The Bills have a 4-28 record against the Patriots since 2000, so the two teams are not “rivals” in the traditional sense of two opponents engaging in closely contested games. But it’s that underdog, “David vs. Goliath” mentality that gets Bills fans fired up for every meeting with the Patriots and puts New England at the top of Buffalo’s list of current rivals. Before Tom Brady was the most hated athlete in Buffalo, the Dolphins held the distinction as the Bills’ top rivals, especially during Miami’s 20-game winning streak over the Bills in the 1970s.
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The Dolphins have chased the Patriots for the past 15 years in the AFC East. That makes New England the biggest rival for Miami. The Dolphins have had some success lately, including splitting the season series the past three seasons. The Dolphins also were the only team other than the Patriots to win the division since 2003. I can’t see how any AFC East team doesn’t view the Patriots as its biggest rival.
New England Patriots
After what has unfolded since the AFC Championship Game following the 2014 regular season, it seems fitting to say the Patriots’ biggest rival is the NFL. After all, when is the last time a team filed an amicus brief in court against the league? But if forced to pick a team as the biggest rival, let’s go Colts. It comes back to that whole Deflategate thing, as well as the games they’ve often played having the highest stakes.
New York Jets
Easy: the Patriots. Even though the Jets have long rivalries with the Bills and Dolphins, their No. 1 nemesis is New England. Hate sells, and the two teams have a long history of acrimony involving off-the-field disputes. Remember Spygate? That occurred nine years ago, leaving permanent scars. From 2009-14, Rex Ryan fueled the rivalry with his outrageous comments. It seems like every Jets-Patriots game has a soap opera-like subplot.
The Steelers. Were you honestly thinking it could be another team? Cornerback Jimmy Smith said last season that there might be a bigger rivalry with the Bengals because the Ravens have had a more difficult time beating them. I just think that was a backhanded shot at how Baltimore has owned Pittsburgh lately. This rivalry doesn’t have the reported bounties or near fights outside the team bus anymore, but it’s still defined by some of the hardest hits of the season. “It just gets my blood flowing and goose bumps running down the back of my neck,” receiver Steve Smith said of the grudge matches with the Steelers. “It’s just one of those games that — man, it’s what football is all about.”
In the Bengals’ case, is this question really worth asking? Without a shadow of a doubt, Cincinnati’s biggest rival is Pittsburgh. I mean, this rivalry has had it all: key injuries on both sides, a major player’s suspension, pregame trash talk at the 50, assistant coaches being fined, playoff drama, costly late turnovers, questionable hits that have led to tweaks in league rule interpretations, and hate-fueled social media banter between players on both teams. Oh, and all of that has happened in the past year alone. Maybe the bad-luck Bengals are still, relatively speaking, “little brother” to the bullish Steelers. But make no mistake, no pairing in football has as much vitriol as this one.
It’s hard to say the Browns have any rivals given they’ve lost 91 games since 2008. The team also changes players and coaches so often few have a grasp of the history of any rivalry for the Browns. For fans, though, there is only one: Pittsburgh. The Steelers have been despised in Cleveland for decades, and there are still some fans who are OK with the team going 2-14 if the two wins are over Pittsburgh.
Is it possible the Steelers’ fiercest rival isn’t actually their biggest? The Steelers have serious hatred for the Bengals, but they have more respect for the Ravens. Pittsburgh believes it has a psychological advantage over the playoff-allergic Bengals. The Ravens, meanwhile, got the Steelers twice last season, and they can match Pittsburgh in recent Super Bowls (both have two championships since 2000). “That’s more important than the theatrics,” Pittsburgh wide receiver Markus Wheaton said about Baltimore getting the advantage. Another year of vicious hits and Vontaze Burfict flavor could elevate the Bengals-Steelers to the AFC North’s strongest rivalry. It’s not there yet. In fact, some Steelers players say the Ravens games are just as physical as those against Cincinnati.
This has to be the Colts. Last season the Texans finally got their first win in Indianapolis. While the rivalry has been lopsided in Indianapolis, Houston has won its share of battles in Texas. One of these teams has won the division in each of the past seven years — though the Texans usually need the benefit of a down year for the Colts. Indianapolis is still the gold standard in the AFC South and the Texans’ biggest rival.
Patriots. Peyton Manning vs. Tom Brady. Tony Dungy vs. Bill Belichick. The road to the Super Bowl often went through New England during the 2000s for the Colts. The same remains true today for quarterback Andrew Luck and coach Chuck Pagano, as they’re 0-5, including two playoff losses, against Brady and Belichick.
It’s hard to have rivalries when you’ve been one of the worst teams in the NFL for several years, but if the Jaguars do have a rival, it’s Tennessee. The Jaguars have won just 12 total games over the past three seasons, but three have come against the Titans. Both teams are fighting to stay out of the division cellar, both have young, promising quarterbacks, and both have coaches who may not be around much longer if victories don’t start rolling in. Plus, the fans are still smarting from 1999. The Titans beat the Jaguars three times that season, including in Jacksonville in the AFC title game. At the Super Bowl, Titans coach Jeff Fisher joked that Alltel Stadium (now EverBank Field) was like a second home.
The Colts. Indianapolis has regularly been atop the AFC South and is the team the Titans feel is their prime target. That some fans in Tennessee maintained an affinity for Peyton Manning’s team when he got to the NFL added a layer to the rivalry. The Titans have lost nine consecutive games to the Colts and 14 of the past 15. In the 1999 season, Tennessee won a playoff game at the RCA Dome on its way to the Super Bowl. The teams didn’t play again for two seasons until realignment in 2002. The Colts are 22-6 against the Titans since.
The Broncos have plenty of zest in their annual AFC West games, especially with the Chiefs and Raiders these days. But in the past eight seasons, especially in Peyton Manning’s time with the Broncos, the team that stirred the blood of the fan base the most was the Patriots. Perhaps because the schedule had fallen so that the Patriots have looked strangely like a division opponent. Since the start of the 2008 season, the Broncos have faced the Patriots 10 times, including three playoff games, and two of those postseason games were for the AFC championship. It will be intriguing to see how it all plays out in the post-Peyton era, but people will have to wait only until Dec. 18 to find out, because the Patriots are, yes, on the Broncos’ schedule once again.
Kansas City Chiefs
There can be no bigger rival for the Chiefs than the team that has won the AFC West the past five seasons and is the defending Super Bowl champion. The Broncos are the Chiefs’ biggest rival, having beaten Kansas City eight of the past 10 meetings, and will be at least until the Chiefs or another team knocks Denver from the top of the division.
Here’s the unique thing about the Raiders, even as they have not had a winning record since 2002: Every divisional foe they face circles the calendar as “Raiders Week.” These things happen when you have shared a division/league with the Broncos, Chiefs and Chargers since the dawn of the AFL in 1960. But for the purposes of this exercise, let’s say it’s the “Donkeys,” as Raiders fans are wont to say, given that they are the defending Super Bowl champs and the Raiders handed them their most recent home loss and have plans on taking the division title away from them. Yes, for the first time in 14 years.
San Diego Chargers
Former San Diego center Nick Hardwick simply referred to it as “Raiders Week.” “You’re just there to punch the guy in front of you,” Hardwick said about competing against the Chargers’ longtime AFC West rival. Although the Chargers have dominated of late, winning 14 of the past 20 contests, most games have been competitive — eight of the past 10 matchups have been decided by eight points or fewer. Last season the Raiders swept the Chargers for the first time since 2010.
From the fans’ perspective, I think it remains the Redskins. From the players’ perspective, it changes. Several players who were asked could not pick just one team, but there seems to be more satisfaction in beating the Giants. Maybe it’s because the Giants twice knocked (2007) or kept (2011) the Cowboys from the playoffs and won a Super Bowl those years. Because Washington won the division last season, it would be No. 2, followed by the Eagles.
New York Giants
NFC East rivals are tricky to assess because they’re all so intense. Five or six years ago, you’d have said the Giants’ biggest rival was the Eagles, who came back to beat them in the DeSean Jackson punt return game in 2010 and then fell short in their disappointing “Dream Team” year of 2011 while the Giants won the Super Bowl. But the Eagles have left the Giants in the dust lately, winning five of six against them the past three years and most rather easily. At this point, I’d say the Giants’ biggest rival is the Cowboys. Even though Dallas has dominated them the past few years as well, the past seven games between these teams have been decided by an average of 4.86 points. Dallas keeps coming back at the end to break the Giants’ hearts, and the rivalry deepens as a result.
The answer to this is often different for Eagles fans and Eagles players. For fans, the answer is always the Cowboys. This goes back to the 1970s, when the Eagles were dreadful and the Cowboys were strutting around as “America’s Team.” The Eagles and Cowboys duked it out for the NFC East title in 2013 and 2014, making the Cowboys a big rival for the current players as well as their fans.
It has been for a long time and remains so now: the Cowboys. While players might not treat this game differently than those against the Giants or Eagles, the fans certainly let them know Dallas is the biggest game on the schedule. Therefore, Dallas Week is big for fans. Gone are the days of trash-talking coaches (George Allen) or wreath-tossing victors (Harvey Martin), but Redskins owner Dan Snyder loves beating his good friend Jerry Jones. It would be bigger nationally if this stat were different: The teams have made the playoffs in the same season only once (2007) since 2000.
The Packers have caused the Bears enough misery to last a lifetime. The Packers have won 10 of the past 12 meetings between the two clubs, including the 2010 NFC Championship Game at Soldier Field on their way to winning Super Bowl XLV. Even though Chicago, thanks to a late defensive stand, pulled off an upset at Lambeau Field last Thanksgiving, the road to the NFC North title still goes through Green Bay and quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Until the Bears close the gap in the division, Green Bay is the top rival, for obvious reasons.
The Packers have been the dominant team in the NFC North for the past decade or so and the organization has tormented Detroit over the years, from last year’s Hail Mary to a crushing Brett Favre-to-Sterling Sharpe touchdown with 55 seconds left to beat the Lions in the playoffs. Then there’s the Lions’ 24-game losing streak in Wisconsin that was snapped last season and even a recent social media kerfuffle that ended with the Packers besting the Lions. Again.
Green Bay Packers
The Vikings donned “Beat Green Bay” T-shirts before their first meeting last season, but there were no new shirts handed out at Lambeau Field during Vikings Week. In fact, coach Mike McCarthy views all three division opponents as the Packers’ biggest rivals. Whether it’s the Bears, Lions or Vikings, he will always post a motivational saying in the locker room. However, if you ask those around McCarthy, they might tell you the Bears stir up a little something extra. After all, it was just last summer when he said he planned to “kick Chicago’s ass” just before the two teams met in the season opener. He may have said it in jest at a chamber of conference luncheon, but there surely was something behind it.
It’s possible there are three teams in the NFC North that would list the Packers as their answer. That’s certainly the case for the Vikings, who last year became the first team since 2010 to topple the Packers in the NFC North. The rivalry probably burned at its hottest back in 2009 and 2010, when Brett Favre was playing for the Vikings and facing his former understudy (Aaron Rodgers), but the temperature is picking up again, after the Vikings broke out “Beat Green Bay” T-shirts last November — and actually beat the Packers in a Week 17 showdown for the NFC North title. When the Vikings asked the NFL for a big-time opponent to open U.S. Bank Stadium, they had only one team in mind: the Packers. — Ben Goessling
Although the Panthers have owned the NFC South as of late, the Saints continue to be the Falcons’ most bitter rival. The Falcons lead the all-time series 49-45 but dropped both games last season. And the Saints hold a 15-5 advantage in the series since 2006. Falcons and Saints fans love to go back and forth and invade enemy territory. The 2016 season’s first meeting, a Week 3 Thursday night clash, will have a little added significance with it being the 10th anniversary of the Saints’ return to the Superdome after Hurricane Katrina.
One could argue it’s Seattle with the regular-season and playoff games these teams have played the past four seasons. But it’s Atlanta. It began in 1995 with the first game in Carolina history. Atlanta won a 23-20 overtime thriller. It continued last season with the Falcons spoiling Carolina’s bid at a perfect season at 14-0 with a 20-13 victory in the Georgia Dome. These teams have been in the same division and played each other twice a year since Carolina entered the league, and the rivalry’s not going to end.
New Orleans Saints
The Saints’ biggest rival has always been the Falcons, based on geography and history. They have played in the same divisions since 1970. They’ve stolen players from each other (see: Bobby Hebert, who went from New Orleans to Atlanta and then back to New Orleans). They’ve loaded up on trash talk (see: Roddy White). And the fans love to hate each other. But lately, you’d have to throw the Carolina Panthers in there for every team in the NFC South, because they’ve suddenly had a stranglehold on the division with three straight titles. Before that, no NFC South team had ever gone back-to-back since the division was created in 2002.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Watching Warren Sapp and Brett Favre go at it in the old NFC Central days was pure theater … just riveting to watch. After the Bucs moved to the NFC South, the Saints were a pain in the neck. The Eagles were, too, in the playoffs. Now? It’s tough to pinpoint because of how much Tampa has struggled, but sweeping the Falcons was huge for the Bucs last season, and that series is almost dead even, with the Bucs up 23-22.
It may not be reciprocated, but the Cardinals’ biggest rival is the Seahawks. Since Seattle drafted Russell Wilson in 2012, the Cardinals’ path to the NFC West title has gone through the Pacific Northwest. It has been fueled the past couple of years by Marshawn Lynch’s crotch grab on an incredible touchdown run in Arizona, and by the 2014 public battle between Patrick Peterson and Richard Sherman over who is the best cornerback in the league. Even though the Cardinals are 3-5 against Seattle since the 2012 season and 2-4 under coach Bruce Arians, the Seahawks are still the Cards’ biggest rival because both look at the other as a roadblock en route to the Super Bowl.
Los Angeles Rams
In a very traditional sense, the 49ers will always be the Rams’ top rival simply because it’s a rivalry that goes back so far and the Northern California vs. Southern California dynamic is now back in play. But a strong case can be made that the Seahawks have supplanted the Niners in the eyes of the Rams — at least for the time being. Since coach Jeff Fisher took over in 2012, the Rams and Seahawks have split their eight matchups, with six of those contests ending with one-score differentials. Adding to it are some of the incidents we’ve seen involving Rams punter Johnny Hekker, Seahawks defensive linemen Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril, the Rams’ penchant for special-teams trickery against Seattle and the accompanying exchange of words that have gone along with all of that. The meetings between these teams have become must-see TV.
San Francisco 49ers
In their glory days, the Niners would face the Cowboys seemingly every year for the NFC title. But in their most recent, ahem, daze, the 49ers have been on the losing end on both the scoreboard and in smack talk against their newest, well, biggest rivals … the Seahawks, who have won seven of the past eight meetings, including the NFC title game in January 2014. Richard Sherman and Russell Wilson chowing down on turkey on the Levi’s Stadium field following Seattle’s 19-3 Thanksgiving night victory in 2014 sent a message, while Niners CEO Jed York’s tweet apologizing to faithful fans for his team’s showing in that game was the proverbial salt in the 49ers’ wound. And isn’t that what rivalries are all about? — Paul Gutierrez
The NFC West is a two-team race, and the Seahawks’ biggest rival going into 2016 is the Arizona Cardinals. Since Bruce Arians arrived in 2013, Arizona has won 34 games, while the Seahawks have won 35. The Cardinals were NFC West champs in 2015, but Seattle took the division the previous two seasons. The Seahawks-49ers rivalry was great, but San Francisco no longer has a competitive team. The best rivalries exist when both teams are strong, and the Seahawks and Cardinals are among a handful of Super Bowl favorites in the NFC.
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