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Wednesday, October 31, 2007
Ranking the NFL's best rivalries: Where does Colts-Pats fit?

By Jeffri Chadiha
ESPN.com

It's hard to imagine a regular-season game that could generate more hype than Sunday's matchup between the New England Patriots and Indianapolis Colts. This has everything you want in a rivalry, including history, talent and an understanding that they ultimately have to go through one another to claim a championship.

In fact, the game is so eagerly anticipated that it got us thinking: How does it measure up against some of the hottest rivalries in NFL history?

Rank The Rivalries

Where would you rank Pats-Colts among these five NFL rivalries? SportsNation lets you rank 'em.

More on great NFL rivalries
• Feud talk: First-person accounts
• Luksa: 'Boys-'Skins was nasty

Now before you start forming your own opinions on this subject, let's establish some ground rules. First, we're going to stick to a specific time frame so we don't have to consider every rivalry in the history of pro football; we'll talk only about rivalries that started after the NFL-AFL merger in 1970. Second, we need rivalries that involve two championship-caliber teams playing in meaningful games, which is why Pats-Colts has become so huge.

This will explain why the usual suspects -- Bears-Packers, Giants-Eagles, Browns-Steelers, 49ers-Rams -- aren't on this list. Simply put, those teams played too many games against each other in the past 37 years that nobody cared about outside of their local areas.

So with all that in mind, here are the best five pro football rivalries since 1970:

1. Cowboys-Redskins (1970-83)

Cowboys-Redskins (1970-83)

Games played: 29
Cowboys wins: 16
Redskins wins: 13
Playoff games:
1972 NFC Champ. (Was, 26-3)
1982 NFC Champ. (Was, 31-17)
Overall series (since 1960):
Cowboys lead, 55-37-2

How big was this rivalry? American Express even made a commercial tied to it. A Redskins-Cowboys game not only fired up the most laid-back fans of both teams, it also captured the attention of the rest of the NFL during its heyday. After all, you're talking about two marquee franchises and a rivalry that dates all the way back to when former Redskins owner George Preston Marshall opposed the proposal of an expansion team in Texas in the late 1950s. Marshall eventually backed down -- with the Cowboys finally entering the league in 1960 -- but these teams were destined to despise each other ever since.

There actually is so much history between Dallas and Washington that it's hard to pin down a time frame that stands above all others. However, these 13 years will suffice. There were great coaches (Tom Landry for Dallas, George Allen and Joe Gibbs for Washington). Great players and interesting personalities (including Roger Staubach, Tony Dorsett, John Riggins and Joe Theismann). And above all else, great moments from two teams that combined to win three Super Bowls during this time.

Take the 1974 Thanksgiving game that featured Clint Longley, an obscure backup quarterback, leading Dallas to a 24-23 comeback win. Five years later, the man Longley replaced on that day, Roger Staubach, led the Cowboys back from a 13-point deficit in a regular-season victory that knocked the Redskins out of the playoffs. Of course, Washington has its favorite memories, as well, including blowout victories in the 1972 and 1982 NFC Championship Games. That's what made this series so compelling. Sooner or later, both teams landed their best blows.

• Signature moment: On Dec. 12, 1979, Staubach threw two touchdown passes in the final 140 seconds to erase a 13-point deficit and give host Dallas a 35-34 win. The Redskins missed the playoffs with that defeat, and former Washington coach Jack Pardee said later, "The Lord giveth and He can take it away in a hurry; that's the only way to understand what took place here."

2. Raiders-Steelers (1972-77)

Raiders-Steelers (1972-77)

Games played: 10
Raiders wins: 5
Steelers wins: 5
Playoff games:
1972 AFC Div. (Pitt, 13-7)
1973 AFC Div. (Oak, 33-14)
1974 AFC Champ. (Pitt, 24-13)
1975 AFC Champ. (Pitt, 16-10)
1976 AFC Champ. (Oak, 24-7)
Overall series (since 1970):
Raiders lead, 12-11

It's an understatement to call this a rivalry. These games were so vicious that they easily could've been staged in a back alley. On one side stood the Raiders, a team that openly embraced a desire to intimidate any opponent that lined up across from it. On the other side were the Steelers, the most dominant team of the 1970s, a blue-collar bunch that backed down to nobody. When it came down to it, these two squads couldn't stand each other.

To understand how serious this rivalry was, just consider that it actually spilled into a courtroom battle in 1976. Steelers coach Chuck Noll became so infuriated by a blow that Raiders safety George Atkinson laid on Pittsburgh wide receiver Lynn Swann -- a forearm to the head that knocked the unsuspecting Swann unconscious -- that Noll claimed Atkinson brought "a criminal element" to the NFL. Atkinson responded by suing the coach for slander and a heavily publicized trial ensued. Noll eventually was found not liable of the charges, but you get the point. These were ugly times.

The main reason there was so much bitterness is that these teams were both blessed with insane talent (19 players who competed in these games have been inducted into the Hall of Fame) and they were constantly battling for the right to reach the Super Bowl. They met in three straight AFC Championship Games during 1974-76, with the Steelers winning the first two contests. Of course, their most memorable meeting came in a 1972 playoff game, when Steelers running back Franco Harris turned what seemed like an innocent deflected pass into The Immaculate Reception. You still can find former Raiders who claim the officials cheated them on that play. That's how deep the wounds ran in this rivalry. And that's what made it great.

•  Signature moment: The Immaculate Reception. On Dec. 23, 1972, Harris' miracle 60-yard catch-and-run on a deflected Terry Bradshaw pass beat the Raiders 13-7 in an AFC divisional playoff game. The Raiders contended that the Steelers' John (Frenchy) Fuqua had batted the ball to Harris, in violation of a rule prohibiting two offensive players from touching a pass in succession. But officials ruled the ball had deflected off Raiders safety Jack Tatum, who collided with Fuqua and the pass at the same time. The final-minute touchdown gave the Steelers franchise its first playoff victory.

3. Cowboys-49ers (1992-96)

Cowboys-49ers (1992-96)

Games played: 7
Cowboys wins: 4
49ers wins: 3
Playoff games:
1992 NFC Champ. (Dal, 30-20)
1993 NFC Champ. (Dal, 38-21)
1994 NFC Champ. (SF, 38-28)
Overall series (since 1960):
49ers lead, 16-14-1

Former San Francisco wide receiver Dwight Clark heated up this rivalry with The Catch back in the 1981 NFC Championship Game, but it wasn't until the early 1990s that Cowboys-49ers reached an unforgettable level. What made this rivalry so intense was the history of both clubs. The 49ers had dominated the 1980s ever since Clark's catch, winning four Super Bowls between 1981 and 1989. Dallas, on the other hand, went through a down period before emerging with a swagger that emanated from coach Jimmy Johnson. The Cowboys' desire to claim what the 49ers owned ultimately raised the stakes of this series.

Dallas first shocked the 49ers in the 1992 NFC Championship Game, upsetting a San Francisco team that many favored to win the Super Bowl that season. The following year proved even sweeter for the Cowboys. They didn't just beat San Francisco in the NFC title game -- they routed the 49ers 38-21 in a victory that Johnson predicted prior to the contest. By the time the 49ers finally beat Dallas in the 1994 NFC Championship Game, these teams had set themselves apart from all others in the NFL.

It helped that both teams were loaded with talent (the games featured future Hall of Famers such as Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, Michael Irvin, Steve Young and Jerry Rice) and the subplots were just as attractive. There was Young trying to overcome the shadow of succeeding Joe Montana. Deion Sanders altering the fortunes of both teams by swapping sides in 1995. And Johnson and Cowboys owner Jerry Jones re-establishing the Cowboys' dominance before egos and jealousy led to their heavily publicized split.

In retrospect, this was the last time we saw two legitimate powerhouses tussling on an annual basis.

• Signature moment: Dallas quarterback Troy Aikman hit Alvin Harper on a slant pass that turned into a 70-yard catch-and-run late in the 1992 NFC Championship Game. That play set up the game-clinching touchdown in the Cowboys' 30-20 win, setting up the Cowboys' first of three Super Bowl wins in the decade.

4. Colts-Patriots (2001-present)

Patriots-Colts (2001-present)

Games played: 9
Patriots wins: 6
Colts wins: 3
Playoff games:
2003 AFC Champ. (NE, 24-14)
2004 AFC Div. (NE, 20-3)
2006 AFC Champ. (Indy, 38-34)
Overall series (since 1970):
Patriots lead, 43-27

These teams played in the same division for decades -- as part of the old AFC East prior to realignment in 2002 -- but it wasn't until 2003 that this rivalry really intensified. That was when Colts president Bill Polian and several offensive players seethed over the Patriots' penchant for manhandling receivers during New England's 24-14 AFC Championship Game win over the Colts. The Colts actually balked so much that the league's competition committee listened intently. A year later, the NFL had a new rule (defenders weren't allowed to touch receivers more than 5 yards away from the line of scrimmage). That turned up the flame on a rivalry that will offer another chapter this weekend.

This rivalry actually has elevated itself into top-five status because the Colts have matured. Prior to a 40-21 win over New England in Foxborough, Mass., during the 2005 regular season, Indianapolis had lost six straight games to a Patriots team quarterbacked by Tom Brady. In those first two wins, Brady was filling in for an injured Drew Bledsoe. The Colts seemed soft in those losses, reinforcing the notion that they were built for gaudy numbers instead of championship trophies. Of course, that image has changed now that Indianapolis has won three straight games in this series. Their high point came in the most recent AFC Championship Game, when they overcame a 21-3 deficit to claim a 38-34 win.

Now it's hard to imagine two other teams in the NFL who can carry a national audience when they face off. They've even given us one of the hottest debates in the league over the last couple years -- the one that asks whether Brady or Peyton Manning is the better quarterback. To be honest, it doesn't matter how you answer that question. It only matters that they've helped to give us a contest to look forward to year after year.

• Signature moment: In a 2004 AFC Divisional Playoff game, Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi stripped Colts running back Dominic Rhodes of the football in New England's 20-3 victory. Bruschi literally took the ball away from Rhodes, who had caught a short pass from Manning, and that play exemplified the defensive effort the Patriots produced in shutting down the NFL's top offense that year.

5. Giants-49ers (1984-90)

Giants-49ers (1984-90)

Games played: 10
Giants wins: 5
49ers wins: 5
Playoff games:
1984 NFC Div. (SF, 21-10)
1985 NFC 1st Rd. (NY, 17-3)
1986 NFC Div. (NY, 49-3)
1990 NFC Champ. (NY, 15-13)
Overall series (since 1952):
49ers lead, 17-16

What made this vastly underrated rivalry so compelling was the contrast in styles. Giants head coach Bill Parcells led a team that was built on a strong running game and a physical defense. 49ers head coach Bill Walsh ran a squad that appealed to the intellectual fan, one blessed with a diverse, imaginative offense and a savvy quarterback who turned out to be the best to ever play the position. In short, the Giants were meat and potatoes. The 49ers were wine and cheese.

As dominant as the 49ers were in the 1980s, the Giants were the only team that consistently caused them problems. These two teams played 10 times between 1982, when Parcells was named New York's coach, and 1990. Each franchise won five games, although the Giants produced more memorable moments. They battered 49ers quarterback Joe Montana during a 1985 NFC playoff win, and Giants nose tackle Jim Burt literally knocked Montana out of New York's 49-3 playoff victory a year later.

Of course, the one play that devastated the 49ers came in the 1990 NFC Championship Game. San Francisco was making a run at an unprecedented third consecutive Super Bowl victory when it met the Giants. The Niners' luck dried up when New York's Lawrence Taylor recovered a fumble by running back Roger Craig late in that contest and set up the game-winning field goal in a 15-13 win. That also happened to be the only time a visiting team won a playoff game in this series.

• Signature moment: In a 1986 "Monday Night Football" game in San Francisco, Giants tight end Mark Bavaro caught a pass over the middle from Phil Simms and rambled nearly 20 yards with 49ers defenders clinging to him. As many as seven San Francisco players -- including Hall of Fame safety Ronnie Lott -- took shots at Bavaro before dragging him to the turf. The Giants won 21-17.

Jeffri Chadiha is a senior writer for ESPN.com.