Special Report

20 Biggest Rivalries in Sports

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While many sports fans might not admit it, it can be as fun to have a good rivalry as it is to have a good team. Games against a franchise’s bitter enemies are usually the most thrilling. That goes double for playoff games. Friendly — and not so friendly — rivalries can add a layer of excitement for both the teams and the fans.

24/7 Wall St. reviewed the histories of teams in the NFL, NBA, NHL, and MLB to rank the 20 most exciting and intense rivalries in pro sports. The listed matchup history and other statistics referenced came from the Sports Reference family of sites.

Most of these rivalries are between teams that are in the same division or conference, ensuring they play each other frequently and compete for the same playoff spot.

Even if these teams aren’t in the same division or conference, many of the rivalries on this list are between two teams that are geographically very close to each other. The hatred between these teams and their fans can be fueled by a broader cultural conflict between neighboring cities, such as Los Angeles and San Francisco, Detroit and Chicago, or Montreal and Toronto. These are the best cities for sports fans.

These feuds can sometimes lead to ugly fights, bad blood, and even violence outside of the games themselves. But they can also add to the significance of specific moments in sports, and many of these rivalries have been the source of some of the most exciting moments in sports history. These are the most iconic sports moments of the decade.

Each NHL rivalry has existed since before the league changed its rules, from allowing ties to ending games with shootouts. To avoid confusion, overtime losses were added to the team’s loss total, and ties are the third figure listed in the record for NHL rivalries.

Click here to see the biggest rivalries in sports.

Source: Brian Bahr / Getty Images

20. Denver Broncos and Oakland Raiders
> League: NFL
> Head to head leader: Raiders: 65-53-2

The AFC West rivalry between the Denver Broncos and Oakland Raiders has influenced the course of NFL history for decades. Both teams are among the most successful franchises in the NFL, appearing in a combined 13 Super Bowls, winning six. Their success only heightens the stakes each time these teams face off.

There’s lots of bad blood between the teams for off the field reasons as well. Former coach Mike Shanahan worked as Denver’s offensive coordinator before leaving to take the Raiders’ head coaching job. Shanahan was fired after only got 20 games in charge of the Raiders. He eventually returned to Denver as head coach and led the Broncos to the franchise’s first two championships. The Broncos’ best ever player, John Elway, was almost a Raider himself. Former Raiders owner Al Davis reportedly worked out a deal for the rights to draft Elway, but the deal was blocked by NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle.


Source: Gregory Shamus / Getty Images

19. Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins
> League: NHL
> Head to head leader: Penguins: 111-98-16

In 2004, the Washington Capitals selected Alexander Ovechkin with the first overall draft pick, and the following year, the Pittsburgh Penguins selected Sidney Crosby with their first pick. Those two players have been the centerpieces of the thrilling rivalry between these two Metropolitan Division teams.

These teams have faced each other four times in the playoffs since they drafted the two superstars, and each time the winner went on to win the Stanley Cup. The first three series wins went to Pittsburgh, and Ovechkin’s Capitals finally won the Cup in 2018. The franchise rivalry goes back further than the current generation of stars. The teams have met in the postseason a whopping 11 times.

Source: Abbie Parr / Getty Images

18. New York Giants and Philadelphia Eagles
> League: NFL
> Head to head leader: Eagles: 87-86-2

Few rivalries in sports are as even, or contentious, as the one between the Giants and the Eagles. The nearby NFC East foes have squared off since 1933. The Eagles hold a slight head-to-head advantage, with an 87-86-2 record against the Giants. The rivalry is noted for its tough play. In 1960, Eagles linebacker Chuck Bednarik hit the Giants’ Frank Gifford so hard he missed the entire 1961 season with a concussion.

For many seasons, the Giants were the dominant team in this rivalry, but that has shifted in recent years. As of December 2019, the Eagles have won six straight against New York. The Giants have only beaten Philly once since 2014.

Source: Tom Hauck / Allsport / Getty Images

17. San Antonio Spurs and Dallas Mavericks
> League: NBA
> Head to head leader: Spurs: 132-85

They say everything is bigger in Texas, and the Lone Star rivalry between the San Antonio Spurs and the Dallas Mavericks has become one of the greatest in the NBA. The Spurs franchise began in Dallas, as the Chaparrals of the ABA in 1967.

This rivalry became what it is thanks to Tim Duncan and Dirk Nowitzki. The all-time great power forwards battled each other for the better part of 20 years, starting in the late ’90s. They helped make previously downtrodden franchises the class of the NBA. Duncan’s Spurs won five titles in six NBA Finals appearances, while Nowitzki guided the Mavs to two NBA Finals spots, winning it all once. The Spurs and Mavs have ended one another’s playoff runs six times since 2001, with San Antonio holding the edge in playoff series victories 4-2.


Source: Elsa / Getty Images

16. New York Rangers and New Jersey Devils
> League: NHL
> Head to head leader: Rangers: 119-103-27

While they are in different states, the New Jersey Devils’ Prudential Center and the New York Rangers’ Madison Square Garden are only a half hour apart by public transportation or through the Lincoln Tunnel, which means that when they play, odds are fans of both teams will be in attendance, which can make for both exciting live hockey and also the exchange of unpleasant words.

Some fans may recall the 2012 line brawl between six players that kicked off before any actual hockey was played. Or the conflict between notorious Rangers winger Sean Avery and Devils goalie Martin Brodeur, in which Avery pestered Brodeur, resulting in a goal (and an eventual rule change, which came to be known as the “Avery rule.”) These are only some of the more recent incidents in decades of hatred between the two teams and their fanbases.

Source: Jason Miller / Getty Images

15. Cleveland Browns and Cincinnati Bengals
> League: NFL
> Head to head leader: Bengals: 50-42

The Browns and Bengals were born to be rivals. The only two NFL teams from Ohio were both founded by the same man — Paul Brown. Brown was fired from the team that bears his name in 1963 by Art Modell, who bought the Cleveland Browns. Brown, who loathed Modell and wanted to get back into football, joined the expansion effort that eventually became the Bengals. The two owners’ personal animosity set the tone for the rivalry for years to come.

Despite the heated history, the on-field play of the two teams has put a damper on the rivalry in recent years. Neither team has won a playoff game since 1994, and both teams have failed to win the Super Bowl — the Browns have never even been to the final game. Still, the historic disdain and proximity of the fanbases make Browns-Bengals a heated rivalry, regardless of their records.


Source: Dilip Vishwanat / Getty Images

14. St. Louis Cardinals and Chicago Cubs
> League: MLB
> Head to head leader: Cubs: 1,239-1,181 wins

As is the case with many of the biggest sports rivalries, the long-standing hatred between these two fanbases extends far beyond baseball, and is as much about the rivalry between these two major Midwestern cities. Fans of both teams likely are familiar with the Lou Brock trade, in which Chicago traded the future hall-of-famer for a song.

These two long-standing baseball franchises, each founded well before the turn of the 20th century, have faced off over 2,400 times, and Chicago holds a narrow lead on the series, and won the most recent postseason meeting between the two teams in 2015.

Source: Jonathan Daniel / Getty Images

13. Detroit Pistons and Chicago Bulls
> League: NBA
> Head to head leader: Pistons: 152-147

The Detroit Pistons and Chicago Bulls embody the tough, blue-collar spirit of the Midwest cities they represent. The “Bad Boy” Pistons of the 1980s and 1990s were known for their punishing physical play. No player absorbed more punishment than Michael Jordan. As a rising superstar looking to win his first title, Jordan became subject to Detroit’s “Jordan Rules” — meaning that Detroit’s players should do whatever it took to stop Jordan from getting to the basket. This meant the teams were constantly pushing, shoving, and fighting each other.

The teams met in four straight playoffs from 1988 to 1991, three of which came in the Eastern Conference Finals. The Pistons won the first three matchups on their way to the 1989 and 1990 NBA titles. The Bulls finally took out the Pistons in 1991 on their way to their first of six NBA titles.

Source: Pictorial Parade / Getty Images

12. Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs
> League: NHL
> Head to head leader: Canadiens: 358-300-88

This rivalry extends beyond sports to the cultural dissonance between Canada’s two largest cities. Toronto is in the province of Ontario, while Montreal is in the province of Quebec, where French is the most common language. While language may not be as much of a driving factor these days, the hatred between the two fanbases is rock-solid. These two Original Six teams have played each other close to 750 times in the regular season and faced off over a dozen times in the postseason, with the Habs holding the edge in wins between the two.


Source: Al Bello / Allsport / Getty Images

11. New York Knicks and Miami Heat
> League: NBA
> Head to head leader: Knicks: 78-73

Years of playoff matchups between the Knicks and Heat bred intense animosity that came to blows more than once. Two of the better teams in the East in the late 1990s, the Knicks and Heat faced off in the playoffs four consecutive times from 1997 to 2000. In their 1997 matchup in the Eastern Conference Semifinals, a small scuffle spiraled into a full on brawl. This resulted in four Knicks being ejected and six more suspended for future games. This may have cost New York the series, which they lost in seven games.

The animosity was still simmering the next season, a 1998 Knicks-Heat playoff game again devolved into a full-on brawl. At the very end of game four, Larry Johnson and Alonzo Mourning got tangled up and began throwing punches as Knicks’ coach Jeff Van Gundy desperately tried to stop Mourning by holding onto his leg.

Source: Jonathan Daniel / Getty Images

10. Detroit Red Wings and Chicago Blackhawks
> League: NHL
> Head to head leader: Red Wings: 368-285-84

The Detroit Red Wings and Chicago Blackhawks — each an Original Six team — have played each other in the regular season since their first game in 1926 more than 750 times, more than any other two NHL teams. They have faced each other in the playoffs over a dozen times. The rivalry has been the context for dozens of hits and fights over the years, adding more fuel to the fire. Chicago fans in particular will likely remember the violent hit on Martin Havlat by Niklas Kronwall during the 2009 playoffs.


Source: Rich Schultz / Getty Images

9. New York Mets and Philadelphia Phillies
> League: MLB
> Head to head leader: Phillies: 520-486

As nearby major cities, New York and Philadelphia are primed for sporting rivalries. Like the Eagles and Giants of the NFL, the Mets and Phillies have an intense dislike of one another. The series has been punctuated by the occasional beaning and brawl. In 1990, pitcher Doc Gooden was plunked while batting, so he charged the mound, sparking a wild brawl. As recently as 2015, the teams have aimed fastballs at one another.

Players have not been shy about going after each other off the field either. Then-Phillies pitcher Cole Hamels called the Mets “choke artists” and reliever Billy Wagner left the Phillies to join the Mets in free agency, bashing his former team once he left town.

Source: Patrick Smith / Getty Images

8. Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens
> League: NFL
> Head to head leader: Steelers: 28-23

These teams share an unusual history, as part of the rivalry extends to Cleveland — the current Ravens franchise moved to Baltimore from Cleveland. During the 2000s, games between the rivals were usually thrilling defensive battles. The teams boasted two of the most brutal defenses in the league, with players like Troy Polomalu and James Harrison on one side and Ed Reed and Ray Lewis on the other, and matchups between the teams tended to be exciting, low-scoring affairs.

Source: Maddie Meyer / Getty Images

7. Boston Bruins and Montreal Canadiens
> League: NHL
> Head to head leader: Canadiens: 363-283-103

The long history of these two rivals extends back decades. The teams have played each other over 30 times in the playoffs. Much to the chagrin of Boston fans, this includes a 45-year stretch through 1988 in which the Bruins could not defeat their rivals, losing in 18 straight playoff matchups with Montreal.

The bad blood between the two franchises was renewed in 2011, when Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara slammed the Habs’ Max Pacioretty into a stanchion near center ice — Pacioretty sustained a fractured vertebra and a concussion. While the league took no further action, the Montreal police did pursue a criminal investigation into the case for eight months.


Source: Ronald Martinez / Getty Images

6. Dallas Cowboys and Philadelphia Eagles
> League: NFL
> Head to head leader: Cowboys: 69-52

The heated Cowboys-Eagles rivalry has often crossed the line from competitive to downright distasteful. Ahead of their Thanksgiving Day game in 1989, Eagles coach Buddy Ryan was accused of offering a cash bounty for players to hit Dallas’ kicker Luis Zendejas or QB Troy Aikman. Ryan already had a distaste for the Cowboys, whom he accused of running up the score on his squad a few seasons earlier. The teams played two weeks later in Philly, and Cowboys players, coaches, and even referees were pelted with snowballs throughout the game.

Fans have always played an integral role in the Cowboys-Eagles rivalry. One of the more sinister moments came when Eagles fans cheered after Michael Irvin was twisted awkwardly during a tackle. It would be his final play as he suffered a career-ending spinal cord injury. Cowboys fans have always had more to crow about though. Their team leads the all-time series 69-52 and has five Super Bowls to Philly’s one.

Source: Harry How / Getty Images

5. Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants
> League: MLB
> Head to head leader: Dodgers: 1,256-1,233

These two California cities’ teams share a legendary rivalry, with well over 1,400 games played, extending back to their days as New York City teams (the New York Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers.) The series is relatively even between the two teams, both in terms of their general success in the league and their success against each other. The history of these two teams is marked with violence both on the field and in the stands. In 2013, a Dodgers fan was fatally stabbed outside of the Giants’ AT&T Park. After being traded to the Giants, Dodgers legend Jackie Robinson famously opted to retire rather than play for his team’s bitter rival.


Source: Doug Pensinger / Getty Images

4. Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers
> League: NHL
> Head to head leader: Flyers: 156-94-30-10

The Battle of Pennsylvania is one of the most intense not just in the NHL, but any sport. The two teams met most recently in the playoffs in 2018, when Pittsburgh eliminated the Flyers in five games.

While Pittsburgh has had the upper hand lately, Flyers fans may look fondly on “The Streak.” For 42 straight games, stretching over a period of 15 years, the Penguins could not beat the Flyers at their home arena. The best they could do was reach a tie, which they did three times.

Source: Jonathan Daniel / Getty Images

3. Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears
> League: NFL
> Head to head leader: Packers: 98-95-6

Bears vs. Packers is the NFL’s oldest and greatest rivalry. For nearly a century, these teams have battled, with Green Bay holding a slight edge in victories, 98-95. The rivalry surpasses all others in the NFL as the two teams are the most successful in NFL history — the Packers have 13 NFL championships, four of them Super Bowls. The Bears have nine titles, one in the Super Bowl era.

The rivalry has often featured some of the greatest coaches in NFL history, be it Lambeau or Lombardi for the Packers or Halas or Ditka for the Bears — not to mention Hall of Fame athletes like Sayers, Singletary, Favre, and Starr.

Source: Bettmann / Getty Images

2. Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers
> League: NBA
> Head to head leader: Celtics: 203-161

No other rivalry in basketball even comes close to the Los Angeles Lakers and the Boston Celtics. The rivalry extends through multiple generations of superstars on both teams — Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, Kobe Bryant and Paul Pierce. Of the Celtics’ 21 NBA finals appearances, 12 have been against the Lakers (the most any two NBA teams have faced each other in the finals) including five of the last six. The Celtics have won nine of these 12 matchups, but the Lakers took the most recent one, in 2010.


Source: Jim Rogash / WireImage / Getty Images

1. Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees
> League: MLB
> Head to head leader: Yankees: 1,203-996

No rivalry in sports beats the one held by the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox. Until recently, the hatred between the two teams had the added mystique of “The Curse of the Bambino,” which dates back to 1919, when the Red Sox traded Babe Ruth to the Yankees and then didn’t win a championship for nearly another century.

It was fitting that the breaking of that curse would occur in the most dramatic way possible, against their bitter rivals. In the American League Championship Series in 2004, the Red Sox came back after being down 4-3 in the bottom of the ninth inning, down three games to none, to win the game on a David Ortiz home run in the 12th inning. They then won the next three games to take the series, and continued to sweep the St. Louis Cardinals to break the curse.

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