Savor every moment
Cold, Hard Football Facts for Jan 15, 2007
It takes a village to raise a child. It takes a CHFF troll a two-hour lunch to polish off a case of beer. And it takes the postseason to make a capital-R Rivalry.
The Saints will visit the Bears Sunday afternoon in what will surely be an entertaining conference title game, at least if the rest of the NFC playoffs have been any indication. For pure entertainment value, the NFL's senior circuit has given us greater playoff games this year than the more dominant AFC.
But let's face it: Pigskin America has its eyes lasered in on what has officially become pro football's first great Rivalry of the 21st century – Patriots vs. Colts – two football powers who lord over the game and find themselves destined to duke it out in the do-or-die pressure cooker of playoff football.
Win and go on. Lose and go home.
It couldn't be any simpler, or any better. And it's what differentiates a rivalry from a Rivalry. A rivalry excites the fans of each team involved. A Rivalry causes casual observers to stand up and take notice. A rivalry entertains us for a few hours. A Rivalry defines legends for years to come.
So here, as we continue to bang the drum slowly on the 2006 conference title games, we officially elevate New England-Indianapolis to its place among the small handful of capital-R Rivalries in NFL history.
Postseasons make Rivalries
The difference between a rivalry and Rivalry is that singular do-or-die moment: that playoff game – or, better yet, that series of them year after year – that elevates a meeting between two teams to the upper echelons of sports lore.
Bears-Packers is a rivalry. But in 86 seasons of facing each other in the regular season, the two teams have met just once in the postseason: a tie-breaker playoff game after each team went 10-1 in 1941. Remember that one? Of course you don't. For all its history, Bears-Packers has never become a Rivalry. (For the record, Chicago wiped out Green Bay, 33-14, and then crushed the Giants, 37-9, in the 1941 title game.)
Yankees-Red Sox was a nifty little rivalry for decades. But it took a single postseason moment – the single do-or-die playoff game in 1978 – to elevate the rivalry in the eyes of fans and outside observers alike. Still, it did not become a Rivalry until Major League Baseball added a wild-card team to the playoffs in 1995. Since then, the Red Sox and Yankees have met three times in the American League championship series – the winner twice going on to capture the World Series. It has become baseball's lone great Rivalry.
Ohio State and Michigan meet only in the regular season. But the nature of college football is such that this game, typically the last on the schedule for both teams, has a profound impact on the national title picture. It's a de facto playoff game. And therefore a Rivalry.
In the ranks of pro football, these Rivalries don't come around too often, maybe once a decade if we're lucky. Then, like a fleeting little gridiron ghost – poof! – it's gone before we know it.
So, before the Patriots and Colts step on the field Sunday, savor every moment, devour every inch of cyberspace copy and munch on every little morsel of sports-radio minutiae. This game, this New England-Indy capital-R Rivalry, has attained a level few others can claim in the history of football.
We've identified four factors that make a meeting between two teams a Rivalry:
- great teams that dominate their sport and meet several times in the postseason
- big-name, Hall-of-Fame caliber players to give the meeting the requisite star power
- a signature game or series of games that have defined each club for a given period in their history
- games that had a direct and immediate impact on the championship picture
Here's a look at the small handful that make the cut:
1950s – Cleveland Browns-Los Angeles Rams
Postseason meetings: 3
1950 NFL championship: Browns 30, Rams 28
1951 NFL championship: Rams 24, Browns 17
1955 NFL championship: Browns 38, Rams 14
Signature Cold, Hard Football Facts: The Browns played in a record six straight NFL championship games from 1950 to 1955. Three times they faced the high-flying Rams – who remain the owners of the most prolific offensive teams in NFL history.
The stars: Three Hall of Fame coaches and 14 Hall of Fame players (including three at quarterback alone) took part in this Rivalry. The Browns were led by Otto Graham, while Norm Van Brocklin and Bob Waterfield shared duties leading the prolific Rams offense. Other HOFers who took the field in at least one of these three championship games included notables like Lou "The Toe" Groza, Elroy "Crazy Legs" Hirsch, Dick "Night Train" Lane and Marion Motley. Each team also had a Hall of Fame coach: Paul Brown in Cleveland and Joe Stydahar (1950-52) and Sid Gillman (1955-59) for the Rams.
It became a Rivalry when: The Browns, in their first year in the NFL, squared off against the Rams in the 1950 NFL championship game. The Rams possessed that season what remains the highest-scoring offense in the history of the NFL (38.8 PPG). But the Browns pulled out the 30-28 victory when Groza, a full-time offensive tackle who doubled as the NFL's first great placekicker, nailed a 16-yard field goal at the end of regulation. The game, which was played in Cleveland, had a subplot that fans in Baltimore can relate to: The Rams played in Cleveland from 1937 to 1946. The 1950 NFL championship was their first game in Cleveland after moving to Los Angeles.
Enjoy it while it lasts: These franchises that dominated the 1950s have combined for just two championships – one each – since that 1955 meeting in the NFL title game.
1960s – Green Bay Packers-Baltimore Colts
Postseason meetings: 1
1965 Western Conference playoff: Packers 13, Colts 10 (OT)
Signature Cold, Hard Football Facts: The Packers haunted the Colts throughout the 1960s, much like the Patriots have haunted the Colts – at least to this point – in the 21st century. The parallels are too obvious to ignore: Each decade, the Colts had the big-armed gunslinging quarterback everybody remembers as perhaps the best passer of his time. Each decade, the Colts' nemesis had an ultimate-winner quarterback who coolly reserved his best football for the playoffs.
The Colts went the entire decade of the 1960s without a losing season. But – in the days before the NFL installed a playoff system in 1967 – they struggled year after year to beat out the Packers for the Western Conference title (the Colts won just 4 of 13 meetings against Green Bay from 1960-66). The Colts captured just one Western Conference title (1964) but were smoked, 27-0, by Cleveland in the NFL championship game.
The stars: The Packers of this era were defined by legendary coach Vince Lombardi. The Colts, meanwhile, boasted two different Hall of Fame coaches: Weeb Ewbank and Don Shula. For star power, it's hard to top Bart Starr and Johnny Unitas. They were just two of the remarkable 19 future Hall of Fame players who participated in this Rivalry.
It became a Rivalry when: The Colts blew a 10-0 halftime lead to lose to the Packers, 13-10, in overtime of the 1965 Western Conference title game. The NFL would not adopt a playoff tournament until 1967. So, the regular-season winner of the NFL's two conferences simply squared off in a championship game. But in 1965, Baltimore and Green Bay each finished the season 10-3-1, necessitating the one-game playoff.
History would continue to treat the Colts cruelly for the rest of the decade. They were freed from Green Bay's shadow when the NFL split the Western Conference into two divisions and installed a playoff system for the 1967 season. But the Colts and Rams each went 11-1-2 in the Coastal Division. The Rams were given the division's sole playoff spot by virtue of a better head-to-head scoring differential against the Colts. The Packers, meanwhile, struggled through a 9-4-1 campaign in the Central Division (now the NFC North). As the one-loss Colts watched the first-ever playoff tournament from home, their nemesis, the 9-4-1 Packers, marched to a third straight NFL championship and a victory in Super Bowl II. The Colts fielded their best team ever in 1968 ... only to lose to the Jets in Super Bowl III.
Enjoy it while it lasts: The Colts welcomed in the 1970s with a long-overdue victory in Super Bowl V. The Packers, meanwhile, have captured just one NFL championship since the end of the Lombardi Era. That's just two championships for a pair of teams that dominated the 1960s.
1970s – Pittsburgh Steelers-Oakland Raiders
Postseason meetings: 5
1972 divisional playoffs: Steelers 13, Raiders 7
1973 divisional playoffs: Raiders 33, Steelers 14
1974 AFC title game: Steelers 24, Raiders 13
1975 AFC title game: Steelers 16, Raiders 10
1976 AFC title game: Raiders 14, Steelers 7
Signature Cold, Hard Football Facts: The Steelers and Raiders faced each other in a record five straight postseasons, and in a record three straight AFC championship games. The winner of those three conference title games went on to win the Super Bowl all three times.
The stars: You could build an entire team of Hall of Famers from the men who played for these two clubs in the 1970s. The Raiders marched into battle with the likes of Fred Biletnikoff, George Blanda, Willie Brown, Dave Capser, Ted Hendricks, Jim Otto and Gene Upshaw. The Steelers fielded Mel Blount, Terry Bradshaw, Joe Greene, Jack Ham, Jack Lambert, Franco Harris, John Stallworth, Lynn Swann and Mike Webster. And let's not forget a guy like Oakland's Ken Stabler, who's not in the Hall of Fame but was one of the dominant quarterbacks of the decade. Each team boasted a HOF coach on the sidelines: John Madden in Oakland and Chuck Noll in Pittsburgh
It became a Rivalry when: Blessed by the Immaculate Reception, the Steelers edged the Raiders, 13-7, in the 1972 divisional playoffs. Until that legendary game, the entire history of the Raiders-Steelers series included just two regular-season games.
Enjoy it while it lasts: These two pigskin leviathans who lorded over football in the 1970s and early 80s have combined for just two Super Bowl championships since 1981.
1970s – Pittsburgh Steelers-Dallas Cowboys
Postseason meetings: 2
Super Bowl X: Steelers 21, Cowboys 17
Super Bowl XIII: Steelers 35, Cowboys 31
Signature Cold, Hard Football Facts: The Cowboys might have been America's Team, but the Steelers were the team of the decade in the 1970s. Though these teams met just twice, these two meetings defined the early Super Bowl Era. The Cowboys were just a few plays removed (including a dropped TD pass by HOF tight end Jackie Smith) of supplanting the Steelers as the decade's greatest team. Had Dallas won those two Super Bowls, they would have been the team with four championships in the 1970s.
The stars: See the list of Pittsburgh legends above. The Cowboys, meanwhile, counted on legendary quarterback Roger Staubach, along with fellow Hall of Famers Smith, Tony Dorsett, Mel Renfro, Randy White and Rayfield Wright.
It became a Rivalry when: The Steelers edged out the Cowboys in Super Bowl X, for their second straight Super Bowl title and just the second championship in the franchise's first 40 years of existence. Terry Bradshaw and Lynn Swann put the game out of reach by combining on a 64-yard TD bomb.
Enjoy it while it lasts: The Steelers and Cowboys met once again in Super Bowl XXX, but no Super Bowl rivalry has ever reached the glitzy star power or on-field fireworks of the two meetings between these clubs in the 1970s.
1990s – Dallas Cowboys-San Francisco 49ers
1992 NFC championship game: Cowboys 30, 49ers 20
1993 NFC championship game: Cowboys 38, 49ers 21
1994 NFC championship game: 49ers 38, Cowboys 28
Signature Cold, Hard Football Facts: Like the Steelers and Raiders two decades earlier, the Cowboys and 49ers squared off in three straight conference title games, with the winner going on to capture the Lombardi Trophy all three seasons. It was a death struggle between one organization, San Francisco, that dominated the 1980s and was clinging to the last vestiges of its dynasty, and another, Dallas, that was carving its name in the history books as the definitive team of the 1990s.
The stars: Quarterback Troy Aikman is the only Dallas player of this era already in the Hall of Fame, but others are sure to follow, including all-time rushing leader Emmitt Smith. The 49ers were also directed by a Hall of Fame quarterback, all-time passer-rating leader Steve Young. The future Hall of Famers from the 49ers of this era are led by all-time receiving leader Jerry Rice.
It became a Rivalry when: The Cowboys wrested control of the almighty NFC in the 1992 conference title game by walking into San Francisco and smacking around the 49ers, 30-20. The two straight losses in the NFC championship game became a huge part of the "monkey on his back" that haunted Young in the post-Joe Montana years. He'd spank the monkey when the 49ers finally beat the Cowboys in the 1994 NFC title game.
Enjoy it while it lasts: The Cowboys would capture one more Super Bowl title following the 1995 season. Both organizations, teams that defined success for nearly two decades, have struggled mightily to regain their championship-caliber glory since.
2000s – New England Patriots-Indianapolis Colts
Postseason meetings: 2, going on 3
2003 AFC title game: Patriots 24, Colts 14
2004 AFC divisional playoffs: Patriots 20, Colts 3
2006 AFC title game: TBD
Signature Cold, Hard Football Facts: The Colts and Patriots played each other twice each year from 1970 to 2001 as AFC East divisional rivals. The 2003 AFC title game marked their first-ever postseason meeting. The winner of the past two playoff meetings went on to win the Super Bowl.
The stars: It will be a long time before any of the characters in this Rivalry enter the Hall of Fame, but a certain few are destined for Canton, including the quarterbacks for each team, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. Other likely (or potential) Hall of Famers include the Colts' Marvin Harrison and Adam Vinatieri, their former running back Edgerrin James, the Patriots' Richard Seymour and Corey Dillon, and their former cornerback Ty Law. New England coach Bill Belichick is a certain Hall of Famer, while a strong case can be made for Indy coach Tony Dungy.
It became a Rivalry when: The Patriots shut down the seemingly unstoppable Colts offense in consecutive postseasons. The two clubs have also played a series of memorable and highly hyped regular-season games over this period, the last two of which have been dominant road victories by Indianapolis.
Enjoy it while it lasts: As history has shown, NFL powers, even mighty Rivals like New England and Indy, only have a short time at the top.
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