By the time Patrick Mahomes hobble-sprinted his way across a Kansas City sideline, yellow penalty flag in his wake, the Chiefs’ Super Bowl bid was essentially secured. A field goal moments later opened the door to celebration, where a hard-fought win was particularly sweet for coming against the rival Bengals, the same team that had come to this house a season earlier and walked out with their own AFC-clinching win.
No wonder Chiefs star tight end Travis Kelce couldn’t help himself as he walked behind Mahomes’s on-field interview postgame, his guttural, “Burrowhead, my [butt]” resonating through the TV screens. Though Kelce was mainly responding to Cincinnati cornerback Mike Hilton, who’d chosen to re-christen Arrowhead Stadium after the Bengals beat the Bills in Buffalo, Kelce spoke to something bigger, too, to the level of emotion building between these two AFC powerhouses.
In its simplest terms, a competition for superiority in the same field. In sports terms, a delicious one-word encapsulation of all that makes sports great, filled with emotion, intensity, righteousness, a little anger, high stakes, and energy.
From Red Sox-Yankees and a Babe Ruth sale to live in infamy, some rivalries are stitched into the laundry and rooted in team identity. For a player such as Tom Brady, whose days-old retirement has already spawned more conversations than can be counted about who is the best of all time, they are rooted in head-to-head competition. Brady has been pitted against everyone from contemporaries, such as Peyton Manning, to those who came before him, such as Joe Montana, to those who might one day catch him, such as Mahomes.
Yet as much as the notion of a rivalry has been around as long as competitive sports themselves, these past few weeks have offered so many iterations, across so many different sports, that it’s worth revisiting some of the memorable moments, from the sublime to the ridiculous.
▪ Maybe it was ridiculous, but when the Empire State Building turned itself green to celebrate the Eagles’ NFC championship win, the NFC East rival Giants were having none of it, with a social media firestorm erupting in the immediate aftermath. Nor was the local media, with the New York Post running the front page headline “Bird Brains,” to go with Mike Vaccaro’s withering column in which he said of the decision, “New York feels betrayed.” It was bad enough watching the Eagles win (“like watching your mortal enemy hit a winning Powerball ticket and then steal your wife,” “a dyspeptic disaster” he wrote), never mind seeing a city landmark — an Empire one named after the city, no less — side with the enemy.
Fuel for a fire that promises to rage on if the Eagles beat the Chiefs next Sunday, when, according to the Post, the Empire State Building would go green again. Oh, the horror.
▪ The LIV versus PGA Tour rivalry turned hilariously personal last weekend in Dubai, with Patrick Reed and Rory McIlroy providing the drama. Pitted as they are on opposite sides of the golfing division between Reed’s renegade LIV Tour and McIlroy’s commitment to the traditional PGA, the weekend got off to a roaring start when Reed, miffed that McIlroy declined to acknowledge him at the range the day before the tournament, tossed a tee at McIlroy as he walked away.
“If you’re going to act like an immature little child then you might as well be treated like one,” Reed told reporters.
McIlroy stood by his behavior, citing the subpoena he’d been issued on Christmas Eve as part of Reed’s ongoing lawsuit against the PGA as more than enough justification to ignore him.
McIlroy got the better last word on the course, however, ultimately clinching the $1.53 winner’s check with a birdie-birdie finish that put the World No. 1 one stroke better than Reed.
Golf has always been a great repository for rivalries, from Jack and Arnie to Tiger and Phil. Now it’s Rory and Patrick, whose pre-LIV pairing on 2018 Masters Sunday went the way of Reed for his one major title.
▪ Tennis is a similarly independent pursuit of greatness, and with Novak Djokovic’s recent win at the Australian Open, the debate is open to who will be remembered as the best of all time among him, Rafael Nadal, and Roger Federer, otherwise known as The Big Three.
Djokovic’s title, his 22nd major, tied Nadal, with both two ahead of the retired Federer. And while it’s easy to cast Joker as the villain of this threesome, from his general dourness to his controversial anti-vaccine stance or his father’s recent support of pro-Russia demonstrators in Australia, he is on the way to making the statistical argument moot.
What I do love about the rivalry is the genuine respect that seems to exist among the three, and even more, the deep friendship that has grown between Federer and Nadal. When Federer played his last match, in doubles alongside Nadal at the Laver Cup last September, both broke down in tears when it was over. Beautiful stuff.
An emotional moment.— NBC Sports (@NBCSports) September 24, 2022
Both Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal were in tears after Federer’s last match. pic.twitter.com/GNwAg8wJnA
▪ Move over Miami Heat, there’s a new Big Three (make that Big Four) in New York, where the Liberty have put all WNBA rivals on notice with their recent free agent haul. The only original league franchise still in business that hasn’t won a title, the Liberty recently added Breanna Stewart, Jonquel Jones, and Courtney Vandersloot to a roster already anchored by Sabrina Ionescu.
Jones, acquired in a trade with Connecticut, was the league MVP in 2021. Stewart, who signed as a free agent, was the league MVP in 2018 and a two-time Finals MVP with Seattle. Vandersloot, who announced her own free agent signing Thursday, is a four-time All-Star point guard from her time in Chicago. Ionescu, drafted No. 1 overall by the Liberty in 2022, is the NCAA’s all-time leader in triple-doubles, the only college player (male or female) to record 2,000 points, 1,000 rebounds, and 1,000 assists.
Super Teams are no guarantee, especially when they play in Brooklyn, where the Nets’ Kyrie Irving just blew up his latest team, asking for a trade Friday while fellow super-teamer Kevin Durant continues to recover from injury. Irving did last longer than James Harden, though, but I think we can officially call the Nets’ championship plan over.
Rivals everywhere, and especially here in Boston, can’t help but laugh.
▪ One last ridiculous rivalry has to go to the US men’s national soccer team and the pettiness that erupted between the Reyna and Berhalter families. When US coach Gregg Berhalter botched his use of young American star Gio Reyna at the World Cup and later revealed issues with Reyna’s attitude at a speech to business leaders, Reyna’s parents blew up a friendship that went back to college days (dad Claudio, a former US team star, was Berhalter’s best man) by reporting on a decades-old domestic violence incident with Berhalter and the college girlfriend who would become his wife of 25 years.
The report triggered an investigation that still has Berhalter’s professional status up in the air, but the spat revealed the ugliest side of a rivalry, when adults couldn’t put aside their personal differences over a sports issue.
For what it’s worth, I think Berhalter should be replaced on coaching grounds, with his lack of creativity and midgame adjustments reason enough to move on. But all this other stuff should have stayed private.
Tara Sullivan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @Globe_Tara.