Rivalries are an interesting exercise in human psychology. They are the addictive conceptual substance that keep NFL fans coming back no matter how good or bad their team is. Without them, fans of 20 teams a year could pretty much pack up and go home by Thanksgiving. With them, games have meaning even after playoff hopes have been ruined. But, when seasons are on the line, they take on a profound and lasting impact that scarcely can be erased.
All teams have a rivalry, real or imagined. Most of them involve division rivals.
Occasionally though, a rivalry emerges between teams with no divisional relationship. These are rare but they make for some of the best football at the time and especially when history finally has the benefit of time to reflect.
One of the key components of such a rivalry is that both teams must be very good in their own right. For instance, no one cared about the Colts and Patriots before 2000 and aside from folks from Indiana holding onto their loathing of New England, no one much cares now with Manning in Denver. In many ways, such rivalries often become about specific players, like the infamous Manning vs. Brady, or even coaches than teams or cities as normal division rivalries are.
For example, Pittsburgh and Baltimore could trot out a 40 year old Kordell Stewart and Elvis Grbac again and fans of the team would still care deeply about the game's outcome. But good luck getting anyone to care about Kerry Collins circa 2011 Colts against Tom Brady. Non-divisional rivalries are built on very specific individuals.
Baltimore and New England are one such unique case. The key leaders in each organization had their origins together in the early 1990s with the Cleveland Browns. Ozzie Newsome, who learned at the side of Belichick, presided over the Ravens as they had their rebirth and won a championship in 2000. The very next year, Belichick won a Super Bowl and went on to preside over the NFL's most successful team of the past 14 years. Ray Lewis himself was born of the 26th overall pick which Cleveland secured in a trade in 1995 with San Francisco. Theirs is a relationship forever shared in their earliest origins.
When John Harbaugh interviewed for the Ravens job in 2008, Belichick provided an unasked for recommendation for Harbaugh which certainly influenced their decision to hire him.
Until Harbaugh took the job, the rivalry was rather one-sided with the Ravens often finding a way to blow it in the end. After the arrival of Flacco and Harbaugh, these two teams have developed a nice little rivalry born of regular meetings in the playoffs as two of the regular AFC heavyweights. The rivalry has, at its core, always largely been built on Ray Lewis vs. Tom Brady as leaders of their teams as well as Bill Belichick against his former protege, Ozzie Newsome.
Our next few #TBTs will feature some Ravens vs. Patriots games of years past, some of which I haven't even seen before. We may not always find much in the way of positive at first, but if nothing else, we'll find something to laugh about. That something will probably be Kyle Boller.