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A Breakdown of the NFL’s Dirtiest Matchups

Updated: Aug 7, 2018

Written By- Kristen Mori

Bears and Packers. Cowboys and Giants. Ravens and Steelers. The NFL is full of intense historical rivalries, and they are undoubtedly a large part of what makes the league so fun, as a fan. However, they can also be frustrating; ask any Bengals fan about their feelings toward their rivalry with the Steelers as of late, and “frustrating” might be the tamest word used. Exciting as they are, rivalries can bring out the worst in both fans and players. When you look forward to your team’s next matchup with its big rival, put yourself in a player’s shoes: how would you feel walking onto a field, knowing the team across the sidelines may, literally, be coming for your head? Not quite as fun.

However, is there any stock in this? Do certain teams truly lead others to lose all discipline, or does the media exaggerate the bloodthirst for stories and views? Using data from, I looked at the most penalized matchups over the last nine years to try to answer that. I used all penalty data from 2009 to 2017, excluding the 2017 playoffs. Each team is denoted by the city that it represents, excluding the Rams and the Chargers who, of course, have represented more than one city during this time period. Additionally, the difference between the two New York teams is noted.

The most highly penalized matchups were, of course, divisional games, because those teams see each other most often. Therefore, instead of just looking at number of penalties, I looked at penalties per game. The top ten, shown below, may surprise you:

Oakland and Tampa Bay? Detroit and Tennessee? These are far from the first teams that come to mind when thinking of extreme rivalries. However, all of these teams met each other only twice during the given time span, so one particularly undisciplined game may have pulled up the average significantly. Let’s look only at the teams that met at least 4 times.

Now we are seeing results that are a little more intuitive, such as the St. Louis / L.A. Rams against the San Francisco 49ers and the Kansas City Chiefs and the Oakland Raiders. Even Green Bay and Seattle, recently, have had a little bit of bad blood. That being said, this data includes all penalties — for all we know, all 134 penalties between the Detroit Lions and the New Orleans Saints may have been false starts (they weren’t.) However, the point still stands. Let’s perform the same analysis, considering only unnecessary roughness penalties.

I encountered the same problem as before; the top matchups are completely dominated by teams with only two or three meetings in the past 9 years. Again, let’s instead look at those teams with at least four meetings.

It is worth noting that Kansas City and Tennessee have met only 4 times in the past 9 years. Regardless, we start seeing some unsurprising matchups in the top ten, and perhaps some surprising ones as well.

It is also worth normalizing the data by each team’s average number of penalties committed per game. For example, the N.Y. Giants show up twice in the top ten — is it because their rivalries with the Rams and the Panthers are that fierce, or is it because they are simply a team with a high average number of unnecessary roughness penalties to begin with? If they commit five unnecessary roughness penalties in a game, but their average is seven, then that’s actually considered a pretty clean game by them.

I added up each team’s number of games played during the 2009–2017 time span (again, we are excluding the 2017 playoffs), and I also added up each team’s number of unnecessary roughness penalties for the same time span. With some simple division, I calculated the average number of unnecessary roughness penalties per game for each team.

Then I went back to the specific matchups. We expect the average number of unnecessary roughness penalties between the Eagles and the Redskins, for example, to be the average number of unnecessary roughness penalties committed by the Eagles, PLUS the average number of unnecessary roughness penalties committed by the Redskins. Therefore, I calculated the expected number of unnecessary roughness penalties per game for each matchup, and then I compared it with the actual number (this is the value we were looking at before).

There we have it. These teams, when competing against each other in the past 9 years, commit more unnecessary roughness penalties than we would expect them to. There are very few “traditional” rivalries in the mix, Atlanta-TB being the only divisional matchup. If we want to see more of the common, divisional, or traditional matchups, we should increase the minimum number of games they must have played. Let’s go instead

from four to seven.

Whichever “Top Ten” list you look at it is up to your discretion. If you think 4 games is too small of a sample size, or if you’re interested in only divisional/traditional rivalries, use the one with 7 instead. It is important to consider, however, that even these teams that commit more unnecessary roughness penalties than expected only commit marginally more. Look at Green Bay and Seattle. Their matchups feature on average not even one more UR penalty than expected.

So, are the Bengals and Steelers really as “dirty” against each other as we think they are? Doesn’t look that way.

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