IRVING, Texas – One of the greatest things about sports is natural rivalries. Whether it’s Army-Navy or Oklahoma-Texas in college football, or Duke-North Carolina in college hoops or Red Sox-Yankees in baseball, rivalries help make sports as exciting as they are.
And it’s no different in professional football.
Sure, free agency over the years might have changed the game as players have switched teams more, but you can even make a case that it’s enhanced the rivalries because the faces might be different, but the uniforms and logos really aren’t.
With the Cowboys, who enter their 53rd season of existence this fall, they’ve had plenty of rivalries throughout the years. Some are natural because of the NFC East division, which pits them against the same opponents twice a year, while some are more of a geographic rival. And then you’ve got some teams that have become rivals simply because of their postseason matchups, often occurring on a regular basis.
How they get formed is somewhat irrelevant. A rivalry is a rivalry. Let’s look at the Top-10 rivalries for the Cowboys in franchise history.
Honorable Mention: Buffalo
The Cowboys and Bills really only have two meaningful games in franchise history, both in the Super Bowl where the Cowboys dominated Buffalo both times to claim back-to-back championships. For Dallas, it was a return to the top of the mountain as they became the Team of the ’90s. For the Bills, who had also lost two previous Super Bowls to the Giants and Redskins, it gave them the dubious honor of becoming the first football team to lose four straight championships. Since then, it’s not really a rivalry considering AFC and NFC teams are scheduled to play every four years. But each time the Bills and Cowboys meet, their consecutive Super Bowl games are always mentioned.
The younger generation of fans likely has no idea of the history between these two franchises. Over the last 20-25 years, the Cowboys and Rams haven’t had many memorable moments, especially since the Rams moved to St. Louis. But when they were in Los Angeles during the 1970s and early ’80s, these two franchises had several postseason encounters. In fact, during an eight-year span from 1973-80, the Rams and Cowboys met six times in the playoffs, including twice in the NFC Championship Game, with the Cowboys winning both times. Overall, the Cowboys have faced the Rams eight times in the playoffs, more than any other franchise, with an even 4-4 split.
This rivalry is probably bigger with the fans. The Cowboys and Raiders have often shared the same fan base, especially in the Southwest region and in California, where the club has held training camp for more than 30 years. On the field, the Raiders are one of seven teams to have a winning regular-season record against the Cowboys, with a 6-4 edge. But these two teams square off often in the preseason, including this year as the Cowboys open the exhibition schedule on Aug. 13 in Oakland.
Though they were in the same division for ages, until Arizona moved to the NFC West in 2002, the Cardinals were undoubtedly the most lukewarm rival among the Cowboys’ Eastern foes. Still, the clubs met twice a year for over four decades, and the Cardinals’ move from St. Louis landed them in a geographical hotbed of Cowboys fanhood. Particularly in lean years, it’s not been uncommon for Sun Devil Stadium or the new University of Phoenix Stadium to be filled primarily by Cowboys fans when the two teams meet.
The clubs have played only three times in the regular season, with the Cowboys winning two of the games, but it’s impossible to think of this rivalry without vividly recalling the 2002 opener, the very first game for the expansion Texans. Led by top draft pick David Carr, Houston dominated a Cowboys team that actually had a good bit of hope for the new season – at least until that night. While the enmity between the Cowboys and Texans is relatively new, the city of Houston was holding Dallas in contempt long before, as the Oilers came into existence the same year as the Cowboys, and the two teams played almost annually in the preseason.
In the late 1960s, the Cowboys earned the unenviable title of “Next Year’s Champions” after running into Vince Lombardi’s Packers in back-to-back NFL Championship Games, 1966 and 1967, the latter being the famed “Ice Bowl.” The teams renewed their rivalry in the 1990s, with Dallas knocking the Packers out of the playoffs three years in a row. For his career, Brett Favre never won a game in Texas Stadium, going 0-9 on trips to Dallas, including his final appearance there, 2007′s late-November showdown between the 10-1 Cowboys and 10-1 Packers when Favre was knocked out of the game early. His replacement, Aaron Rodgers, has fared better, nearly rallying Green Bay to a win that night and, most painfully of all for Cowboys fans, hoisting the Lombardi Trophy in Arlington after Super Bowl XLV.
The only Super Bowl matchup that has taken place three times is between Dallas and Pittsburgh. And with that, there will always be a rivalry. But it’s more than just those three games. The NFL’s popularity was taking off in the 1970s and it was the time many fans chose which team to support. Pittsburgh and Dallas were easily the two best teams of the decade. The Steelers beat the Cowboys in Super Bowl X and XIII to stake their claim as the Team of the ’70s. The Cowboys came back with a Super Bowl XXX victory for their fifth overall title. Since then, Pittsburgh has edged in front with six. To this day, the Steelers and Cowboys have one of the larger road contingents of fans among the NFL teams.
This is another rivalry naturally because of postseason success. Everyone remembers “The Catch” in the 1981 playoffs that sent San Francisco to its first Super Bowl. It was the second of three straight NFC Championship defeats for the Cowboys. While it was considered a passing-of-the-torch moment for the 49ers, who went on to win four Super Bowls in a decade, the Cowboys were able to regain their spot on top, beating San Francisco in the 1992 NFC Championship Game. In fact, the 49ers and Cowboys met three straight years with the Super Bowl on the line, with Dallas winning twice. From 1992-95, the 49ers and Cowboys accounted for all four Super Bowl titles. Since that time, the rivalry has lost some steam although Terrell Owens dancing on the star in 2000, as a member of the 49ers, helped rekindle it somewhat. Still, the playoff memories will always make these two franchises connected as rivals.
If this list focused on the last 10 years, then the Giants might just be No. 1 overall. Here lately, the Cowboys-Giants rivalry has been enhanced with some memorable games. New York has had the advantage recently, especially considering the 2007 NFC Divisional Game where they knocked off 13-3 Dallas en route to a surprising Super Bowl run. Last year, the Giants beat the Cowboys in Week 17 with the NFC East crown and a playoff spot on the line. The Giants used that momentum to win their second Super Bowl in five seasons. Over the years, the Cowboys have had the upper hand on the Giants, owning a 56-42-2 record, but New York has won seven of the last nine meetings and they’re the only opposing team to have three victories at Cowboys Stadium, including the inaugural win in 2009.
Philly gets the nod on the Giants, simply for the “hate” factor. While there might be some genuine respect between the two teams, there is no love lost between the franchises, and especially the respective cities. This rivalry really took off in the late 1980s when Buddy Ryan became head coach of the Eagles. From the fake kneel-down in 1987 to the “Bounty Bowl” and Snowball fights in 1989, this rivalry went to a new level in the early 1990s. The young Cowboys couldn’t get over that Eagles-hump until 1991, when they beat Philly en route to their first playoff berth in six years. The 2009 season was also a big moment for the Cowboys, who defeated the Eagles in Week 17 to win the NFC East and get home-field advantage for the rematch the following week at Cowboys Stadium. The Cowboys won that game as well, 34-14 for their first playoff win in 14 seasons.
This rivalry may not be exactly what it was in the past, but it’s not far off. All you have to do is go to one Cowboys-Redskins game, especially one up at FedEx Field in D.C, and you’d be convinced this is every bit as strong as it was back in the 1970s. While all of the division teams form a heated rivalry, nothing comes close to Cowboys and Redskins. And that’s not just by NFL standards, but this rivalry is one of the greatest in all of sports. So many memorable games have occurred between the sides, including Clint Longley’s Thanksgiving Day bomb in 1974 after Roger Staubach had been knocked out. Then Staubach’s last win when he rallied the Cowboys to a stunning 35-34 comeback over Washington in 1979. The Redskins couldn’t have been more excited about beating Dallas 31-17 in the 1982 NFC Championship Game. True rivalries are measured by the two teams playing at the highest level, regardless of records. The Cowboys had lost 10 straight games in 1988 but mustered enough to beat the Redskins 24-21 to give Tom Landry his final win as head coach. The next year, the Cowboys’ lone victory in a dismal 1-15 season occurred at RFK Stadium. In 1995, the Redskins went 4-12 but managed to sweep the Cowboys, who went 12-4 and won Super Bowl XXX. Overall, the Cowboys lead the series 62-40-2, but some of the greatest moments for both franchises have occurred in this series. Even if it’s down a little, the Cowboys-Redskins rivalry is still the most heated.