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The Best Divisional Rivalries on the Field

The Cleveland Browns and Pittsburgh Steelers meet this week in another edition of this bitter rivalry between teams separated by a little more than 100 miles.  It is generally thought of as one of the league’s best rivalries, but we have rarely seen these two franchises excel during the same period of time, as recently the Steelers have been one of the best teams, while the Browns have struggled, while before 1970, it was Pittsburgh who were perennial doormats while the Browns were royalty.  I’m going to try to assess how this and other division rivalries rank when we look at what happened in the games.

I’m going to go back to 1960, which is a good starting point for the modern NFL.  Only 12 NFL teams were in existence before 1960, and that year saw the birth of the AFL, along with the start of the Dallas Cowboys.  A year later, the Minnesota Vikings joined the NFL, and during that decade, the AFL added Miami and Cincinnati while the NFL added Atlanta and New Orleans.  Almost half of the NFL teams can trace their origins to that decade, and the current AFC West and AFC East and NFC North rivalries have all been ongoing since then (the NFC East would have joined them as continuous rivals except for that crazy Century and Capitol period).  

I’m going to rate the rivalries by three measures.  First, how many victories by one of the rivals occurred when the opponent would end the year with a winning record?  This should capture both upsets in the series as well as good games when both teams were above average.  Second, how many good games have we had where it was decided by 7 points or less?  Finally, I looked at how many great comebacks have occurred in the series, as measured by wins when trailing by 7 or more entering the fourth quarter.  You’ll get no vague hatred meter here, as I’m pretty sure all rivals do not like each other.  No, these top ten rivalry rankings are the sum of good teams, upset wins, close games, and comebacks (In my arbitrary rankings, “good wins” over a team with a winning record are multiplied by two, and then close games and big comebacks are added).

1.  Dallas Cowboys versus Washington Redskins, 157 points (51 good wins, 49 close games, 6 big comebacks).

 Not a geographic rivalry, but one born of bitterness in the early 1970’s and fueled by teams fighting for titles in the early 1980’s, this series has seen more upsets and contests between good teams than any other.  In 1972, the Over the Hill Gang knocked off the defending champion Cowboys in the NFC Championship game to go to their first Super Bowl.  Two years later, Clint Longley came off the bench for an injured Staubach and rallied the Cowboys past the Redskins on Thanksgiving day.  In 1979, the teams entered the final week tied at 10-5.  Washington scored 17 points to start the fourth quarter and took a 34-21 lead, but Dallas scored 2 late touchdowns to win it, claiming the #1 seed while Washington was eliminated from the postseason. The 1982 conference championship game, 1983 showdown on the Monday night opener, and later, the week 15 game for conference supremacy.  The only win for Dallas in 1989.  The 1999 comeback by Troy Aikman, and the Redskins comeback on Monday night in 2005 with Santana Moss.  There are just too many good games to recount, and it is the clear #1 when it comes to on the field drama.

2.  Green Bay Packers versus Minnesota Vikings, 134 points (43 good wins, 43 close games, 5 big comebacks).

When a team that finishes with a losing record wins two years in a row on the road against their close rival, when trailing by 7 in the fourth quarter, you know it’s a good rivalry.  It’s a great one when the team they beat won the Super Bowl both years, like Green Bay did in both 1966 and 1967, despite losing at home to Minnesota both seasons.  While Chicago versus Green Bay is the older rivalry, this is the North division rivalry that has delivered the goods on the field more often than not.

3.  Kansas City Chiefs versus Oakland Raiders, 132 points (39 good wins, 49 close games, 5 big comebacks).

This rivalry may have lost its luster a little bit with both teams struggling of late, but it was the premier rivalry of the AFL, and these teams genuinely hated each other.  The Raiders knocked the Chiefs out of the postseason in 1968, and the Chiefs returned the favor in the AFL title game in 1969.  In a 1970 game, Ben Davidson speared Len Dawson, which caused Otis Taylor to retaliate and get called for a penalty.  That put Oakland in field goal range to tie the game late, and that was the difference between KC going home and the Raiders going to the playoffs.

4.  Kansas City Chiefs versus San Diego Chargers, 128 points (38 good wins, 45 close games, 7 big comebacks)

These teams may not have the passionate rivalry of other series, but it is an underrated rivalry between the lines.  These teams were the class of the early AFL, with Sid Gillman facing Hank Stram, as the Chargers won 5 and the Chiefs won 2 division titles in the first seven years of the AFL.   Eight times since 1981, a team has lost a game in this series despite scoring 30 or more points. 

5t.  Philadelphia Eagles versus Washington Redskins, 126 points (31 good wins, 58 close games, 6 big comebacks).

These two teams are separated by about 100 miles, and have twice now made big trades of quarterbacks (Norm Snead for Sonny Jurgensen, and now Donovan McNabb).  It’s also the series with the most close games since 1960.  The most famous matchup may be the “Body Bag” game from 1990.

5t.  Miami Dolphins versus New England Patriots, 126 points (44 good wins, 33 close games, 5 big comebacks). 

How can you top the Snow Plow game

7t.  Cleveland Browns versus Pittsburgh Steelers, 122 points (40 good wins, 39 close games, 3 big comebacks)

These teams have only had 3 combined comebacks when trailing entering the fourth quarter by 7 or more, but two happened in consecutive years.  In 1979, the Steelers trailed the Browns by 2 touchdowns entering the fourth, but Franco Harris scored two touchdowns late in one of his best games as a pro (232 total yards and 3 touchdowns) as the Steelers won in overtime.  The following year, the Browns turned the trick in what would become the year of the Cardiac Kids, as Brian Sipe threw two fourth quarter touchdowns to rally Cleveland and get their magical season going.

7t.  Miami Dolphins versus New York Jets, 122 points (35 good wins, 42 close games, 10 big comebacks)

This AFC East rivalry has seen the most big comebacks, mostly from the Jets, including the Monday Night Miracle and the biggest passing performance from both teams in NFL history.  Oh, and you have the fake spike game too. 

9. New England Patriots versus New York Jets, 118 points (35 good wins, 45 close games, 3 big comebacks)

New York and Boston, so this rivalry brings all that entails.  Bill Parcells has coached both teams; Bill Belichick was hired to coach both teams.  The Patriots started their 1985 run to the Super Bowl with a road win over the Jets in the wildcard game. 

10.  Dallas Cowboys versus Philadelphia Eagles, 117 points (36 good wins, 37 close games, 8 comebacks)

The Cowboys owned this series in the early 1970’s, but the Eagles got revenge in the 1980 NFC Championship game, advancing to their first Super Bowl with a win over Dallas.  The Eagles and Cowboys also played some great games in the early 1990’s, and just last year, the Cowboys beat the Eagles in the playoffs for the three game sweep. 

[photo via Getty]

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