I'm a big fan of the way that ESPN.com covers the NFL, assigning one beat writer to each team to form a collective NFL Nation of coverage in the NFL portion of the website. This time of year, during one of the handful of lulls between milestone NFL calendar events, it has some great topics that each writer weighs in on from his or her team's perspective.
The topic from earlier this week was one that intrigues me — who is your team's biggest rival? An excellent subjective topic that inspires some fierce debate.
For the record, in my opinion, in order to truly be "rivals," the feeling (read: hatred) between the two teams has to be mutual. In other words, the other team you identify as "rival" must feel virtually the same way about your team. The sports hate can be based in anything — geography, frequent postseason meetings, stealing a franchise from your city (HELLO, NASHVILLE) — so long as it exists and goes two ways.
I realize that by that definition, there are probably NFL teams who actually don't really have a true rival in the Pendergast-ian sense of the word, and so be it. That said, I'm sure the editor of ESPN.com doesn't want Tania Ganguli (who does a fine job covering the Texans) saying, "Well, the Texans don't really have anyone who hates them enough to call them a rival, so c'est la vie!" In other words, all 32 writers had to pick somebody.
Here's how it went:
BUFFALO: New England
MIAMI: New England
NEW ENGLAND: Indianapolis
NEW YORK JETS: New England
INDIANAPOLIS: New England
DENVER: New England
KANSAS CITY: Denver
SAN DIEGO: Oakland
DALLAS: New York Giants
NEW YORK GIANTS: Dallas
CHICAGO: Green Bay
DETROIT: Green Bay
GREEN BAY: Chicago
MINNESOTA: Green Bay
ATLANTA: New Orleans
NEW ORLEANS: Atlanta
TAMPA BAY: Atlanta
LOS ANGELES: San Francisco
SAN FRANCISCO: Seattle
Okay, a few interesting observations:
1. You can tell a lot about a team's profile and relevance by how many other teams see them as their chief rival. To that point, the New England Patriots are the only team with more than three other teams' beat writers choosing them as the chief rival of the team they cover. Five teams — BUF, MIA, NYJ, IND, DEN — have the Patriots as their chief rival. THAT'S hate.
2. Five of the eight divisions have one team that the other three hate with the white-hot passion of a thousand suns. The AFC East (New England), AFC North (Pittsburgh), NFC East (Dallas), NFC North (Green Bay) and NFC South (Atlanta) all fit this bill. In a game of "one of these things is not like the other," um... Atlanta?!? Really?!? Okay.
3. Under the Pendergast-ian definition of "rivalry," in which both teams must rate the other as their No. 1 adversary, there are six true rivalries, according to these selections by the ESPN.com beat writers. They are:
New England-Indianapolis: Numerous playoff meetings, rivalry fueled by Brady-Manning galore.
Baltimore-Pittsburgh: Division hatred, the ultimate fistfight, close to a college-type rivalry.
New York Giants-Dallas: Battles in the NFC East going back decades.
Green Bay-Chicago: At least one awesome battle in the snow guaranteed every year.
Atlanta-New Orleans: Geography, battle for supremacy in SEC country.
Arizona-Seattle: Recent bias in play, rivals because they're both good at this very moment.
4. The Texans' rival, according to Tania Ganguli, is the Colts, which, if there must be an answer to the question, makes sense. Same division, several important games in recent years, and an eminently hatable fan base (kind of like the Utah Jazz fans of football). The question is: "How far down the list of teams do you go before the Colts get to the Texans on their rivalry big board?" Clearly, New England and Denver are higher up. I'd guess there's an AFC North team, likely Pittsburgh, that Colts fans would place next. And historically, the Colts have played just as many important games against the Jags and Titans as they have the Texans, just not really any since 2010 or so. I'd conservatively say the Texans are, at best, fourth on the Colts' list, maybe lower.
5. So are the Colts the right answer to the question "Who is your biggest rival?" here for your Houston Texans? Let's look at the candidates and the case for each:
NEW ENGLAND: There's the O'Brien-Belichick thing, plus everyone has New England on his "rival" short list. That said, the results of games between these two teams have been kind of one-sided.
DENVER: The Texans stole their quarterback. The Broncos gave safe haven to the Texans' entire ousted coaching staff and won a goddamn Super Bowl with them. The Broncos could be the answer to this question if we get a postseason meeting or two over the next few years.
CINCINNATI: Met in the playoffs a couple of times and jobbed to the Texans hard both times. Just sort of on the list, not a real threat.
INDIANAPOLIS: For years, the Texans were a sparring partner tomato can, then Peyton left for Denver, and the Texans kept their status of "punching bag." Finally beat the Colts in Indy for the first time this year. Are we sure the Colts are the right answer?
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JACKSONVILLE: Have played each other a bunch of times, and that's about it.
TENNESSEE: THEY STOLE THE OILERS...is that not enough? Also, drafted Vince Young just to troll Houston. Two words — Cortland Finnegan.
So yeah, I know they've sucked like a Hoover for the past four or five years, but how can you not answer "Tennessee"? Again, they STOLE our team! So to me, the right answer is the Titans, with the Broncos as a very sneaky prospect in the near future.
Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays. Also, follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanTPendergast and like him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/SeanTPendergast.