Commentary

Even without Brady, Pats-Colts ranks as the best modern rivalry

Three of the five best rivalries in the NFL today renew this weekend, John Clayton writes.

Originally Published: September 11, 2008
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

Steelers, BrownsJoe Robbins/Getty ImagesThe Steelers have won nine straight against the Browns, who won 10 games last season but fell short of the playoffs because of two losses to Pittsburgh. The teams meet again Sunday night.
Tom Brady's season-ending knee injury not only changes the effectiveness of the New England Patriots' offense but also affects two of the league's four best rivalries. The Patriots' offense without Brady might not be as tantalizing, but rivalries go beyond one player.

The AFC East showdown Sunday between the Patriots and the New York Jets will be the first test. The combination of Brady and coach Bill Belichick resulted in three Super Bowl titles, multiple division titles and, in 2007, a 16-0 regular season and nearly a fourth league championship.

While Brady recovers from surgery, Belichick's mind and schemes are left to handle the rivalries that the quarterback-coach tandem has created. Let's take a look at five of the best rivalries, regardless of division, in the league today.

1. New England Patriots-Indianapolis Colts: For the past six years, this has been the most anticipated game on the schedule. Thanks to Brady and the Colts' Peyton Manning, the regular-season meetings usually affect seeding in the playoffs. Three of these battles have preceded playoff rematches, with the Patriots holding a 2-1 postseason lead. The teams have split AFC Championship games.
• 2008 meeting: The Colts play host to the Patriots Nov. 2 at Lucas Oil Stadium, but it will be different without Brady.

2. Dallas Cowboys-Philadelphia Eagles: Where is the Cowboys Washington Redskins rivalry? While that might have the historic rivalry tag, the Eagles-Cowboys have eclipsed it because of Terrell Owens' ties to both teams and the quality of the squads.

Related
The Patriots and Jets renew ties again Sunday. Learn more about today's rivalries:
Graham: More than a game
• Clayton: Best rivalries
• NFL Nation blog
• FB Today: Green, Clayton
Vote: Best divisionals
Five faded rivalries
• Scouts Take
AFC East Fans

Owens left Philadelphia on bad terms with management and Donovan McNabb. While the Cowboys are considered the team to beat in the NFC East, coach Andy Reid has ramped up the Eagles' offense and defense. The Eagles might be the team that can beat the Cowboys this season. There's a good chance this rivalry could carry over to a third meeting in the playoffs.
• 2008 meetings: The Eagles visit Dallas Sept. 15; the Cowboys visit Philadelphia Dec. 28.

3. Pittsburgh Steelers-Cleveland Browns: The rebirth of the Browns last season revitalized one of the great rivalries in the league's history. The cities are connected by two turnpikes and passion for pro football. The fan rivalry is intense. In the old days, Steelers fans worried about having their tires slashed when they went to Cleveland and Browns fans used to duck from flying snowballs in Pittsburgh. The Steelers hold a nine-game winning streak dating back to 2003, but last season gave Browns fans hope that they are playing on a level field with the Steelers.
• 2008 meetings: The Steelers visit Cleveland Sept. 14; the Browns invade Pittsburgh Dec. 28.

4. New York Jets-New England Patriots: The Bill Belichick-Eric Mangini rivalry has grown beyond the drama of whether the one-time friends will shake hands after their games. Belichick wasn't happy Mangini left his defensive coordinator job in New England to become the Jets' head coach. Jets ownership wasn't particularly happy when Belichick resigned as the Jets' coach before he even began -- and then Belichick helped turn the Patriots into a dynasty. The rivalry took a bigger twist last year when the Jets caught a Patriots videographer spying on coaches' signals, creating Spygate.
• 2008 meetings: The Patriots visit the Jets Sept. 14; the Jets visit the Patriots Nov. 13.

5. Minnesota Vikings-Green Bay Packers: The Packers-Chicago Bears rivalry might have more historical significance, but Vikings-Packers is the "now" rivalry in the NFC North. The Packers believed Vikings coaches got in the head of Brett Favre and helped turn a planned summer of retirement celebrations into organization nightmares. Favre had an itch to return after he retired, but when it became clear he was not welcome back in Green Bay, he made Packers management feel the Vikings were the only team that could successfully scratch that itch.

The bitterness spilled over into a tampering charge against the Vikings and coach Brad Childress. Commissioner Roger Goodell found no merit to the charge and exonerated the Vikings. Still, the rivalry was so intense, Childress and Packers coach Mike McCarthy did not shake hands following their Sept. 8 "Monday Night Football" clash, won by the Packers. • 2008 meetings: On Sept. 8 in Green Bay, the Packers beat the Vikings 24-19; the Packers visit the Vikings Nov. 9.

John Clayton, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame writers' wing, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer