There’s no bigger week in sports than the one in which your team plays its most-hated, bitter rival. Every city has one — that one team that fans and players just love to hate. Sometimes, this match-up is a critical game, one that decides the fate of the entire season. But even for teams that perennially enjoy a losing record, there’s no such thing as too much preparation for those two weeks a year when they’ve got the chance to run their sworn enemy into the ground.
These games are often the most important, no matter what’s at stake for the season.
There are bitter NFL rivalries that transcend fanbases. Onlookers do not have a dog in the fight, but we’re watching because we know it’s going to be a good game. These are the grudge matches we tune in to watch year after year, because we know true colors will be shown.
8. Detroit Lions vs. Green Bay Packers
This is the longest-running rivalry in the NFL, and it’s one you’ll likely catch on Thanksgiving every other year or so. The Lions and Packers have been division rivals since 1933, which means they’ve been butting heads for over 85 years. Games between these two teams are known for wild endings, most notably the Miracle in Motown. Packers QB Aaron Rodgers sustained a facemask penalty at the end of the game, prompting a single untimed play. Rodgers threw a 61-yard Hail Mary pass for a touchdown, giving the Packers a 27-23 win.
7. Philadelphia Eagles vs. Washington Redskins
This one’s nearly as old as the Packers-Lions rivalry, but it’s known for more than just unbelievable endings. Play between the Eagles and Redskins has been known to get particularly brutal. This was on full display during a 1990 Monday Night Football game, since dubbed “The Body Bag Game” after nine Redskins players were taken out of the game with injuries. The ‘Skins got the last laugh that season, though. They came back to the same arena and beat the Eagles in the wildcard round of the playoffs, eventually making it all the way to Super Bowl XXV. They lost, but those Redskins came back the next season to win it all in Super Bowl XXVI.
These days, the two teams are in the NFC East and get to battle it out twice a year, The competition between Philadelphia and DC even bleeds in to the NHL, where there’s a bitter rivalry between the Flyers and the Capitals.
The tip that led to a Super Bowl win and cost Jim Harbaugh his job.
6. Seattle Seahawks vs. San Francisco 49ers
Anyone who thinks the NFL has an east coast bias has never watched the Seahawks and 49ers go at it. If you didn’t get the picture from Seattle fans who burned Richard Sherman’s jersey after he moved to San Fran, know the hatred burns just as bright. These teams have only been divisional rivals since 2002, but that doesn’t mean the hatred is young. The rivalry only got more intense when west coast college coaches, Stanford’s Jim Harbaugh and USC’s Pete Carroll, were elevated to command the two teams.
Seattle beat San Francisco in the 2013 NFC Championship, ending the 49ers streak in the game, and went on to win Super Bowl XLVIII. Seattle has won every meeting since January, 2014.
5. New England Patriots vs. Anyone
Is there any one player more loved and hated at the same time than Tom Brady? Is there any player who’s more reliable than Rob Gronkowski? Any coach more frustratingly brilliant than Bill Belichick? Do all these facts just make most of America and the cities of New York, Buffalo, and Miami hate the Patriots more and more?
Love them or hate them, the Patriots are always a contender for the Playoffs, the Super Bowl, and will at least finish with a winning season. For teams outside of their division, this means they’re going to have to play the Pats at some point — and they need to bring their A-Game to Foxborough. In the running for greatest franchises of all time, the Steelers, Cowboys, and 49ers all feel the pressure. Even the 1972 Dolphins get a sense of relief when the Patriots lose.
4. Oakland Raiders vs. Kansas City Chiefs
This one is particularly bitter, featuring long stretches of dominating victories for either team. The 70s and 80s were Raiders decades while the Chiefs have had much more success over Oakland ever since. Even the fans in the stands get carried away during this game, as heated fans routinely get into fistfights and brawls. One Raiders fan even sued the Chiefs organization for allowing him to receive a beatdown while security did nothing.
This meeting of these teams has kept one of ’em out of the playoffs on more than one occasion, snapped winning streaks, snapped terrible losing streaks, and kept Kansas City out of the postseason entirely between 1971 and 1986.NFL: Dallas Cowboys at New York Giants
3. Dallas Cowboys vs. New York Giants
America’s team had to make the list at some point. The Cowboys and Giants are two of the most storied franchises in the NFL and both have large fanbases. The NFC East rivalry isn’t as old as the Packers-Lions rivalry and isn’t as violent as the Chiefs-Raiders rivalry, you can see a lot of legendary NFL names in action by watching old Cowboys-Giants games.
It’s a pretty even rivalry, with Dallas ahead at 65-46-2, but what this game is usually good for is a watching a close finish and tough on-field play. Where else could you watch Cowboys legend Emmitt Smith beat the Big Blue while breaking rushing records with a separated shoulder? Or watch the underdog Eli Manning-led Giants knock the Cowboys out of the playoffs after losing to Dallas twice in the regular season, only to go on and win Super Bowl XLII? Or how about just watching the two teams straight-up fistfight?
2. Green Bay Packers vs. Chicago Bears
Sports hatred burns brightly between Green Bay and Chicago. It also features some of football history’s greatest names while showcasing some of its greatest games. This series is always good for showing off real, hard-hitting football and the 200-game series is nearly tied at 97-94-6 in favor of Green Bay. The Bears-Packers rivalry is also famous for featuring the first players ever ejected from an NFL game.
It was the Bears who handed Brett Favre the first shutout in his career and broke Aaron Rodgers’ collarbone. It was the Packers who put horse manure in the 1985 Bears locker room.
1. Pittsburgh Steelers vs. the AFC North
If you’re looking for an intense football matchup, look no further than when the Steelers play one of their AFC North division rivals. It doesn’t matter what an opponent’s record is, the Steelers are a force to be reckoned with. But the football gets brutal when playing against Cleveland, Baltimore, and especially Cincinnati. The Steelers are ahead in total wins against each.
The Browns bring their best football to Pittsburgh. Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger can pretty much be described as a tank, especially as far as quarterbacks go, and it takes either a motorcycle accident or a meeting with the Browns defense to keep him from starting a game. Despite the Browns’ struggles for the last few years, Pittsburgh is still at a disadvantage in Cleveland, and the Browns have more home wins vs. the Steelers.
Until recently, the Ravens-Steelers game was a particularly intense matchup, with each team’s hard-hitting defense smothering the normally high-flying offenses of the other, and each able to keep the other at home during the post-season.
When the Steelers play the Bengals, things get violent and dramatic. Long-held frustrations with the other rear their ugly heads. No matter where the game is held, you can pretty much expect overzealous play, a flurry of yellow flags, helmet-to-helmet hits, and sometimes even bench-clearing fights. Even the coaches are guilty of putting hands on each other.
When asked about why there’s so much violence between the Bengals and Steelers, QB Ben Roethlisberger’s answer was “that’s AFC North Football.”