Get the Athlon Sports Newsletter
The League's Best Grudge Matches and Blood Feuds
Bitter rivalries are typically associated with the college game. But if you've ever sat in a pro stadium and wondered where all those Terrible Towels came from, then you realize that NFL rivalries and allegiances can run just as deep. Here are the 10 bitterest and best.
1. Pittsburgh Steelers - Baltimore Ravens
Physical, intense and filled with old-fashioned hatred, this rivalry stands at the apex of NFL grudge matches. It's not for the faint-of-heart, nor is it for alligator-armed receivers afraid to go over the middle.
The rivalry, which began in 1997, had a slightly unfair advantage from the start, in that it was a natural successor to the longstanding Steelers-Browns blood feud. Plus, when the Colts moved to Indianapolis, many fans in Baltimore turned their affections to the Steelers, adding local flavor when pro football returned to Maryland.
Whatever the source, the mutual disregard gives this game between bitter AFC North rivals extra spice, as if it needed any.
"The coaches hate each other, the players hate each other," Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2006. "There's no calling each other after the game and inviting each other out to dinner. But the feeling's mutual: They don't like us, and we don't like them. There's no need to hide it, they know it, and we know it. It's going to be one of those black and blue games."
AFC Championship Game
Jan. 18, 2009
Steelers 23, Ravens 14
In their third meeting of the season, the two teams continued their regular-season tradition of trading haymakers until one team was left standing. In this one, the Steelers held the Ravens to 184 total yards and forced five turnovers, the most important a Troy Polamalu pick-six that gave the Steelers their final 9-point margin. Two more forced turnovers followed, clinching the Steelers' spot in Super Bowl XLIII.
Rivalry at a Glance
Pittsburgh leads all-time series 21-14 (8-8 in Baltimore, 13-6 in Pittsburgh, 3-0 in the postseason)
Current streak: Baltimore, 2
Longest Baltimore win streak: 3 (2005-06)
Longest Pittsburgh win streak: 5 (1997-99; 2001-03
Most lopsided game: Pittsburgh 37, Baltimore 0, 1997
2002 - Pittsburgh 27, Baltimore 10
2009 - Pittsburgh 23, Baltimore 14
2011 - Pittsburgh 31, Baltimore 24
2. New England Patriots - Indianapolis Colts
The media has personalized this rivalry over the years, focusing a laser-like spotlight on the respective quarterbacks. That's only natural, given that they're possibly the two greatest ever to play the position. But the continuation of the rivalry in the post-Peyton Manning era in Indy indicates that there's always been more to it than Manning vs. Tom Brady.
To be fair, the rivalry's ascension did coincide with the emergence of Brady and Manning as elite NFL face-of-the-franchise types. Brady and Manning have combined for six MVP awards and four Super Bowl crowns, putting their respective teams on their shoulders for a combined record of 271-105, 25-11 in the postseason.
Brady leads Manning 3-1 in Super Bowl wins, and that edge is reflected in their head-to-head results — during the Brady era, New England holds a 9-5 edge over Indy head-to-head. The Patriots have won three of the last four, but the arrival of Andrew Luck in Indy portends continuing relevance for this rivalry.
AFC Championship Game
Jan. 21, 2007
Indianapolis 38, New England 34
This one was an all-time classic, as the Colts overcame a 21-3 deficit and a run of futility against Brady and the Patriots by scoring 32 second-half points and taking their final lead on a Joseph Addai touchdown with only a minute remaining. Still, the Colts needed an interception with 17 seconds left to thwart the Patriots' final last-ditch drive, which reached the Indy 45-yard line.
Manning stood tall in orchestrating the biggest comeback in NFL championship game history, leading the Colts to 455 total yards and earning some personal vindication after the Patriots had ended two Indy playoff runs in the previous three seasons. In fact, the game earned the nickname "Peyton's Revenge."
Rivalry at a Glance
New England leads all-time series 46-29 (2-1 in the postseason)
Current streak: New England, 2
Most lopsided game: New England 42, Colts 3, 1974
2004 - New England 24, Indianapolis 14
2005 - New England 20, Indianapolis 3
2007 - Indianapolis 38, New England 34
3. Chicago Bears - Green Bay Packers
The oldest, most tradition-laden rivalry in the NFL is entering a golden phase when both teams are competitive and attempting to win the NFC North at the other's expense. The rivalry began in 1921, and its history features Mt. Rushmore names like Lambeau, Halas, Lombardi and Lovie. Okay, some are better than others, although Lovie Smith has his Bears at a competitive peak this season. The teams have met 185 times, with Chicago holding a 92-87-6 lead.
Dampening the tradition only slightly is the fact that these two teams have made the postseason in the same year only four times, meeting in the playoffs twice in nearly a century of competition.
In a series of ebbs and flows, the Packers have won seven of the last eight between the two teams. The Bears dominated the 1940s and '50s (40-9-2) while not surprisingly, the Pack dominated the Lombardi years, going 15-5 in the 1960s.
NFC Championship Game
Jan. 23, 2011
Green Bay 21, Chicago 14
The Pack stung the Bears early, jumping out to a 14-0 lead at Soldier Field and holding on for the win and a spot in Super Bowl XLV. The game is largely remembered for the controversial exit of Bears quarterback Jay Cutler, who left with a sprained knee and watched as Caleb Hanie attempted to lead a rally. B.J. Raji returned a Hanie interception for the clinching touchdown.
Rivalry at a Glance
Chicago leads all-time series 92-87-6 (1-1 in the postseason)
Current streak: Green Bay, 5
Most lopsided game: Chicago 61, Green Bay 7, 1980
1941 - Chicago 33, Green Bay 14
2011 - Green Bay 21, Chicago 14
4. Dallas Cowboys - Washington Redskins
Ask average fans on the street to name an NFL rivalry, and this is the one they'll likely come up with. And it goes beyond the natural rivalry contained in the teams' respective nicknames. The two franchises have shared a division since 1961 and have often contested with each other for division supremacy. They've combined for a staggering 31 division titles, eight Super Bowl wins and 14 Super Bowl appearances, in the process boasting some of the greatest players (Staubach, Riggins, et al), coaches (Tom Landry, George Allen, Joe Gibbs, Jimmy Johnson) and teams in NFL history. Even when one of the teams is terrible, the matchups have significance; in Dallas' 1-15 season in 1989, the lone win came against the Redskins and cost Washington a playoff spot.
Sadly, the rivalry has taken a dip of late, coinciding with the Dan Snyder regime in D.C., but the tradition can withstand occasional lapses in quality. If both teams find themselves contending simultaneously, the bitterness will come out of hibernation.
Thanksgiving Day 1974
Dallas 24, Washington 23
The Cowboys were facing elimination from the playoffs as Thanksgiving Day dawned, and things weren't looking good when the Cowboys fell behind 16-3 with quarterback Roger Staubach sidelined by injury. Their hopes fading, the Cowboys turned to unheralded rookie Clint Longley, who led an unlikely comeback with two touchdown passes, including the game-winner to Drew Pearson with 50 seconds left. Longley ended up getting traded after sucker-punching Staubach in the locker room during the 1976 preseason, and he was out of football soon thereafter. But his legacy as a one-hit (okay, maybe two-hit if you count the punch) wonder is secure.
Rivalry at a Glance
Dallas leads all-time series 62-40-2 (Redskins lead 2-0 in the postseason)
Current streak: Dallas, 3
Most lopsided game: Dallas 38, Washington 3, 1993
1972 - Washington 26, Dallas 3
1983 - Washington 31, Dallas 17
5. Dallas Cowboys -New York Giants
These two storied franchises are linked by one legendary figure: Tom Landry, who coached Dallas from the franchise's inception in 1960 until 1988 after having been a Pro Bowl player and assistant coach for the Giants. The teams tied 31-31 in Yankee Stadium in their first meeting, and the rivalry was off to the races. Landry dominated the G-men during his tenure in Big D, but the arrival of a brash young coach named Bill Parcells in New York evened things out. Since Parcell's first Super Bowl season in 1986, the franchises have combined for seven Lombardi Trophies.
The bitterness of this NFC East blood feud was on full display during a 1994 Monday Night game, when Cowboys receiver Alvin Harper was on the receiving end of a jackhammer hit from Tito Wooten, unleashing a full-scale brawl that involved players and coaches and included Cowboy James Washington wielding a camera stand like a sword.
Regular-season finale, Jan. 2, 1994
Dallas 16, New York 13 (ot)
The Cowboys and Giants entered the final game of the regular season tied at 11-4 with a playoff bye at stake. In one of the most courageous performances in NFL history, Cowboy running back Emmitt Smith shook off a separated right shoulder in the first half to rush for 168 yards, including 41 on the winning drive in overtime, as the Cowboys beat the Giants 16-13. Broadcaster John Madden was so moved by Smith's show of guts that he paid a visit to the winning locker room after the game to offer Smith his congratulations, the only time he ever did so as a broadcaster. The ensuing bye gave the Cowboys and Smith time to nurse their wounds, and they ultimately won Super Bowl XXVIII over the Bills 30-13.
Rivalry at a Glance
Dallas leads all-time series 57-43-2 (Giants lead 1-0 in the postseason)
Current streak: Giants, 1
Most lopsided game: Dallas 52, New York 7, 1966
2008 - New York 21, Dallas 17
6. Dallas Cowboys - Philadelphia Eagles
Cowboys lead 57-46
This rivalry reached a zenith (or a new low, if you prefer) with Bounty Bowls I and II, when Jimmy Johnson accused the Eagles of placing bounties on Cowboy players, specifically Troy Aikman and kicker Luis Zendejas. Years later, when Michael Irvin suffered a career-ending spinal injury, Eagles partisans in Veterans Stadium cheered.
7. New York Giants - New England Patriots
Giants lead 6-5
These teams are not in the same conference and play somewhat infrequent regular-season games. This "rivalry" makes the list for one simple reason: The two franchises have played in two classic Super Bowls, both of them won by the Giants on historic drives featuring improbable catches. Tom Coughlin is riding a personal three-game winning streak over Bill Belichick, with two of those coming on the game's biggest stage.
8. Oakland Raiders - Kansas City Chiefs
Chiefs lead 56-49-2
Familiarity has bred contempt in this rivalry. The two have shared a division since the AFL's inception in 1960 (when the Chiefs were the Dallas Texans), and KC is one of two teams with a winning record against the Raiders (minimum of 10 matchups). A shocking stat in this feud: The Chiefs dominated the series during the 1990s, winning 18 of 21.
9. Tennessee Titans - Houston Texans
Titans lead 14-7
This rivalry had its inception when Bud Adams packed up Houston's beloved Oilers and moved them to Tennessee, giving Houstonians a special level of bile directed at their former spiritual brethren in the Volunteer State. One memorable moment came courtesy of Houston native Vince Young during his 2006 rookie season, when he broke off a 39-yard touchdown run in overtime in Reliant Stadium to give the Titans a 26-20 win. The teams have split every season series since 2009.
10. Pittsburgh Steelers - Cleveland Browns
Steelers lead 64-56
The ineptitude of the new-era Browns almost knocked this one off the list, but history and heatedness keep it in the top 10. The teams have combined for 10 NFL championships; of course, the Browns' last title came in 1964. If Cleveland ever climbs back to respectability, look for this rivalry to climb back to its accustomed spot near the top.