Ranking NFL’s top five rivalries of 1980s: 49ers, Giants among NFC powers battling for league supremacy

The NFL was entering uncharted territory as the 1980s began. While professional football had supplanted baseball as America’s No. 1 pastime, several of the league’s perennial powers — teams that had helped the league reach these new heights in popularity — had started to show signs of decline. The Steelers, Cowboys and Dolphins were still competitive, but the league needed some new teams and individuals to emerge if it wanted to keep its place atop the professional sports landscape. 

Not only did new teams step up, the NFL also witnessed the birth of several new rivalries, ones that, in many circumstances, helped determine who would consider themselves a dynasty by the end of the decade. The NFL also saw the beginning of a 13-year run of dominance by the NFC, as the conference champion would go onto hoist the Lombardi Trophy each year from 1984-96. 

With the recent conclusion of the NFL’s 100th season, we’re taking a look at pro football’s top five rivalries during the ’80s. And while Doc Brown’s DeLorean would be a better way to revisit the ’80s, we’ll do our best to recapture the rivalries that made pro football in that decade a “totally awesome” time. But don’t take my word for it. 

Honorable Mention: Seahawks vs. Raiders 

One of the AFC’s best rivalries during the 1980s, Seattle won 11 of its 21 matchups during the decade against the Raiders, who were able to defeat the Seahawks in the 1983 AFC Championship Game after being swept by Seattle during the regular season. Marcus Allen’s 216 all-purpose yards spearheaded the Raiders’ offense, while Hall of Fame cornerback Mike Haynes helped hold Seattle’s Hall of Fame receiver Steve Largent to just 25 yards on two catches. Seattle would end the Raiders’ title defense a year later, as the Seahawks’ defense sacked Jim Plunkett six times in a 13-7 victory in the wild card round. 

Three years later, the two teams played in one of the most infamous games in Monday Night Football history. With the pregame hype focused around Seahawks linebacker Brian Bosworth and Raiders running back Bo Jackson, Jackson delivered with a game for the ages, rushing for 221 yards and two touchdowns that included a 91-yard touchdown run. Jackson also scored on a 2-yard touchdown run as he carried “The Boz” into the end zone. 

5. Vikings vs. 49ers 

Overall head-to-head record during the decade: 49ers, 5-3
Playoff record during the decade: 49ers, 2-1
Longest winning streak: 3 (Vikings, 1985-87; 49ers, 1988-89)
Best game: October 30, 1988: 49ers 24, Vikings 21

After having their way with most of the NFC during the first half of the ’80s, the 49ers were beginning to come back to the field by 1985. That season, the Vikings won for the first time that decade against the 49ers after dropping games against San Francisco in 1983 and ’84. Two years later, Minnesota, led by Anthony Carter’s 227 receiving yards, shocked the heavily favorited 49ers in the divisional round of the playoffs. The loss nearly led to the retirement of 49ers head coach Bill Walsh, who called the defeat the most difficult one of his career. During the game, the 49ers benched Joe Montana in favor of Steve Young, which led to a highly publicized quarterback controversy that continued well into the 1988 season. 

San Francisco was a pedestrian 5-3 when it entered the Week 9 matchup with the visiting Vikings. Walsh, who had still not settled on a starting quarterback, decided to start Young, who had success against the Vikings after replacing Montana in the playoffs. After a slow start, Young helped engineer three second-half scoring drives that included his game-winning, 49-yard touchdown run, considered one of the greatest runs in NFL history. The win enabled the 49ers to obtain home field advantage against the Vikings during the divisional round of the playoffs. This time, with Montana back under center, the 49ers won with ease, 34-9, en route to winning their first Super Bowl since January of 1985. 

The next season, the 49ers again made quick work of the Vikings in the divisional round of the playoffs, with Montana’s four touchdown passes spearheading San Francisco’s 41-13 win. The 49ers would go onto win their fourth Super Bowl of the decade, while the Vikings would have to wait eight years before making it back to the divisional round of the playoffs. 

4. Giants vs. Redskins 

Overall head-to-head record during the decade: Redskins, 11-10
Playoff record during the decade: Giants, 1-0 
Longest winning streak: 6 (Redskins, 1981-84) 
Best game: October 27, 1986: Giants 27, Redskins 20 

The only divisional rivalry that made the cut, the Giants and Redskins won a combined six division titles and three Super Bowls during the 1980s. The Redskins, led by Hall of Fame coach Joe Gibbs, dominated the series early on, going 8-1 against the Giants at the start of the decade while winning two NFC titles as well as the franchise’s first Super Bowl in the process. 

Things began to shift the Giants’ way in 1984, during Bill Parcells’ second season as New York’s head coach. After suffering a 16-point loss to the Redskins earlier in the season, the Giants ended their six-game losing streak against Washington by posting a 37-13 win at home in Week 9. The win helped the Giants sew up a playoff spot, where they defeated Eric Dickerson  and the Rams in the divisional round (earning Parcells his first playoff win as a head coach). The following season, Lawrence Taylor inadvertently ended Joe Theismann’s career when his hit on Theismann broke the QB’s leg. The injury opened the door for Jay Schroeder, who would spend the next three years as Washington’s starter before being replaced by Super Bowl XXII MVP Doug Williams. 

After dropping a tough road game against Seattle, the 5-2 Giants welcomed the 6-1 Redskins to the Meadowlands for a pivotal Week 8 showdown that was seen throughout the country on “Monday Night Football.” After jumping out to a 20-3 lead, the Giants watched as the Redskins scored 17 unanswered points, with six of those points coming on a 42-yard touchdown pass from Schroeder to Gary Clark, who finished the game with 241 yards on 11 receptions. Undaunted, the Giants responded by scoring the game-winning touchdown, a 13-yard run by running back Joe Morris, who finished the game with 181 yards and two touchdowns on 31 carries. The win, along with the Giants’ 24-14 win over Washington in Week 15, gave New York home field advantage for their showdown against the Redskins in the NFC title game. Aided by a blustery wind that gave the Redskins far more issues than it did the Giants, Lawrence Taylor and the rest of New York’s defense shut out the Redskins en route to the franchise’s first Super Bowl title. 

3. Bears vs. Redskins 

Overall head-to-head record during the decade: Tied, 4-4
Playoff record during the decade: Redskins, 2-1
Best game: 1987 divisional round: Redskins 21, Bears 17

Led by Walter Payton’s 104 rushing yards (as well as his second quarter touchdown pass), the Bears dethroned the defending two-time NFC champion Redskins in the divisional round of the 1984 playoffs. A year later, the Bears went 15-1 during the regular season, including a 45-10 thrashing of Washington, which missed the playoffs despite winning 10 games during the regular season. The Bears went onto win their first Lombardi Trophy, defeating the Giants and Rams in the NFC playoffs before dismantling the Patriots in Super Bowl XX, 46-10. 

After the Redskins ended the Bears’ title defense in the 1986 playoffs, the two teams squared off again in the postseason in the divisional round of the 1987 playoffs. With the windchill at -20 degrees, neither team could get their passing game going, with Jim McMahon and Doug Williams combining to throw for just 370 net yards with two touchdowns and four interceptions. Despite the weather, the Bears did have success early, with Payton (105 total yards on 19 touches) helping Chicago jump out to a 14-0 lead. 

The Redskins, however, fought back to tie the score heading into halftime. With it still tied in the third quarter, Joe Gibbs decided to put future Hall of Fame cornerback Darrell Green back as a punt returner. The result was a 50-yard return for a touchdown by Green, who managed to get into the end zone despite suffering a rib injury on the play. While Green would miss the remainder of the game, the Redskins hung on for a four-point victory in what would be the final game of Payton’s Hall of Fame career. Washington would then defeat the Vikings in the NFC title game before steamrolling John Elway and the Broncos in Super Bowl XXII, 42-10. 

2. Broncos vs. Browns 

Overall head-to-head record during the decade: Broncos, 8-1
Playoff record during the decade: Broncos, 3-0  
Longest winning streak: 7 (Broncos, 1980-88)
Best game: 1986 AFC Championship Game: Broncos 23, Browns 20 

John Elway’s Broncos are one of the biggest reasons why the Browns are still waiting for their first Super Bowl appearance. Three times over a four-year span, the Browns advanced to within a game of the Super Bowl, only to be turned back by the Broncos, who would go on to lose each of their Super Bowl matchups during that span by a combined score of 136-40. The Broncos of that era epitomized the talent disparity that existed between the two conferences during this time in NFL history, as the Raiders (1980 and ’83) were the only AFC team that won a Super Bowl during the decade. 

Cleveland’s best chance to beat the Broncos came in their first playoff meeting with Denver. With the score tied at 13, Bernie Kosar’s 48-yard touchdown pass to Brian Brennan gave the Browns a late lead over the visiting Broncos in the 1986 AFC Championship Game. The Browns appeared to be on their way to a showdown with the Giants in Super Bowl XXI after pinning the Broncos’ offense on their own 2-yard-line with under six minutes remaining. But despite the circumstances that included a raucous Cleveland Municipal Stadium, Elway calmly moved the Broncos’ offense down the field, throwing the game-tying touchdown pass to Mark Jackson with 37 seconds left. The Broncos would go on to win the game in overtime to punch their first ticket to the Super Bowl since January of 1978. 

The following season, it would be the Browns who were threatening to score in the closing minutes of the AFC title game. Trailing by five points and just eight yards away from the end zone, Browns running back Ernest Byner, who had enjoyed a career game up until this point, fumbled just short of the goal line, as the Broncos escaped with a 38-33 win. The Broncos have since added three Lombardi Trophies to their trophy case, while the Browns have yet to make a return trip to the AFC title game since losing to the Broncos for a third time in January of 1990. 

1. Giants vs. 49ers 

Overall head-to-head record during the decade: 49ers, 8-3
Playoff record during the decade: 2-2
Longest winning streak: 5 (49ers, 1980-84)
Best games: December 1, 1986: Giants 21, 49ers 17;  September 11, 1988: 49ers 20, Giants 17 

Similar to their rivalry with the Redskins, the Giants took their lumps against the 49ers during the early part of the decade before getting things turned around shortly after Parcells became head coach in 1983. After losing playoff games in San Francisco in 1981 and ’84, the Giants held the defending champion 49ers to a mere three points in their divisional round playoff victory over San Francisco in 1985.

In Week 13 of the 1986 season, the 49ers jumped out to a 17-0 halftime lead over the visiting Giants on “Monday Night Football.” Undaunted, the Giants responded by scoring the game’s final 21 points, with running back Ottis Anderson scoring the game-winning touchdown. On month later, in the divisional round round of the ’86 playoffs, Jim Burt’s devastating hit on Joe Montana not only knocked Montana out of the game, it set the tempo for New York’s 49-3 blowout win over the 49ers. 

Both teams were vying for NFC supremacy when the 49ers headed to the Meadowlands for a Week 2 matchup with the Giants in 1988. With Steve Young making his first start as a 49er, San Francisco’s offense managed to score just 10 points during the game’s first 30 minutes. With the 49ers trailing 17-13 with 58 seconds left, and Joe Montana in the game in relief of Young, head coach Bill Walsh called “76 All Go,” a play Walsh installed in practice earlier in the week specifically for the Giants. The play worked to perfection, as Montana lofted the ball down the near sideline to Jerry Rice, who beat two Giants defenders on his way to a 78-yard touchdown. The win helped set in motion the 49ers’ second wave of Super Bowl success, as San Francisco closed out the decade with victories in Super Bowls XXIII and XXIV. 

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