Familiarity breeds contempt-- an idea that’s reaffirmed between NFL division rivals twice and sometimes three times a year. But especially in the era of NFL parity, rivalries ebb and flow. It helps a rivalry when both teams are riding high, the games are closely contested, the combatants win a relatively equal share of games and there’s a lot at stake. With that in mind, we’ve ranked the top eight rivalries in the NFL today.
Seattle Seahawks vs. Los Angeles Rams
A few years ago the Seahawks-49ers would have been the marquee NFC West rivalry, but Jim Harbaugh is gone and the 49ers have taken a huge step back. Owing in large part to a stellar defensive line, the Rams have had the Seahawks’ number in recent years. despite the Rams' perpetual "7-9 bull***." It may not be the sexiest rivalry, but there’s a certain appeal to low-scoring slogs in which the underdog often comes out on top, as the Rams have done in four of the past five meetings with the Seahawks.
Green Bay Packers vs. Minnesota Vikings
Brett Favre wearing a Vikings jersey represented a strange two-year period for everyone involved in 2009-2010. That aside, for the most part Green Bay has dominated Minnesota since the start of the 2010 season. That unevenness prompted Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer to say in mid-September, "We need to beat them a lot more often for it to be a rivalry." Thanks to an inspired performance by brand new starting quarterback Sam Bradford in Week 2, the Vikings won another one to make it two in a row.
Perhaps this is the dawn of a contentious new chapter up north -- a welcomed development for Minnesotans who live in close proximity to many Packers fans and don’t much like hearing about how mighty the Packers are. Packers-Bears is acrimonious but now the Packers can’t ignore the Zimmer-led Norsemen. "Packers fans are so quick to talk about how many Super Bowls they have won versus our none," one Vikings fan wrote in 2015. "I respect them as an organization, with them being the only community-owned team, and a team with a long history and tradition, but mainly my hatred is toward the arrogant 'We're so high and mighty' Packers fans." There's a good chance this year’s NFC North winner may come down to the second Packers-Vikings clash of the season on Christmas Eve on Lambeau Field.
Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY SportsBruce Kluckhohn
Dallas Cowboys vs. Washington Redskins
This rivalry started in 1960 when former Redskins owner George Marshall didn’t want the league to award Dallas a franchise for fear that it might interfere with his broadcast interests in the South. Cowboys owner Clint Murchison Jr. cleverly battled back by purchasing the rights to the Redskins’ fight song “Hail to the Redskins” and used it for leverage.
Both franchises have experienced the highest highs with a combined 8 Super Bowl titles and of course some lean years since the height of their dominance in the ‘80s and ‘90s. One constant is their mutual dislike that’s always evident during aggressive contests even when there’s little at stake. There’s always pride. And when current players don’t have a flavor for the animosity, fans who’ve worn the jersey their entire lives will remind them. “I learned about [the rivalry] when I was getting ready to sign here,” former Redskins safety Dashon Goldson said in 2015. “Somebody told me, ‘I don’t care how many games y’all win, as long as y’all beat the Cowboys.’ At that point, I knew it was serious.”
Geoff Burke-USA TODAY SportsGeoff Burke
Denver Broncos vs. New England Patriots
Although the franchises have played since 1960, this is a budding new rivalry and represents the only non-divisional grudge appearing here. It owes its place to three people/things: Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and AFC dominance. Since 1996, the Patriots and Broncos have combined to win 11 of 20 AFC Championships. When Manning left Indianapolis for Mile High, he took the Manning-Brady drama with him. That’s gone now but the Broncos and Patriots have battled in the AFC Championship Game in two of the past three seasons and both teams (3-0 apiece) appear positioned for perhaps another date in this season's playoffs.
But first, they will meet in Week 15 at Mile High. A bit of cross-pollination has added some spice to the Patriots-Broncos spectacle, particularly when Brady favorite Wes Welker ended up in Denver after he couldn’t agree to terms with New England; also wunderkind Josh McDaniels left New England to become the Broncos head coach in 2009, which didn’t last long (Tebow-mania burned bright but fast) and now he’s back in New England as the offensive coordinator.
Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY SportsKevin Jairaj
New York Giants vs. Philadelphia Eagles
As a Giants fan who went to college in Philadelphia, I can tell you it is not smart or safe to wear a Giants jersey in the City of Brotherly Love. Fans on both sides are passionate and knowledgeable and often inebriated, and it can get heated in the stands as well as on the field.
There’s so much history to this rivalry (the 1978 “Miracle at the Meadowlands,” Jason Sehorn’s miraculous 32-yard pick-six in the 2001 Divisional Round game among others) and the teams keep adding new chapters including the “Matt Dodge Incident” -- alternatively known as DeSean Jackson’s walk-off punt return touchdown in a stunning Eagles comeback in December 2010. Since 2000, Philly has had the edge with a 22-13 record against Big Blue, however, fans of the other three NFC East teams are quick to remind the Eagles that they each have at least three Lombardi trophies and the Eagles have zero. Of course, the future has arrived in Philadelphia with future Hall of Fame quarterback Carson Wentz, still undefeated as an NFL starter.
USA TODAY Sports
Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Baltimore Ravens
This one may have temporarily taken a back seat to the Steelers-Bengals’ venom (more on that) but the flame of contempt still burns. "It's just pure hatred – just like two old-fashioned bullies meeting in an alley," former Steelers receiver (and crack blocker) Hines Ward told USA Today in 2015. "I tried to tell young guys, 'When it’s Baltimore week, you tend to stay in the weight room longer because it's going to be a hard-fought, physical battle.”
Terrell Suggs feels the same way. "It's the best rivalry in football," he said. "Hatred is a very strong word, but it seems fitting. But there's a lot of respect going there. Because the two teams are so similar." They were quite similar for a while: highly physical, intimidating, defensive juggernauts who did enough on offense. That’s changed with Pittsburgh’s transformation into an offensive locomotive but regardless of their composition, awesome talents and great personalities like Ward, Troy Polamalu, Suggs and Ray Lewis, have made this an incredibly fun rivalry to watch. And it’s been evenly contested, too. After 44 meetings, the Steelers lead 24 wins to 20.
Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY SportsTommy Gilligan
New England Patriots vs. New York Jets
There have been so many incredible flashpoints in this rivalry it’s hard to find a place to start. Let’s start with the dawn of the Bill Belichick era in New England which began after he resigned as “HC of the NYJ” in 2000. Since Belichick took over in New England, the Pats have dominated the series with a 23-11 record but Gang Green almost always shows up and delivers a punch. Blood boiled when former Belichick disciple Eric Mangini, after becoming the Jets head coach, started the inquiry into New England’s videotaping practices that became known as “Spygate” in 2007. Later, ex-Jets head coach Rex Ryan dialed up the temperature in 2009, declaring, “I never came here to kiss Bill Belichick’s rings.” Rex got some revenge in January 2011 when the Jets pulled off a 28-21 upset at Gillette Stadium in the Divisional Round.
Also a lot of Jets and Patriots players have swapped sidelines, including Hall of Fame running back Curtis Martin -- who became a Jets legend after three seasons in New England, and more recently Darrelle Revis (before he came back to the Jets amid tampering chargers). Recently Danny Woodhead wrote in the Players Tribune about his NFL journey that he thought the Patriots only signed him to pump him for information. Finally, the Patriots-Jets produced the Butt Fumble on Thanksgiving. And most of us should be thankful for that.
Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY SportsGreg M. Cooper
Cincinnati Bengals vs. Pittsburgh Steelers
This one is so beautiful and so ugly. It turned from a chippy AFC North battle into a full-fledged rivalry when Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis came to Cincinnati in 2003. In 2005, the resurgent Bengals met the Steelers in the AFC Wild Card game when Steelers lineman (and former Bengal) Kimo von Oelhoffen tackled Bengals QB Carson Palmer low -- and Palmer got twisted and tore his ACL. The hit came on Palmer’s first and only attempt -- a 66-yard bomb to Chris Henry. The game remains a bitter memory for Bengals fans as the Steelers went on to win the Super Bowl.
The ensuing 10 years saw heated battles, a lot of Steeler wins, finally a Bengals season sweep in the 2009 season and come 2015, things started to get uglier, culminating in the AFC Wild Card penalty flag fiesta that saw some truly bizarre events: a personal foul on Steelers offensive line coach Mike Munchak for grabbing safety Reggie Nelson’s hair on the sideline, and later a personal foul on Bengals DB Adam Jones for making contact with an official when Steelers assistant coach Joey Porter entered the field of play. It was mayhem.
“I actually saw [the rivalry] really turn into what it's become last year” said former Bengals wideout Marvin Jones. "It was always heat of the game, but it never got too frisky and stuff like that. It was just always a good, ground-and-pound AFC North game. But after last year obviously it spiked up and I'm not going to say I didn't like it. ... It just made me feel like, 'Man, this is football. This is gritty and this is grimy.'"
It’s gritty and grimy and sometimes rivalries bring out the worst out in players but more often it brings out the best. The first Bengals-Steelers matchup of this season was relatively peaceful as far as those games go.