THE NFL FEATURES ANY NUMBER OF LEGENDARY HISTORIC PLAYOFF RIVALRIES, but not all rivalries are created equal. The Cowboys-Rams rivalry is a great one. Those franchises have met nine times in the playoffs and nearly split the games, with the Rams holding a 5–4 edge thanks to a 2019 victory.
Other rivalries are more lopsided, and those are the so-called “rivalries” we’re looking at today. Four pairs of teams have met twice in the Super Bowl, with the same team winning each time, while nine other playoff matchups have happened at least three times in NFL history with the same victor every time.
So which NFL playoff rivalry is the most lopsided in NFL history? Let’s count down the top 10 in order, starting with some honorable mentions…
TIER IV — THE HONORABLE MENTIONS
14. San Francisco 49ers 2, Cincinnati Bengals 0
Our four honorable mentions played only two times each, but they met on the game’s biggest stage. There are plenty of other 2–0 matchups, and there are even more at 3–1, 4–2, or even more lopsided scores like 4–1. But these four get a special mention as two-time head-to-head Super Bowl winners.
The 49ers and Bengals played in two 80s Super Bowls, and they were hardly lopsided. Between the two games, San Francisco was favored to win by eight points combined; they won by nine. The first game wasn’t as close as it looked, as the Bengals rallied late but couldn’t close the gap on Joe Montana’s first ring. Seven years later it was the 49ers rallying late, with Montana driving 92 years in three minutes and throwing the winning touchdown to John Taylor with just 34 seconds on the clock.
13. New England Patriots 2, Los Angeles Rams 0
It’s crazy to realize now that these two teams met as the bookends of Tom Brady’s remarkable Super Bowl career. Most recently, it was Brady’s final win one season ago in one of the most boring Super Bowls in recent memory.
But back in 2002, New England shocked The Greatest Show on Turf as Bill Belichick stymied an offense no one else had been able to stop, holding the Rams to only three points before a late comeback tied the game and left things up to Tom Brady’s arm and Adam Vinatieri’s leg. And you know the rest of the story from there.
12. New York Giants 2, New England Patriots 0
Of course, the Patriots are on the other side of this one, and in this case, they were favorites in both upsets. The less memorable upset came in 2012 when Ahmad Bradshaw fell backwards into the endzone with a minute left and Brady’s Hail Mary attempt to Rob Gronkowski came closer than you recall.
But in the first meeting, it was Belichick’s historic offense that was stymied as a massive underdog Giants defense kept the game close and let Eli Manning and David Tyree’s helmet finish the job late.
11. Dallas Cowboys 2, Buffalo Bills 0
It’s hard to get much more lopsided than these two back-to-back Super Bowls in 1993 and 1994. The poor Bills never had a chance. At least the Giants and Redskins let Buffalo fans believe a little bit. The Cowboys straight up trounced them by a combined score of 82 to 30, and honestly, the games weren’t even that close.
The latter win was the first of five straight 90s Super Bowls in which the NFC team was favored by double digits. They won all of them until John Elway showed up in the finale.
TIER III — THREE TIMES WITHOUT DEFEAT
10. Miami Dolphins 3, Kansas City Chiefs 0
“Lopsided” hardly describes this legitimate rivalry. The most recent matchup was perhaps the most ballyhooed as Dan Marino and Joe Montana met for the first time since Super Bowl XIX. Marino’s Dolphins won this time in what turned out to be Montana’s final NFL game. Four years earlier, Marino capped a late TD drive with a toss to Mark Clayton with three minutes left.
But the first playoff meeting was the most memorable and still stands as the longest playoff game in NFL history. The Fins and Chiefs battled deep into the second overtime before Garo Yepremian’s leg finally ended it 82 minutes and 40 seconds into the final game played at Municipal Stadium. Miami went on to lose that 1972 Super Bowl but didn’t lose another game the following season.
9. Seattle Seahawks 3, Washington Redskins 0
You young’ns might not remember, but the Seahawks used to be an AFC for most of their existence. That would have forced this to be a Super Bowl matchup back in the day, but alas, all three Hawks-Skins games have come this century.
A 2006 Seahwawks win was their first playoff victory in 21 years, and a second victory two years later prominently featured Washington QB Todd Collins. The most memorable matchup came in 2013 when Seattle came from down 14 in the final period in a game you also remember as the last time Robert Griffin III was ever relevant — or whole — again.
8. Indianapolis Colts 3, Denver Broncos 0
All three games involved Peyton Manning — but not all on the same team. The first two were back-to-back wallopings in 2004–05 as Peyton crushed Jake Plummer and the Broncos, putting up 90 points in two meetings. The most recent game came in 2015, and this time Peyton was in orange and blue. He was a heavy favorite again after a huge scoring season, but this time his Luck ran out as Andrew and the Colts got revenge on their longtime quarterback.
7. Washington Redskins 3, Detroit Lions 0
Almost anything involving “Lions” and “playoffs” is going to be ugly, but this is especially grotesque. Detroit played Washington three times and lost by 14, 24, and 31. The 24-point beatdown came in 1983 in Detroit’s first playoff appearance since 1970.
The next meeting was 41–10 in the 1992 NFC Championship, the last time either of these teams has made it to that stage. In fact, the Lions have made the playoffs only nine times in the last 50 years — and they’ve won only a single playoff game since 1957. Woof.
6. San Francisco 49ers 3, Chicago Bears 0
In 1994, the 49ers slaughtered the Bears 44–15, scoring on six straight possessions in a game that finished with both backup quarterbacks playing much of the second half. And that was the closest of these matchups!
The other two came in the 1985 and 1989 NFC Championship Games, with poor Chicago putting up just three points combined in the two games. Add it all up and the all-time record stands at San Francisco 96, Chicago 18. The 49ers went on to win the Super Bowl all three times after beating the Bears.
5. Denver Broncos 3, Cleveland Browns 0
Sorry, Browns fans.
This “rivalry” is unique to the list in that all three matchups came in one four-year span at the end of the 80s — and all in the AFC Championship Game. And though the games were hardly lopsided, you’ll forgive Browns fans for never wanting to play Denver again, with two of these games among the greatest in NFL history, known simply as The Fumble and The Drive.
The Drive came first, in 1987, as the Browns led by a TD late and pinned Denver on their own two with under six minutes left, looking certain to make their first Super Bowl ever. That’s when John Elway went to work, and 98 yards later, his TD toss tied the game with 37 seconds left, and the Broncos finished the job in overtime.
The teams met again the following season, and it was close late again. An Elway TD with four minutes left had given Denver the lead, but Bernie Kosar and the Browns were driving late when Earnest Byner looked certain to head in for the game-tying touchdown before Jeremiah Castille stripped him at that dang two-yard line with 1:05 remaining. Denver took an intentional safety and won 38–33, thanks to The Fumble.
The third victory came two years later in 1990 as the Broncos, perhaps mercifully, pulled away late for a 37–21 win. Yet another AFC Championship loss for the Browns, and they haven’t won a single playoff game since.
TIER II — A WHOPPING FOUR WINS BETTER
4. San Francisco 49ers 5, Minnesota Vikings 1
The Broncos and Browns weren’t the only teams to meet frequently in the late 80s. The 49ers and Vikings played in three straight playoffs in 1988, 1989, and 1990, though the Vikings do have one distinction from every other loser on this list — they actually won a game.
Minnesota won the first of those three matchups behind a playoff-record 227 receiving yards from Anthony Carter, a shocker over the NFC 1-seed, but they blew their chance at the Super Bowl the following week in the NFC Championship Game when Darrin Nelson bobbled a pass in the endzone in the game’s final minute. The 49ers had their revenge a year later with a dominant 34–9 victory, then did it again 41–13 the following season.
The teams’ first meeting came in 1970 when the heavily favored Vikings were upset by San Francisco, and the 49ers beat them again in 1998. The most recent meeting was, of course, this January in a forgettable 27–10 San Francisco romp on the way to the Super Bowl.
3. Philadelphia Eagles 4, Minnesota Vikings 0
Oh hey look, the Vikings again. So glad we’re doing this.
The most recent meeting came just two-and-a-half years ago in the game following the Minneapolis Miracle. Case Keenum turned back into a pumpkin and Nick Foles transformed into a god as the Eagles cruised to a 38–7 win and went on to beat the Patriots in the Super Bowl.
That was the only time these teams met in the NFC Championship, but the other three meetings were almost as lopsided. The Eagles won by double digits in each game, by 12, 13, and 15, with Donovan McNabb leading Philadelphia to victories in 2005 and 2009 and Ron Jaworski getting the job done in 1981, thanks to eight Minnesota turnovers.
2. Oakland Raiders 4, Houston Oilers / Tennessee Titans 0
The Raiders spent many years in Las Angeles and now reside in Las Vegas, but all four of these playoff wins came while they resided in Oakland. Only one of them was against the Tennessee Titans. That came in the 2003 AFC Championship, when Oakland called only one run in the first three quarters as Rich Gannon led the Raiders to a 41–24 win and sent them to the Super Bowl.
The other three Raiders wins came against the Houston Oilers — and you’ll have to decide if two of them count. In 1981, Oakland’s Jim Plunkett faced an old Raiders quarterback in Ken Stabler, but Stabler didn’t bring his playoff magic to Houston and lost 27–7.
The other two matchups came in 1967 and 1969, in the American Football League. Oakland QB Daryle Lamonica led the Raiders to dominant 40–7 and 56–7 playoff wins, throwing a playoff record six touchdown passes in the second meeting. The 1967 meeting crowned the Raiders champions of the AFL. The 1969 one sent Oakland to the AFL Championship, where they lost to the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFL’s final game before its merger with the NFL.
TIER I — THE SINGLE MOST LOPSIDED PLAYOFF RIVALRY IN NFL HISTORY
1. Pittsburgh Steelers 5, Baltimore / Indianapolis Colts 0
The Steelers aren’t the only team to beat a single playoff opponent five times, but they’re the only one to do so with an unblemished record. Two pairs of the games came in back-to-back seasons.
The first pair came in 1975 and 1976, when the Colts still lived in Baltimore. Terry Bradshaw led the way, and Franco Harris carved up the Colts defense, while Pittsburgh’s Steel Curtain shut things down on the other end. Pittsburgh won the first meeting 28–10 and went on to win the Super Bowl, then beat the Colts again a year later, 40–14.
The teams met again in 1996 and 1997, with the former far more memorable. Jim Harbaugh featured in both games for the now-Indianapolis Colts, and he led a late drive in 1996 and throw a high, lofted Hail Mary on the game’s final play that hit Colts WR Aaron Bailey in the chest but bounced off the turf before Bailey could corral it for the win. Pittsburgh held on to win 20–16 and won much more comfortably the following season 42–14 as Kordell Stewart slashed his way to victory.
The most recent matchup came in 2006 in one of the NFL’s most shocking upsets, the first time a 6-seed had ever beaten a 1-seed. The Steelers were defending champions but eked into the playoffs behind sophomore Ben Roethlisberger, and they looked set to put the game away late with the ball on the goal line before Jerome Bettis fumbled for the first time all season. Colts corner Nick Harper was off for the races and a surefire winning TD before Big Ben somehow tackled him near midfield, perhaps with the unlikely assist of Harper’s wife, who “accidentally” stabbed Harper the day before. Mike Vanderjagt missed a tying field goal for the Colts, and the Steelers held on to win, 21–18, en route to their fifth Super Bowl championship.
Five Super Bowl wins, and five playoff wins against the Colts. Of course, Pittsburgh has since added a sixth Super Bowl ring, so…
Watch your backs, Indianapolis. ■