For some unknown reason I recently ventured beyond the regional limits of espnBoston.com to the world wide leader’s main site, where I then broke one of my personal cardinal rules: I started to read the comments after an article. The brief mind-numbing experience of the predominantly moronic and juvenile banter between fans of opposing teams made me wonder about rivalries, which led me to consider just which teams are the biggest rivals of the Patriots right now, heading into the 2011 season – as well as which rivalries are on the rise and which may be on the decline.
I could easily knock off a quick list, but to make it worth my while it should have some parameters. What exactly is it that makes up a good rivalry in sports, or more specifically, in the NFL? After careful deliberation (i.e., a few cold adult beverages), this is what I came up with. All the criteria are ideal but none are deal-breakers; however, missing two or more from this list really drops the rivalry down from strong to average or hibernation status.
Frequency of games: it’s decidedly easier for a rivalry to form if you meet annually than if you only play against each other once every four years.
Geographic proximity: not an absolute must (the Celtics – Lakers is a good example of an exemption to this dictum), but it certainly adds fuel to the fire when it is easy for fans of a team to follow them on the road.
Meetings have substantial effect on outcome of season standings: the importance of the outcome of a game becomes enhanced when it proceeds from bragging rights over who won the game to bragging right over who won the division, conference or league. Both teams are above average to title-contenders at same time: consider Duke versus North Carolina; their football rivalry is miniscule in comparison to their basketball rivalry. The only difference is that they are average to below average college football teams, but elite college basketball teams.
Lack of one-sidedness, either in individual games or lifetime records versus one another: similar to above, it’s much better to be equals, even if it means both are mediocre at the same time, then for one to dominate for a decade and then the other dominate for a decade. One team dominating the entire history may cause some hatred and jealousy on one side, but each will tend to find another peer as their main rival.
Long history of competing against each other, preferably at a high level: rivalries don’t materialize overnight. No matter how riveting, it takes more than one game or one season for a true rivalry to emerge.
Being rivals in other areas such as having teams from the same cities in other sports; economic rivals, etc. The New York – Boston dynamic is a notable example of this concept. The Jets-Pats piggybacks onto the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry; many people in Boston work for companies headquartered in New York (and some New Yorkers work for Boston based companies as well); New Yorkers talk about how everything is bigger and better in the city that never sleeps; New Englanders point to the nation’s best seafood, hospitals and colleges – where so many New Yorkers go to get their education.Someone on opposing club that can unite fans in their wrath be it for real or imagined wrongdoings. Just like every good book or movie needs an evil villain, so does a good rivalry. The action doesn’t even have to be that egregious, as long as it is enough to unite the fans and justify their contempt for the opponent.
New York Jets This one should be obvious, but let’s look at all the factors. The Jets are the closest NFL team to the Patriots; their recent games determine the outcome of the AFC East; both are championship caliber playoff teams; the all-time series record is 52-51-1 and neither has swept the season series in three years; they’ve met twice a year every year for 51 years (okay, only once in the strike-shortened season); the same fans root for the Red Sox/Bruins/Celtics and the Yankees/Rangers/Knicks; and there are many New Yorkers living and working in Boston and visa versa.
And that’s without even getting into the specific personalities or everything from Parcells leaving Foxboro for NY, signing Curtis Martin, Belichick doing the reverse, Eric Mangini leaving to become head coach of the Jets, spygate, or whatever nonsense comes out of the mouths of Rex Ryan, Bart Scott or Antonio Cromartie.
In actuality you can go all the way back to when the Patriots were on the doorstep of playing for an AFL championship, with the winner of that game going on to play in something that would later become known as Super Bowl I. Unfortunately a 5-6-2 Jets team forced three turnovers, the Pats lost by 10, and they were on their way to a ten-year tailspin. Oh yeah, they tied the Jets earlier in that year too; if they had won that earlier game they still would have advanced in the playoffs.
Number one was undisputed; number two and three were a close call:
When the two leagues merged the Colts were one of three NFL teams to move over to the AFC, and they ended up in the same division as the Patriots. Both teams have been the best in the league in the last decade, ironically after being two of the worst teams at the same time in the early nineties. They have met at least once every year since 1970, including three playoff battles in the last decade. The Pats lead the series 45-29 but despite last year’s win over Indy, the Colts have still won five of the last seven meetings. There are some other factors too; for example, Bill Polian used his position on the competition committee to alter the illegal contact rule after the Colts lost to the Patriots in the 2003 conference championship; many felt he did that to help the Colts and hurt the Patriots based on their styles of play. Then there’s Polian caught saying “break his (Doug Flutie’s) leg”, apparently upset that the Patriots were trying to run one last play in a blowout win by the Colts, and stating “there’s one set of rules for (Belichick) and one for everybody else” because BB bought some time during a change of personnel by throwing a challenge flag for the previous play. And of course there is the whole pumped-in noise debate, as well as Tony Dungy’s outspoken criticism of Belichick regarding spygate during the 2007 season.
But the wild card in this rivalry is the Tom Brady – Peyton Manning debate. That generates enough additional interest between these two teams that the game is annually scheduled during ratings sweeps so the networks can generate additional revenue. Google Brady Manning and you get over 9 million results. This discussion is enough for me to place the Colts ahead of the Steelers.
Pittsburgh Steelers The Patriots and Steelers have met eight times in the last decade, including two memorable AFC Championship Games. Past (Joey Porter) and present (James Harrison) Steelers and their fans talk (or should I say whine) far more than the Colts do – though that’s somewhat offset by some Colt’s – Pats controversy with GM Bill Polian. Although the Steelers lead the overall series 14-11 most of those wins were either ancient history – the Pats have won seven of the last nine – and none were more meaningful than those two AFCCGs.
After the Steelers and Colts there’s another big divide before the next three teams:
Miami Dolphins The Miami Dolphins and New England Patriots have played each other every year since 1966, a total of 91 times, with the Dolphins leading the series 50-41. Although it seems like it’s been a long time since both were up at the same time – 2001 was the last season both made the playoffs in the same year – the two have, for the most part battled each other well even when one was good and the other not so much.
Besides being a division rival, where seeing each other so often can create some animosity, there is a lot of history between the two. In 2007 former Dolphins were openly rooting for the Patriots to lose a game, wanting to maintain their claim on being the last NFL team to go undefeated throughout a whole season. Then early the next season Miami, coming off a 1-15 year, unveiled a never-seen-before Wildcat game plan, befuddling the Patriots defense. On the other hand you have the Pats ending an 18-game losing streak at Miami to win the AFCCG in 1985, and ending a decade of Miami dominating the AFC East in the “Squish the Fish” game. And of course no recounting of the Dolphins – Patriots rivalry would not be complete without mentioning Mark Henderson and the Snowplow game, Nick Saban purchasing enhanced audio of the Patriots audibles, or the worst trade in the history of the Patriots franchise.
San Diego Chargers The Patriots and Chargers are both original AFL franchises and they have met six times since 2005, including twice in the playoffs. Even though Mr. Classy is no longer in SoCal, the legacy that he and Mr. Lights Out remains enough to rank this as one of the Pats biggest rivalries. Add purported fan violence in San Diego that goes unabated with the Chargers being one of the NFL’s more successful franchises in the last decade – no losing seasons and five playoff appearances since 2004, averaging eleven wins per season during that time – and although they are physically as far away as any NFL team, the Chargers are certainly one of the Pats biggest rivals.
Baltimore Ravens This one is pretty straightforward. One: the Ravens talk a lot – especially after a loss. Two: the two teams are among the best in the AFC; the Ravens have made the playoffs in four of the last five years and seven times since 2000, when they won the Super Bowl. Three: the Ravens knocked the Patriots out of the playoffs in January of 2010.
The biggest thing that keeps Baltimore from being ranked higher is the lack of history: there have been only seven meetings, with the Pats leading 6-1. However, despite the mutual admiration between Bill Belichick and Ozzie Newsome, Terrell Suggs does have the personality to single-handedly catapult this rivalry much higher at a moment’s notice.
Oakland Raiders Jack Tatum. Darryl Stingley. Ben Dreith. The Tuck Rule. Mike Haynes in their uniform, playing really well. Randy Moss in our uniform, playing really well. Al Davis using a 1970-era overhead projector, implying the Pats tampered with Moss. The Richard Seymour trade. The Derrick Burgess trade.
To this day Patriot fans feel the Raiders robbed them of Super Bowl they surely would have won in 1976. And to this day Raider fans feel the same way about the Patriots and the 2001 season, going so far as to believe they would have had the success in the last decade the Patriots had if they had won that game, rather than seven straight seasons with eleven or more losses.
If the Raiders can continue to rebuild – they won more than five games last year for the first time since they lost to Tampa Bay in the 2002 Super Bowl last year – this rivalry could quickly pick up steam. However, with Al still at the helm and what appears to be a bad cap situation, don’t assume that will happen this year.
Denver Broncos There’s a playoff history between these two original AFL teams, and soul crushing losses to John Elway. But with Josh McDaniels and Mike Shanahan gone it’s not quite the same – especially when we’re talking about a team that hasn’t made the playoffs since 2005. Perhaps Shannon Sharpe should call the National Guard on their behalf.
New York Giants There is a valid reason there’s a lack of NFC teams on this list; it’s because they only meet once every four years, and that’s not nearly often enough to have a good rivalry. However, I’ll make an exception for the Giants. First, there’s the Game That Shall Not Be Mentioned. Second, there’s the whole New York-Boston rivalry, from college kids in Back Bay to people employed here with a company that has corporate headquarters in Manhattan. But the biggest reason may be remnants from a half-century ago, when the Giants were being broadcast in New England as the area’s “local” NFL/NFC team, a leftover from pre-AFL and early AFL years. That created a continental divide at the time, mostly along Generation Gap terms of that era: younger people supported the Pats while their parents still watched Y.A. Tittle and the rest of a then-declining Giants franchise.
Boston Red Sox Yes it’s not an NFL franchise, but to this day there is still a rivalry between the Sox and the Pats. When the franchise first formed Tom Yawkey refused to permit the Patriots to play at Fenway even though their annual attendance was less than a million. They finally relented, but after the Impossible Dream year in 1967, the Sox once again looked down on the Pats, refusing to let them play any home games in Fenway till their season was over. The result was starting the season with five straight road games, and having to play one “home” game in Birmingham. More recently there has been much discussion about the role of the media in sports coverage and who owns what, but regardless there does seem to be a bit of animosity between Sox fans and Pats fans.
Kansas City Chiefs There is a familiarity factor with Scott Pioli and Matt Cassel being at Arrowhead Stadium, but there’s no animosity between the two clubs. Another problem with this rivalry is that over the last twenty years both teams have rarely been good at the same time. In the early ‘90’s the Chiefs were perennial contenders while the Pats were not; then once the Pats improved Kansas City missed the playoffs five straight years; the two have been in the playoffs in the same year just three times since 1998 and amazingly have never met in the playoffs.
Buffalo Bills It is rather odd that in a four-team division another team would rank this low among rivals, but that’s what happens when one club has only one winning season and zero playoff appearances in eleven years while the other hasn’t had a losing record since 2000. Similar to Kansas City, the Bills and Pats historically are never good at the same time; the only time they simultaneously made the playoffs was in 1998, 1996, and in their only playoff meeting in 1963. The other thing is that the results have been lopsided; the Pats have won 15 in a row and 20 of the last 21 against Buffalo, with the lone loss being the infamous “They Hate Their Coach” game.
Philadelphia Eagles Owners Robert Kraft and Jeffrey Lurie are close; the Pats beat the Eagles in Super Bowl 39; the city is relatively close; but mostly it is due to remnants of Senator Comcast’s witch-hunt during and following the 2007 season.
Clevland Browns The treatment Bill Belichick got from the media and fans when he coached there, and the fact many fans there still despise Belichick is about the only factor. This one would rank higher if Eric Mangini still coached there.
St. Louis Rams This one won’t go away thanks primarily to whatever biases come out of Marshall Faulk’s mouth whenever he speaks.
Green Bay Packers Aside from their being the defending champions, many people are interested in the Packers because they want to revisit whether or not the Pats should have drafted Clay Matthews.
Washington Redskins Redskins fans, along with one of their sports writers seem to still be overly preoccupied with spygate to this day. Maybe it’s a residual effect from that 52-7 beating the Redskins suffered the last time these two met.
Dallas Cowboys The Cowboys and Patriots both have large fan bases, and both have lots of opposing fans that hate their teams. Jerry Jones and Robert Kraft are two of the NFL’s most visible and influential owners.
Chicago Bears A lot of old time Patriot fans still have a sore spot for the arrogance displayed by the 1985 Bears, ranging from Mike Ditka using Refrigerator Perry as a goal line running back rather than Walter Payton, to recording the Super Bowl Shuffle before the game was played.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers The last few years the rivalry between Tampa and Boston sports teams has started to take hold due primarily to the Rays finally getting better (and beating the Red Sox for the American League pennant in 2008), as well as the Bruins and Lightning having a great NHL playoff series this past year. However the Pats and Bucs have met a mere seven times in 36 years. If Jon Gruden were still coach I’d place this rivalry higher.
Atlanta Falcons There is the Thomas Dimitroff connection, and QB Matt Ryan played at Boston College.
Tennessee Titans With Jeff Fischer no longer on the sidelines applauding one of his players for taking a cheap shot at Rodney Harrison or maneuvering behind the scenes on the competition committee, there’s little reason to get excited about this rivalry.
Minnesota Vikings Same situation: once Brad Childress was fired, Randy Moss cut, and Brett Favre retired the amount of interest in this team dropped.
New Orleans Saints Saints-Pats, Brady-Brees and Belichick-Payton comparisons are about all there is.
Seattle Seahawks Other than the Pete Carrol connection, what else is there to talk about with this team?
Jacksonville Jaguars Despite the two teams having met four times in the playoffs since 1997, there just doesn’t seem to be much of any rivalry here.
Carolina Panthers The only reason the Panthers rank this high is because of Super Bowl 38; the two have met just four other times.
Arizona Cardinals They do play in the stadium of the Game That Shall Not Be Mentioned. Plus one of the Patriot’s all-time free agent busts, Monty Beisel, actually turned around and did okay out there.
Houston Texans Is it okay to hate them for having poor field conditions that led to Wes Welker’s knee injury?
Cincinnati Bengals There is no longer the TO-Moss side story, so now we can just mock them for having one of the NFL’s most poorly run organizations.
San Francisco 49ers Other than fans getting overly excited about Montana – Brady comparisons, or a 49ers of the 80’s versus Patriots of the 2000’s debate, I’m totally ambivalent to this franchise.
Detroit Lions The two head coaches are friends; the Lions have no unlikable players; they meet just once every four years; and Detroit has not been a playoff contender for ages. Maybe Leigh Bodden has some negative feelings about the Fords, but there is simply no rivalry here at all, nor has there ever been.
There’s my ranking of Patriots rivalries, from 1 to 33. What teams are too high, what teams are too low in your opinion? Let me know your thoughts on the subject.