Fierce NFL rivalries are woven deep into the fabric of NFL lore. Sports historians immediately recognize images of Bart Starr plunging across the goal-line against the Cowboys in the Ice Bowl; Franco Harris corralling the Immaculate Reception before outracing the Raiders secondary to pay-dirt; Deion Sanders switching sides to man-up and jaw against Michael Irvin and Jerry Rice; and Ray Lewis welcoming rookie Rashard Mendenhall to the NFL with a jarring hit to end his season. While there’s often a mutual respect buried beneath the animosity of these NFL rivalries, there’s no sugarcoating it: At the end of the day these rival teams are going after the same prize, and the road to the Super Bowl almost always runs right through your most hated opponent.
3. Minnesota Vikings vs. Green Bay Packers
Vikings versus Packers is the football expression of the larger regional NFL rivalries, where two similar states in close proximity to one another can still feel as if they are worlds apart. Minnesota and Wisconsin share a 291-mile border, German-Scandinavian culture, rustic Northwoods, and bitterly cold winters, but statewide debates will rage on forever concerning which one has the better schools, scenery, economy, hunting season, beer, dairy products, and even lakes.
On the gridiron, the Packers have grown into one of the more revered organizations in all of sports, from humble beginnings as a local football club to 11 NFL championships and four Super Bowls, dating back to 1929. Meanwhile, the Vikings are arguably the most tortured franchise in the NFL, after making multiple trips deep into the postseason, only to self-destruct almost every time (The Vikings did win the NFL Championship in 1969). For many, this rivalry peaked back in 2009, when Brett Favre signed on with Minnesota, after 16 years in Green Bay as the ultimate Iron Man and gunslinger.
In typical Minnesota fashion, however, the 2009 Vikings went 12-4, before collapsing down the stretch and losing the NFC Championship Game 31-28, in overtime, to the New Orleans Saints. Today, Aaron Rodgers, Clay Matthews, and Adrian Peterson are a few of the lone holdovers who remain from the time when Brett Favre returned to Green Bay wearing purple and gold, only to be met with a resounding chorus of boos.
In the future, the NFC North title will largely come down to Peterson’s churning legs versus Rodger’s quick release, especially with Teddy Bridgewater blowing out his knee in a preseason practice. In 2012, Peterson closed out his MVP and 2000-yard regular season by rumbling for 199 yards against the Pack through the final game of the year. The 2012 Vikings backed into the playoffs with a wild card berth, only to lose to Green Bay on the road the following week.
2. Seattle Seahawks vs. Arizona Cardinals
The Seahawks have made five consecutive trips to the playoffs, with back-to-back appearances in the Super Bowl during this span. The 2013 Seahawks rolled to a 43-8 beat down over the Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII. For the following season, Seattle was on the march and at the goal-line, before the coaching staff inexplicably signaled in a quick slant and Russell Wilson threw a pick to hand-deliver Tom Brady his fourth Super Bowl title. Throughout this run, the Seahawks have largely managed to outlast both the San Francisco 49ers and Arizona Cardinals.
Seattle rightfully earns the benefit of the doubt, as a team that generally starts off slowly before rounding into form by midseason and then blowing the doors off the competition through the final stretch run into the playoffs. Compared to Seattle, Arizona is often dismissed as a finesse team that racks up stats and rolls early on through the regular season, only to get popped in the mouth and fall apart come January, when the games really matter. Last year, Seattle went on the road for the final game of the season and spanked the Cards 36-6, right before the start of the playoffs. Three weeks later, Arizona found itself on the wrong end of a 49-15 NFC Championship blowout in Carolina.
In terms of talent, Seattle and Arizona are eerily similar, as if their two respective front offices were fully committed to a player personnel arms race against each other. Firstly, both secondaries are loaded with perennial Pro Bowlers featuring players like Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas, Kam Chancellor, Patrick Peterson, and Tyrann Mathieu. Next, Arizona went out and traded for Chandler Jones, so that the Cards may also pressure the quarterback with four down linemen, like Seattle. At quarterback, Carson Palmer is one of the best pure passers in the game, while Russell Wilson represents the future: a dual threat who can tuck the ball down and take off out of the pocket at any time. That said, there are no moral victories — only rings really matter.
1. Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Cincinnati Bengals
The Pittsburgh Steelers, with their six Lombardi trophies are the model franchise of the NFL. The Rooney family prides itself on stability. Consider their decades-long relationship with coaches like Chuck Noll, Bill Cowher, and Mike Tomlin. Pittsburgh football will always remain synonymous with physical toughness, smart quarterback play, and above all else, Steel Curtain defense. Alternatively, Cincinnati is little removed from the Bungles Era, when the team was most notable for draft busts, perennial losing, extensive rap sheets, and embarrassed fans wearing paper bags to Riverfront Stadium.
For years, Pittsburgh beat up upon and humiliated both Ohio teams like they were runts ill-equipped to play real, big-time football. Ben Roethlisberger, from Findlay, Ohio, has gone 37-9 against Cleveland and Cincinnati, and did not take his first NFL loss in the Buckeye State until his sixth year in the league. Against this backdrop, Pittsburgh versus Cincinnati is a classic power struggle between the haves and the have-nots within the hinterlands.
The Bengals, actually made the playoffs through five consecutive seasons (ending this year), and overtook Baltimore as Pittsburgh’s main rival out of the AFC North. For Cincinnati, the complete reversal in culture has arisen largely due to the smart draft day moves out of team executives, pinpoint passing accuracy of Andy Dalton, and aggressive defensive schemes of Marvin Lewis.
It was back in 2015 when Pittsburgh right tackle Marcus Gilbert went so far as to demand another meeting with the Bengals in the playoffs, “where they choke.” Gilbert ultimately got his wish, with the Steelers setting up for a game-winning field goal in Cincinnati, after slogging through one concussion to Antonio Brown, drunken fans throwing batteries onto the field of play, repeated cheap shots between players and coaches, eight personal fouls, and roughly $85,000 in fines for both teams. The hate is real.