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Finding the Next Great NFL Rivalry

There’s a vacuum of interesting feuds in the NFL, but some teams may be about to change that

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

The NFL may be king of the national sports landscape, but right now, it can’t hold a candle to the NBA in one distinct category. For the third straight year, the Cavs and Warriors faced off in the NBA Finals, and during the course of that pitched battle, the two juggernaut squads have cemented their status as the best rivalry in American sports.

No rivalry in football comes close. Sure, the league still has a few historical feuds to lean on: The Bears-Packers battle dates back to 1921 with a storied history that features nearly 200 games, but that rivalry just doesn’t resonate on a national level at this point. Chicago has gone to the postseason just once in the past decade and is in rebuild mode, while Green Bay has enjoyed sustained success, with trips to the playoffs in nine of the past 10 seasons, and heads into 2017 as a favorite to win the division once again. The Vikings-Packers rivalry of old has suffered the same fate, and though Minnesota has gone to the playoffs four times in the past 10 years, the Vikings haven’t been able to mount a sustained challenge.

Meanwhile, due to San Francisco’s recent struggles, there’s not much left of the 49ers-Cowboys rivalry that spanned three decades from the 1970s to 1990s, the Giants-49ers feud in the ’80s and ’90s, or the short-lived but fierce Seahawks-49ers rivalry from 2011 to 2014. The great Colts-Patriots rivalry — an extension of the long line of great Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning matchups — fizzled out when Manning went to Denver, and the brief Broncos-Patriots back-and-forth that followed just hasn’t been the same since he retired. The Ravens-Steelers rivalry doesn’t have the same luster as the newer, more intense Steelers-Bengals feud (which wasn’t even that good, as Cincy finished 6–9–1), and parity in the AFC West has watered down some its traditional rivalries: Are the Broncos and Chiefs the division’s biggest rivals? Or is it the Raiders and Chiefs? Or Raiders and Broncos? Is any one of these matchups clearly more compelling than the rest? From this group, it’s tough to pick the game you have to watch — and if neutral NFL fans aren’t compelled to circle one of those matchups on their calendar, that rivalry needs some juice.

Even promising potential rivalries from the last few years have failed to produce. The Seahawks and Patriots aren’t rivals so much as they’re just two very good teams, and the Cowboys-Packers vendetta, despite the controversial Dez Bryant catch/no-catch and last season’s epic playoff battle, hasn’t taken off. And when Derek Carr got hurt late last year, any chance for the Raiders-and-someone to become the next big thing got put on the backburner. There aren’t any great rivalries in the NFL today.

But that could start to change this season. Looking through the schedule, there are a few games that possess all the ingredients for rivalry-sparking potential; they’ll all feature great quarterback duels or defensive grudge matches, plenty of star power, a little bit of bad blood, and great schematic battles on both sides of the ball. These games are where we begin our search for the NFL’s next transcendent rivalry.

Raiders-Titans

The best NFL rivalries center around a pair of gunslinger quarterbacks, and in Derek Carr and Marcus Mariota, Oakland and Tennessee have two of the most promising leaders of the next generation of superstar signal-callers. A Week 1 tilt between these two teams could be the beginning of the battle for the future of the AFC.

The groundwork is already set, and the Titans will be out for revenge for the last two times these teams met. The Raiders won both games, though each came down to the final play: In 2015 Mariota and Carr traded go-ahead, late-fourth-quarter touchdown passes before a Nate Allen interception of Mariota sealed the 24–21 Oakland victory. Then, in 2016, Mariota tried to tie the game as he threw a fourth-down pass into the end zone with 12 seconds on the clock, but the toss fell incomplete, giving Oakland a 17–10 win.

In addition to pitting two of the league’s most talented young passers against each other, it’s a matchup that features plenty of big personalities: In his return to the field for the first time since 2015, Marshawn Lynch gives Oakland superstar power and some leadership gravitas, in addition to a new element of physicality in the run game that it missed last year. Likewise, Titans running back DeMarco Murray remains a fiery emotional leader of the Titans offense, and along with Derrick Henry and a strong offensive line, he gives Tennessee an intimidating rushing attack that wears opponents down. There are some interesting matchups to watch for as well: On the outside, Raiders receivers Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree will go up against a revamped Titans secondary that includes big-ticket free-agent corner Logan Ryan and first-rounder Adoree’ Jackson. And in the trenches, Oakland pass rusher Khalil Mack will face off against All-Pro tackle Jack Conklin while two-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Jurrell Casey will face off against Oakland’s top pass-protecting group from last season.

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Both squads espouse toughness and competitiveness, thanks to their former players turned head coaches — Jack Del Rio in Oakland and Mike Mularkey in Tennessee — but they’re a portrait of contrasting styles. The Titans are a ground-and-pound team, but not one we’re accustomed to seeing in the NFL. They are enamored with heavy formations (they ran the second-most plays featuring three tight ends or more last year), and also utilize read-option looks with some trickeration to keep the offense from getting monotonous. The Raiders, on the other hand, feature a spread-’em-out air attack (they led the NFL in plays with four or more receivers) and, with Carr at the helm, have the ability to score on any play from anywhere on the field.

If both squads can continue on their upward trajectories, Week 1 might not be the only time we get to see them play this year; with some luck, they’ll meet again in the postseason.

Packers-Falcons

If a Raiders-Titans rivalry would feature two of the league’s most exciting up-and-coming passers, an ongoing Packers-Falcons feud would showcase two of its finest established superstars. Aaron Rodgers and Matt Ryan are among the Elite. The Best of the Best. When these two teams play, it’s like Top Gun for football.

Both quarterbacks put up MVP-caliber numbers in 2016, and Matt Ryan won the award after throwing for 4,944 yards (second) and 38 touchdowns (second) at 9.3 yards per attempt (first), with a 70 percent completion rate (third) for a 117.1 rating (first). Aaron Rodgers’s line was nearly as impressive: 4,428 yards (fourth), 40 touchdowns (first), 7.3 yards per attempt (14th), 65.7 percent completion rate (ninth), and a 104.2 rating (fourth). If high-octane precision passing attacks are your thing, these are two NFC teams to watch. When they face off, there’s never a shortage of jaw-dropping throws or unbelievable plays.

The Packers and Falcons squared off in Atlanta twice last year; their first matchup was one of the best games all season, a 33–32 barn-burner win for Atlanta that the Falcons locked up when Ryan hit Mohamed Sanu for a touchdown with 31 seconds remaining. The second was the NFC championship game, a 44–21 Atlanta blowout in which Ryan led the Falcons to a Super Bowl berth with a near-perfect performance, completing 27 of 38 passes for 392 yards and four touchdowns. Throughout the season Ryan and Rodgers captained two of the most versatile and explosive offenses in the league — both featuring playmaking downfield threats (Davante Adams and Jordy Nelson for Green Bay, with Julio Jones, Taylor Gabriel, and Sanu for Atlanta), versatile offensive weapons out of the backfield (Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman for the Falcons vs. Ty Montgomery and Randall Cobb for the Packers) — and both should be just as dangerous in 2017.

So circle Week 2 on your calendar, when Green Bay will get a third straight shot at beating the Falcons in Atlanta, and expect it to be a fun-filled, back-and-forth adventure. With any luck, they’ll face off in the playoffs again, and this budding rivalry can begin to blossom in the same way the Brady-Manning feud did at the beginning of the century.

Patriots-Steelers

We’re watching the beginning of the changing of the guard at the quarterback position in the AFC as Brady, Ben Roethlisberger, and Philip Rivers inch toward retirement age. But with Big Ben and Brady still manning talented and balanced teams, both squads pick up where they left off last season with a 36–17 Patriots win in the AFC championship game: as the two odds-on favorites to represent the conference in next season’s Super Bowl.

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Both teams feature a seemingly undefendable collection of offensive skill players: How do you line up and run with the trio of Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant, and Le’Veon Bell? Alternatively, good luck stopping any combination of Rob Gronkowski, Brandin Cooks, Julian Edelman, and the backfield mishmash of James White, Mike Gillislee, and Rex Burkhead. Luckily, both teams are defensively equipped to at least put up a fight against these loaded offenses, with fast and versatile defensive groups that make so many matchups worth looking forward to: Brown vs. Malcolm Butler, Bryant vs. new free-agent acquisition Stephon Gilmore, Bell vs. Dont’a Hightower, and any of New England’s backs vs. Ryan Shazier. Of course, the Steelers will be faced with the conundrum of defending Rob Gronkowski, so whether they look to Shazier, safeties Sean Davis and Mike Mitchell, or some combination in coverage, it’s an exciting chess match to watch.

Look, we know a Steelers-Patriots rivalry isn’t exactly a new and novel idea — Mike Tomlin called the Patriots “assholes” just this January, and Pittsburgh’s accused New England of cheating a few times over the years — but the stars haven’t aligned for the real feud to blossom. It’s been a little too lopsided to be considered a rivalry: New England is 10–3 against the Steelers in the Brady era. And the AFC championship tilt last season was the first time in the last decade that the two teams met in the postseason. Between their last playoff meeting in the 2004–05 playoffs and this season’s AFC title bout, the Steelers and Pats somehow combined for 10 AFC championship game appearances and seven Super Bowl appearances without running into each other in the playoffs. Plus, for most of the rest of the past 10 years, the Steelers have been too busy hating the Bengals and Ravens to pay New England too much individual attention (and likewise, the Patriots have been distracted by other major rivals like the Jets, Giants, Colts, Roger Goodell, and the league at large).

All that could change in 2017 as these two squads set their crosshairs squarely on one another. New England is still the team to beat in the conference, and right now Pittsburgh looks like its main challenger. Pittsburgh will get its first shot at Brady and Bill Belichick in Week 15, and don’t be surprised if the teams meet again in the playoffs. It’s not too late to turn this minor running quarrel into a proper rivalry during Brady and Roethlisberger’s twilight years.

Giants-Redskins

NFC East rivalries go way back — the Giants and Redskins’ mutual hatred dates back to 1932 — but the heyday of this particular grudge match came in the ’80s, when legendary head coaches Bill Parcells and Joe Gibbs were in charge. But in most of the rest of these two teams’ histories, other divisional feuds have superseded the Giants-Redskins strife: Traditionally, Washington’s archenemy has been the Cowboys, and for the Giants, it’s been a mix of the Eagles and Cowboys over the past few decades. All the right factors are in place for that to change this year, though, as an extra dose or two of bad blood between these two squads could jump-start what’s been a relatively dormant rivalry.

The foundation was laid when Odell Beckham Jr. and then-Panther Josh Norman began a feud in 2015, and it continued last season when Norman came to Washington. This year we’ll get animosity on both sides of the field, as the developing beef between Giants cornerback Janoris Jenkins and new Redskins receiver Terrelle Pryor takes shape. Plus, when you add in a dash of Brandon Marshall and a pinch of Kirk Cousins, you’ve got a great recipe for a little bit of drama.

It should also be a great matchup schematically. The Redskins built one of the best offenses in the league last season under Jay Gruden while the Giants put together one of the most talented defensive groups under Steve Spagnuolo. Washington has an underrated pass-protecting offensive line (third, per Football Outsiders’ adjusted sack rate) while New York has a great pass-rushing unit (sixth in pressure rate). Both offenses feature game-changing playmakers who can hit a home run on any given snap, and both defenses feature tough, punch-you-in-the-mouth personnel up front. Expect every matchup to be a knock-down, drag-out battle in the trenches that’s punctuated by a few explosive scoring plays downfield.

Both teams head into 2017 with playoff-caliber rosters, and Washington will be out for a little sweet revenge, as its postseason hopes were dashed last season with a Week 17 loss to the Giants. The Redskins will get their first crack at it starting in Week 12, and another Week 17 matchup seems sure to have playoff implications once again.

Seahawks-Cowboys

Ezekiel Elliott and Dak Prescott’s breakout performances last season ushered in a new era for Dallas’s offense, as both vied for MVP honors. But these Cowboys aren’t that different from the teams that won multiple Super Bowls in the ’90s: They’re talented and brash with a chip on their shoulder, and they come complete with a circuslike atmosphere.

So what better team to rival Dallas for NFC supremacy than the talented, brash, chip-on-their-shoulder-carrying Seattle squad, complete with its own traveling circus?

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

The Seahawks and Cowboys didn’t meet each other in the regular or postseason last year (more’s the pity), but their preseason matchup in Seattle not only ultimately ended Tony Romo’s career, but foreshadowed the rise of Zeke and Dak in Dallas. Prescott calmly stepped in against most of Seattle’s first-team defense and played with incredible poise. Prescott handed off to Elliott on a pair of his first few runs as a pro (the former Buckeye made his preseason debut that week), and the future NFL rushing champion announced his arrival in the NFL with a forceful run against Kam Chancellor. The two sides jawed at each other angrily, tensions flared; Prescott capped off his second drive with a touchdown pass to Jason Witten over the outstretched hands of K.J. Wright. It was a sign of what was to come for the Cowboys, and it was the only preseason game I’ve ever seen that had a playoff atmosphere.

Imagine a game that matters between these squads. It will feature two of the premier teams in the NFC, and beyond all the parallels — from their never-ending supply of big personalities, their shared affection for smashmouth football, or the fact they’re both led by former midround wunderkind quarterbacks — there are great schematic matchups everywhere on the field. The NFL needs Round 2 of the Chancellor-Elliott bout — the Seahawks’ big-hitting safety said afterward that “if it was a full game, it would have been a bloodbath.” But past that individual battle, the Cowboys lean hard on a dominant run game, and the Seahawks are one of the few teams in the league equipped with the requisite ability to stymie it: Seattle’s finished in the top three in Football Outsiders’ defensive run DVOA in each of the past three seasons, and there’s little reason to believe the team will falter in that area in 2017. There are few corner-receiver battles as compelling as Richard Sherman matched up one-on-one with Dez Bryant on the outside, and who wouldn’t love to see All-Pro linebacker Sean Lee, who’s overcome injuries to his knees, neck, and toe, line up in coverage on four-time Pro Bowl tight end Jimmy Graham, who bucked the odds to return after tearing a patellar tendon.

These two teams meet in Dallas during Week 16 for a Christmas Eve game that’s sure to have playoff implications, and it wouldn’t be all that surprising if they have a rematch in the postseason. This season could signal the start of a beautiful rivalry.