On Sunday afternoon, we will be treated to another battle between the Patriots and Colts. Bob Kravitz of the Indianapolis Star does a breakdown of the rivalry games this decade. The Patriots and Colts have combined for 6 of the AFC Super Bowl appearances in the last decade, and often played each other on the way. These games have rarely failed to disappoint.
In honor of this game, I’m going to rank the greatest conference rivalries. Unlike divisional rivalries (whiched I ranked here) that last, and are usually driven by familiarity, often close proximity, and generation after generation of disdain, the conference rivalries are driven by two great teams emerging at the same time, and often getting in each other’s way. You don’t generally see them coming, and they don’t often have geography in common. I doubt anyone would have guessed Colts-Patriots back in 1998.
To rank the conference rivalries, I looked for periods where two franchises played each other frequently while both were playoff teams, and gave bonuses for the concentration of games, number of playoff matchups, and memorable games. I include some games before the Super Bowl era between teams from different divisions, even though these weren’t technically “conference” games. Without further ado, here are the best short-term conference rivalries:
12. Cleveland Browns versus Denver Broncos (1986-1989). This one makes the cut entirely on the strength of the two memorable championship games: The Drive and The Fumble. These teams met in the championship game in three different seasons, with Denver winning each.
11. San Francisco 49ers versus Green Bay Packers (1995-1998). The Packers owned the 49ers during this stretch, beating them in the playoffs three straight years, and winning five games total. The 49ers got a measure of revenge on the late touchdown to Terrell Owens from Steve Young in 1998.
10. Buffalo Bills versus San Diego Chargers (1963-1965). The Chargers traded away Jack Kemp earlier in the decade, and then Kemp got his revenge in two straight AFL championship games. These teams met 8 times over a three year span when both made the playoffs, with the Bills going 4-3-1. They won the two that mattered most, though.
9. Dallas Cowboys versus Cleveland Browns (1967-1969). These teams met in both the regular season and then in the Eastern Conference finals each of three straight years. Dallas won the first meeting, but the Browns upset the Cowboys twice in 1968 and 1969, making Dallas “next season’s champions.”
8. Washington Redskins versus Chicago Bears (1940-1943). These teams met five times in four seasons, including three times in the NFL Championship Game. In the first, the Redskins had defeated the Bears in the regular season, but Chicago got revenge, slightly, in the championship, winning 73-0. Two years later, the two-time defending champion Bears rolled through the league, going a perfect 11-0, but Washington pulled the major upset in the title game, 14-6.
7. Minnesota Vikings and Los Angeles Rams (1973-1978). The Vikings and Rams played 9 times, splitting it evenly, 4-4-1. However, the Rams continually failed on playoff trips to cold Minnesota, going only 1-3 against the Vikings in the playoffs.
6. Detroit Lions versus Cleveland Browns (1952-1957). Once upon a time, these two franchises were the center of the football universe. The Browns dominated the NFL after leaving the All-American Football Conference, but the Lions were their kryptonite. These two teams met in four different championship games during this stretch, with Detroit winning three. The last one, in 1957, came when the Browns had a rookie named Jim Brown, and the Lions had lost Bobby Layne to injury, but Detroit rolled to a stunning 59-14 behind Tobin Rote.
5. Dallas Cowboys versus Los Angeles Rams (1973-1980). These two met 11 times in a season when both made the playoffs over an 8 year period. The Rams owned the regular season 4-2, but the Cowboys went 4-1 in the playoffs. Los Angeles got its only revenge with arguably its worst team during this stretch, as the 1979 Rams (9-7) pulled off the upset on the road at Cowboys Stadium on the way to an improbable Super Bowl appearance with backup Vince Ferragamo.
4. San Francisco 49ers versus New York Giants (1984-1990). The Giants were the one team that consistently went toe to toe with the 49ers in the late 80′s. Jim Burt knocked out Joe Montana in a 1986 playoff game that the Giants won 49-3. In 1990, the 49ers beat the Giants in a regular season matchup of 10-1 teams (both lost the week before or it could have been 11-0), but then the Giants pulled the upset in Candlestick 15-13 in the NFC Championship. NY went 3-1 against San Francisco during this span in the playoffs, accounting for 3 of the 4 losses by San Francisco in the playoffs during this time.
3. Indianapolis Colts versus New England Patriots (2003-present). Brady versus Manning. The cold weather conference championship game where Polian complained about the Patriots’ contact with receivers. The huge comeback by the Colts in the 2006 Championship Game, and last year, fourth down. What’s next?
2. San Francisco 49ers versus Dallas Cowboys (1992-1996). These teams met 7 times in five years, including three straight championship games that were the de facto Super Bowl. The Cowboys won the first two, but just when everyone was writing off Steve Young as being unable to win the big one, the 49ers beat the Cowboys to win the Super Bowl in 1994.
1. Oakland Raiders versus Pittsburgh Steelers (1972-1977). I’m not sure two franchises ever hated each other as much as these two did during the seventies. In 1972, Pittsburgh knocked Oakland out of the playoffs with the Immaculate Reception. In both 1974 and 1975, the Steelers beat the Raiders in the AFC Championship game on the way to Super Bowl victories. In 1976, Oakland beat Pittsburgh twice, including in the championship game to advance to, and win, their only Super Bowl under John Madden.
[photo via Getty]