Rivalries rule the world. Be it in our music, or with West Coast vs. East Coast. Rivalries define professional wrestling, via deep-seated feuds like The Rock vs. Stone Cold Steve Austin. And in comic culture, DC vs. Marvel is a clash of biblical proportions.
The NFL is no different. Growing up, I remember my dad having an extra spring in his step whenever Chicago beat Green Bay. And while I’ll always look forward to the Bears doing battle with those guys up north, I wanted to take a moment today to give you the 10 best rivalries at this very moment — i.e., heading into the 2020 campaign, as opposed to historically speaking.
Yes, some of the rivalries listed below happen to be classic conflicts, while others reflect recent developments like coaching changes and/or personnel shuffling. All are highly enticing.
Let’s get to it!
10) Carolina Panthers vs. Washington Redskins
What are these two teams battling for, the first pick? Oh, that’s just rude. But there have been some big changes in Washington and Carolina, with one common denominator: Ron Rivera. The new Redskins coach brings some authority and discipline to a franchise that has needed those things for quite some time. And he has a good defense to work with. The Panthers moved on from Rivera to bring in Matt Rhule from the college ranks. I’m not expecting this showdown at FedExField to be an NFC Championship Game preview or anything like that. But it could definitely make for a fun Thursday Night Football matchup. (Especially if you have Christian McCaffrey on your fantasy team.)
9) Baltimore Ravens vs. Pittsburgh Steelers
Last year was pretty interesting for the Steelers. Saw Le’Veon Bell walk in free agency. Traded Antonio Brown to the Raiders. (Days after nearly trading “Mr. Big Chest” to the Bills.) Lost Ben Roethlisberger for the season in Week 2. And when it looked like they could end up with a top-five draft pick, they traded it to Miami for Minkah Fitzpatrick. Despite all of this, Pittsburgh barely missed the playoffs thanks to its reborn defense. Unfortunately for the Steelers, they also had to watch the hated Ravens secure the top seed in the AFC playoffs. (Granted, Steelers fans obviously took joy in seeing Baltimore go one-and-done in the postseason.) Now, heading into the 2020 campaign, the venom in one of the best rivalries in sports remains high — and I can’t wait. The Steelers look to get back to the top of the division, while the Ravens somehow managed to get even better this offseason by adding Calais Campbell — which kind of doesn’t seem fair — as well as Michael Brockers. This annual home-and-home series will be must-see TV, per usual.
8) Green Bay Packers vs. San Francisco 49ers
A classic NFL rivalry. You can close your eyes and imagine Pat Summerall and John Madden on the call. It was cool seeing these teams face off twice last season, including a clash in the NFC Championship Game. It was kind of like seeing one of your favorite bands from the 1990s getting back together for a series of shows. Of course, Green Bay played the role of the lead singer who let himself go, as the Pack weren’t competitive in either bout. But they were still out there belting out the greatest hits! Well, the teams are in line to do battle again this season at least once — in Levi’s Stadium — as the 49ers figure to again be one of the top teams in the NFC. And the Packers will still field a team.
7) Dallas Cowboys vs. New York Giants
Speaking of Summerall-Madden games, this NFC East rivalry should be a treat in 2020. Yes, I figure the division will likely come down to the Eagles and the Cowboys, but I’m really looking forward to Dallas going up against New York. Not only do I believe that Big Blue is going to be much more competitive in the coming season, but they also added Jason Garrett to the coaching staff as offensive coordinator. And Garrett is looking for revenge as much as any coach who was given a decade to lead one of the NFL’s banner franchises and won two playoff games. OK, but seriously, though: He’s got to be at least a little salty. And really, I’m just hoping that he still instinctively claps every time the Cowboys make a big play because some habits are just hard to break.
6) Cleveland Browns vs. Pittsburgh Steelers
I was really looking forward to this one last year … and it let me down worse than The Rise of Skywalker. But whenever they make another Star Wars flick, I’ll be in line for it. Similarly, I’m all in on Browns–Steelers this year. Both teams should be improved. The Browns began to address their biggest problem area — offensive tackle — with the signing of Jack Conklin, and they could add another OT with the No. 10 overall pick next month. And the additions of FB Andy Janovich and TE Austin Hooper are going to boost the run game (and offense, in general). The Steelers will be better with Ben Roethlisberger back under center, and free-agent signee Eric Ebron gives the quarterback another offensive weapon. But let’s be real: I’m burying the lede here. Myles Garrett vs. the Steelers. That was an ugly incident last November, but we all know as sports fans that we’re going to be thinking about that as these two teams face off twice in 2020.
5) Arizona Cardinals vs. San Francisco 49ers
It’s amazing how quickly things can change in the NFL. Just a year ago, everyone was looking for the next Sean McVay to lead their team. Now he’s the least-interesting coach in the division. Especially with Kyle Shanahan and Kliff Kingsbury leading exciting squads. The 49ers are loaded for bear, ready to make a run back to the Super Bowl. Filling the void left by the DeForest Buckner trade will be tough, but if that No. 13 pick lands San Francisco a WR stud like CeeDee Lamb or Jerry Jeudy, the Niners will be well-stocked on offense. And speaking of receivers, the Cardinals benefited from Bill O’Brien’s apparent desperation to get people to forget about the 24-point lead he blew in the playoffs by trading one of the best players on the planet. This Cardinals team, with DeAndre Hopkins joining second-year quarterback Kyler Murray, looks ready to take a swing at the reigning conference champs.
4) Denver Broncos vs. Los Angeles Chargers
The AFC West has long had some of the best rivalries in the league. And with the Chiefs being Super Bowl champions and the Raiders basically being the world’s rival, those seem like automatic fits. But I’m really loving the juice that’s been added to the Chargers-Broncos rivalry this offseason. Freshly minted Bronco Melvin Gordon reportedly had a more lucrative opportunity to play elsewhere, but he wanted to play his former team twice a year. Sure, Gordon kind of played himself out of L.A., but you have to respect the spitefulness of staying in the division. And the Chargers also improved — at least on defense, where they added former Bronco Chris Harris Jr. to an already-impressive secondary.
3) Miami Dolphins vs. New England Patriots
The Patriots seem extremely vulnerable right now, having lost a player whose shoes seem impossible to fill: Kyle Van Noy. Oh, right: They also lost Jamie Collins, Danny Shelton and that Tom Brady guy. This seems like the most opportune time to topple New England in two decades. Even though it’s totally not going to surprise me when I see Brian Hoyer lifting the Pats’ seventh Lombardi Trophy. But until then, we look at some of the AFC East teams ready to battle the Pats, and though you might favor the Bills (fresh off a playoff appearance and fresher off the addition of Stefon Diggs), I’m kind of loving what the Dolphins have done this offseason. In addition to getting Van Noy, they added Byron Jones and Shaq Lawson to their defense. The pairing of Jones and Xavien Howard gives Brian Flores’ defense a Patriots-like look. And when you consider it was Ryan Fitzpatrick who was as responsible as anybody for the Patriots‘ stumble late last season, this is going to be the rivalry to watch in the AFC East.
2) New Orleans Saints vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The obvious headliner in this NFC South rivalry will be the showdown of two of the best quarterbacks to ever do it: Tom Brady and Taysom Hill. I kid, Drew Brees. We are here for the epic Brady vs. Brees bouts — although the excitement is a bit tempered, since the home-and-home series comes so late in the players’ careers. Like when Sting went to the WWE. We wanted that for years. And it was fun when it happened, but it could have been better if it’d happened sooner. And if I can further the wrestling analogy a bit … If you look past the headliners, I love the undercard matchup of two of the best receiving tandems in the game: Michael Thomas and Manny Sanders vs. Chris Godwin and Mike Evans. Thomas staked his claim to “BEST RECEIVER IN FOOTBALL” status last year, when he set the NFL’s single-season record with 149 receptions. Godwin broke out with 86 catches and I’m projecting that number to be even higher this year. And then you have two of the great offensive masterminds in Sean Payton and Bruce Arians. It won’t bum me out if these two divisional foes play three times.
1) Kansas City Chiefs vs. Baltimore Ravens
Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson are already the next great AFC quarterback rivalry, following in the footsteps of Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. Some of you might think I’m jumping the gun here, but I’m not. Mahomes and Jackson have captured the last two NFL MVP awards. Mahomes went from winning league MVP in his first season as a starter to winning Super Bowl MVP in his second. That’s the NFL equivalent of putting out Star Wars and following that up with The Empire Strikes Back. (My inner-nerd is REALLY shining through in this piece. Sorry not sorry.) What’s next is for Jackson to step up this season in the playoffs. And really, the only thing missing from this rivalry is an epic playoff showdown. But first, we’ll just have to settle for another regular-season matchup — this time in Baltimore. (Don’t forget: Mahomes and Co. defended Arrowhead Stadium and handed the Ravens one of two regular-season losses in 2019.) Something tells me Chiefs at Ravens is going to get prime-time love from NFL schedule makers.
Follow Adam Rank on Twitter @adamrank.