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9 Biggest NFL Rivalries of All Time

By Jennifer Hassan in NFL
| September 13, 2020 2:52 am PDT
The 9 Biggest NFL Rivalries of All Time

You have to be tough to play in the NFL. Tough and a sucker for punishment. Tough, a sucker for punishment, and a man that needs to blow off some steam once in a while. And by “once in a while,” I mean, “frequently.”

This is how player-to-player issues get started, and then teams get involved, and before you know it- McDonald’s is sponsoring one side, and Burger King the other. Nike versus Reebok. Biggie and Tupac. Where does it end?

It doesn’t end, NFL fans hope. We thrive on combative teams and all of the hype surrounding these most famous of long-term hatreds. Let’s take a look at the biggest NFL rivalries of all time.

Chiefs vs. Raiders

This rivalry is not like the “conscious uncoupling” of Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin. The hatred between Kansas City and Oakland/LA/Oakland/Las Vegas goes much deeper than that. It’s less of a river and more of a sewer.

It all began when I was knee-high to a bartender. This was way back before the Chiefs were in Kansas City, and before they were called the Chiefs, even.

No, they were the Dallas Texans at that time, and a more raw-boned, untamed bunch of malnourished youngsters you never did see (unless you watch Olympic gymnastics).

Pistols and Pirates, Six Shooters and Swagger

The Texans thought they were rootin’-tootin’ hero material. Practically wore their pistols out onto the field (they were stopped from doing so by the armed stadium guard, who pointed to all of the armed fans in the stands and told the players, “Give me your guns, boys. Can’t have them going off by accident. This is Texas! Guns are meant to go off on purpose!”) and such.  

The Raiders simply anchored their square-rigged galleon just off the coastline and used their spyglasses to survey the Dallas Texans with disdain.

It was not an auspicious beginning. It got worse when the Texans beat Oakland in Oakland, and the Raiders turned right around and humiliated Dallas in Dallas.

Fists clenched. Eyes bulged. Moustaches quivered with shame and fury. And that was just the women!

After the move to Kansas City, the Chiefs and the Raiders met in post-season playoffs to see who would go to Super Bowl III to play the Packers. The score was a very painful 41-6, in favor of the Raiders.

When the Raiders lost that Super Bowl to the Packers, I can only imagine the victory celebrations that took place in Kansas City.

Fast forward to 2008, and the Raiders keep defeating Kansas City right there, in Kansas City. Hometown humiliation.

In 2017, Marshawn Lynch was kicked off the field after a fight broke out between the two teams. And the saga continues.

49ers vs. Cowboys

This rivalry didn’t start with a bang. The animosity took 20 years to come to a head. Like a marriage, it started with, “Do you have to breathe so loud?” And got to the point of “Where are my bullets?”

The Cowboys typically defeated the 49ers in the post-season. Dallas began to assume that every Cowboys-49ers game was in the bag.

Did the Cowboys get cocky, let things slide? Or was it just time for things to turn around, to restore the natural order of balance and equity? Whatever it was, things turned on their head, hard and fast.

Be Careful. You Might Catch Something!

In 1982, “The Catch” happened. This pass was so stunning that it is still remembered by diehard fans today. It was the NFL Championship Game. Joe Montana had just pushed an 83-yard drive down the gridiron. Montana pitched the ball—hard—in attempt to give his team a slim chance at victory.

His man Dwight Clark was there to catch it. The 49ers not only took the win, but they went on to dominate the NFL for the next decade, while the Cowboys lost steam and struggled through season after season.

It didn’t help matters that both teams made it to the post-season championship game to face each other. In 1992, ’93, and ’94, both Dallas and San Francisco made it to the conference championships.

For each of those three years, the contest was bitter. And whoever won the game in that three-year period went to the Super Bowl and ended up winning that, too.

Raiders vs. Steelers

This rivalry has its own Wikipedia page. That tells you something. Both teams are in the AFC, so they have to look at each other’s ugly mugs on a regular basis. Like divorced parents meeting at the parent-teacher conference.

So, it’s 1972. The Raiders are playing the Steelers. The Raiders were looking good, feeling confident. Then the Immaculate Reception happened, and the Steelers took the win and engendered a vicious resentment that lasts to this day.

The Catch That Shall Not Be Named

Because the Immaculate Reception is still talked about (in fact, it was voted best play in NFL history!), the Raiders continue to seethe. It’s like going to a school that has grades K-12; you never get a chance to start out fresh. You peed your pants in third grade, and it will live with you forever.

In the ‘80s and ‘90s, not much happened. In fact, the Raiders never played a game in Pittsburgh in either of those decades. In the 2000s, the Raiders floundered, while the Steelers thrived under QB Roethlisberger. Not helpful. Not helpful at all.

Then there was the whole weird Antonio Brown thing, in which Antonio Brown was weirdly traded to Oakland and then let go because Brown is just. Plain. Weird.

Antonio Brown’s reaction to the whole traded, fired, hired, fired again, and not re-hired thing was to change his hair. I mean, that’s what you do after a break-up, right? Anyhoo, Pittsburgh doesn’t like the Raiders. Let’s see how things go down when the pirates light things up in Sin City.

Buccaneers vs. Dolphins

When two big-name teams both exist in the same state, people are going to take sides. And since those fans all live among each other, the situation can heat up really fast.

Such is the rivalry between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Miami Dolphins.

The teams are not in the same conference, and so they don’t play regular season games more than once every few years. But there is the pre-season, and that’s when things get het’ up.

In fact, the preseason games between these two teams can sell out a stadium. That’s impressive, when clubs often struggle to sell seats at regular season games.

Neighbors Argue Over Fence. No One Wins.

In the 1980s, the owners of both teams were involved in a quarrel. Thus, the teams were mostly kept away from each other like kids held hostage in a bitter divorce settlement (although they did manage to play each other twice in the decade).

They did meet in 1982, when the Dolphins were expected to kick Buc butt. As so often happens, the outcome was precisely the opposite of what was expected. The Bucs decimated the Dolphins. But in 1985, Dan Marino led the Dolphins to a win over the Bucs. So the teams were even, and ready for more.

Things have gone back and forth in the intervening years, but the in-state rivalry still exists, and Florida is proud of its wild and contentious football situation.

Raiders vs. Broncos

For a very long time—nearly two decades, in fact—it seemed like the Raiders could just not lose to the Broncos. In match-up after match-up, whenever the two teams appeared on the gridiron together, the piratical team would take the victory. It was easy, too easy.

A fury was building within the bosoms of Denver players and fans alike, a great and mighty thirst for revenge. “Someday,” they would mutter under their breath, shaking fists in the direction of Oakland (and now Las Vegas), “someday,” they would repeat, somewhat inarticulately, leaving the threat menacingly open-ended.

Ha!

The Raiders laughed. “Ha!” they said. “Ha and Ha!” Until the late 1970s when a great atmospheric shift occurred in the world.

Night became day, cold became hot, and the Denver Broncos finally won an important game against the gol-danged Raiders. An era was over. RIP, derisive laughter!

That may have been decades ago, but football rivalries are like DMV lines…long and tough and grueling and by God, you are going to stick it out! Even if you forgot what you came for.

“This is what our family of fans just does,” a Bronco fan may think. “It is how we feel. I saw a man driving a silver and black Acura the other day, and I did not meet his eye. I looked away, I tell you!”

Saints vs. Rams

This is a rivalry within the conference. The New Orleans Saints had originally played within the NFC West conference. Then the NFC West underwent structural changes, and the New Orleans team plays in the NFC South conference.

At any rate, the Saints aren’t very saintly when the Rams are involved.

These two teams were at the bottom of the NFL barrel many times over the decades, and often both were down in the lower rankings at the same time. You would think that the two kids who were the most bullied on the playground would become friends, but it doesn’t seem to work out that way. It certainly didn’t between these two teams, and a slow-burn disgruntlement was born.

Then, in 2018, the two teams met at the NFC championship game. The Rams officially won, but only because of a VERY controversial pass interference call issue. This lent fuel to a small flame and quickly turned it into a wildfire.

Chargers vs. Broncos

Two rampant animals—a mountain ram and a wild bucking mustang—face each other in the American West. Which hardscrabble animal will be the victor in a battle to the death? Who will win control of the high desert? Who will move to temperate and charming San Diego?

These two teams have been in the same division, the AFC West, for more than 50 years. Too much proximity to each other has led to a frenemy situation.

In 2003, the teams wore the same white uniform to a game, and Denver had to pay a fine of $25,000. In 2007, there was a verbal altercation between the two teams’ quarterbacks. The next year, a ref inaccurately called a dead ball.

These seem like small issues, but enough of them over the decades can lead to a lot of friction, as has been the case between Denver and San Diego.

Broncos vs. Chiefs

You kind of wonder how Denver has any time to even play football, what with all of these rivalries they stir up. And Colorado is such a peaceable, mild-mannered state. It’s not…you know…Jersey.

So where is all of this friction coming from? Is it because when Elway was at the helm, the Broncos benefited from an intimidation factor? The way the Patriots had with Brady?

Perhaps it’s because there isn’t much to do in Denver when you are indoors, except sit in an easy chair, order Chinese food, and stew over past football humiliations. The combination of vinegar, soy sauce, and rage can do unnatural things to the body.

A Rivalry Is Born: Patriots vs. Buccaneers

(I am rubbing my hands together gleefully, even as I attempt to use those selfsame hands to type this article.) When Belichick cut his favorite child Tom Brady from the team in 2019 because Brady had “aged out of the system,” Belichick may have unleashed a tornado. A hurricane. Opened a big ol’ can of whoop-ass.

It’s just possible that Brady will lead the Bucs to dominance over the Pats.

Time will tell. I can’t wait.

In Conclusion

Football players get pummeled. Being pummeled leads to anger and finger pointing (even though it’s in the job description). Anger leads to long-term hatred. Hatred begets rivalries. Rivalries sell tickets, which strengthens the NFL. The NFL hires football players. Football players get pummeled…

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