suffered through a losing season. While all three meetings in 2014 were decided by double digits, 10 of the previous 14 clashes between the AFC North rivals were decided by three points or less. And over the last seven years, Pittsburgh (twice) and Baltimore (once) have represented the AFC in the Super Bowl three times and each has walked away with a title.

    From Hines Ward to Ray Lewis, from Troy Polamalu to Ed Reed, from James Harrison to Terrell Suggs and from Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks Ben Roethlisberger to Joe Flacco, the Steelers and Ravens have given us great players, exceptional moments and hard-hitting football. And both organizations figure to be in the playoff mix (as well as in each other’s faces) once again this fall.

    Unless otherwise noted, all player and team statistics come from Pro-Football-Reference.com and ESPN.com.