The NFL's divisional round means we're down to the league's elite eight in the playoffs, and that's when the Super Bowl pairing starts to first come into view. There are still 16 potential matchups for Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans next month, and here's a storyline or two about each of them, ranked from most intriguing to least appealing, at least from where I sit. With six of the eight teams in the divisional round making repeat appearances from last year -- all but Seattle and Atlanta -- these are potential pairings with which we're getting pretty familiar. ...
1. 49ers">49ers-Patriots: The reasons to root for this rematch from the regular season are many. For starters, San Francisco's 41-34 upset win in Foxboro in Week 15 may have been the game of the year, at least in the second half, when the Patriots stormed back from a 31-3 deficit to tie it at 31-31 midway through the fourth quarter. The 49ers answered that rally and became the first team to beat New England at home in December since 2002.
Then there's this: Can 49ers second-year quarterback Colin Kaepernick pull a virtual repeat of Tom Brady's emergence in 2001, when No. 12 was a second-year backup who replaced his team's injured starter and went on to lead his club to a Super Bowl win in the New Orleans' Superdome? Talk about convergence. Lastly, Brady is still shooting for that fourth Super Bowl ring, which would tie his boyhood idol, Joe Montana. Would there be a more fitting way to win it than against the team Brady grew up rooting for in Northern California?
2. Broncos-Packers: Fifteen years after John Elway and Brett Favre's memorable duel in San Diego, when a determined Elway won his long-awaited first Super Bowl ring in a Denver upset, we'd get another pair of elite signal-callers in Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers facing off in the game's headline roles. Rodgers won the NFL's MVP award last season, and Manning could win it this season, and both would be trying to gain entry into the coveted two-ring club. Watching two of the game's premier passing offenses work in the climate-controlled dome could make for four quarters' worth of Super Bowl fireworks.
3. Ravens-49ers: This was last year's top-ranked potential Super Bowl pairing, and we came a couple of narrow conference title-game losses from getting the historic Har-Bowl matchup between John Harbaugh's Ravens and Jim Harbaugh's 49ers. But there's more to it this time around, thanks to Ray Lewis' retirement plans. No. 52 going out on the game's grandest stage would dominate plenty of the pregame buildup, and set the tone for what could be a low-scoring, defense-driven game. With Ray Rice and Frank Gore pacing the running games, the three-hour Super Bowl might actually make a comeback. As strange as it sounds by Super Bowl hype standards, quarterbacks Joe Flacco and Kaepernick would be in danger of getting overlooked.
4. Patriots-Seahawks: These two played an entertaining and eventful game in Week 6 in Seattle, with the Seahawks mounting a 14-point fourth-quarter to nip New England 24-23 and strike a blow for their own legitimacy as a playoff contender. And the postgame wasn't bad either, with chatty Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman getting in Brady's face (and tweeting "U mad, bro?'') to drive home the point of Seattle's win.
The coaching storyline would make for good fodder as well, given that Seattle's Pete Carroll preceded Bill Belichick in New England, taking the Patriots to back-to-back playoff trips in his three-season stint in Foxboro. The East vs. West matchup and the old versus young quarterback pairing (Brady and Russell Wilson) would add luster, too. Even without all of that the showdown between Seattle's young, dominating defense and New England's high-powered offense would be reason enough to watch.
5. 49ers-Broncos: Both teams made the divisional round last season, but with Manning and Kaepernick at quarterback, they think they've upgraded from Tim Tebow and Alex Smith. The real story to this game might be on defense, where both Denver and San Francisco ranked in the league's top four against the rush and the pass and in terms of overall yardage.
It would be another Super Bowl rematch, but not one we'd care to remember. Ending the 1989 season, the 49ers drubbed the Broncos 55-10 in New Orleans, which is still the biggest blowout in Super history. My favorite sidebar of this matchup? That's easy. Niners head coach Jim Harbaugh and Manning are both ex-Colts quarterbacks, with Manning replacing Harbaugh in Indy in 1998.
6. Packers-Patriots: Yet another New Orleans Super Bowl rematch, this one 16 years after Favre's Packers won their only ring by besting the Drew Bledsoe-led Patriots. We thought we might get this pairing last year, when Green Bay and New England entered the playoffs as No. 1 seeds, but things never work out that neatly in the postseason any more. Maybe it will this year, with the No. 3 Packers and the No. 2 Patriots looking to ride late-season momentum, and their former league MVP quarterbacks to glory. With New England leading the league in points (34.8 points per game) and Green Bay ranking fifth (27.1), it's the highest-scoring Super shootout we can have this season.
7. Texans-Packers: The Dom Capers Bowl anyone? The Packers' veteran defensive coordinator was the expansion Texans' first coach from 2002 to '05, preceding current Houston coach Gary Kubiak. It would also be a rematch from the regular season, when Rodgers (six touchdown passes) and visiting Green Bay embarrassed the Texans 42-24 in Week 6, handing Houston its first loss of the season after a 5-0 start. This was also my preseason Super Bowl prediction, so there's that personal disclaimer to get out of the way. We all like to appear savant-like from time to time.
8. Broncos-Falcons: Denver and Atlanta met in Week 2 in the Georgia Dome, and that's about the last time Manning looked beatable. The Falcons intercepted Manning three times in the first quarter, then withstood a Denver comeback attempt in the second half, winning 27-21. This is also a Super Bowl rematch from 14 years ago, when Elway earned a second ring and capped off his Hall of Fame career by beating Atlanta in South Florida. Dan Reeves would be a popular pregame interview, given that he led both franchises to a combined four Super Bowls (losing each time).
9. Seahawks-Broncos: This quirky pairing of one-time AFC West rivals might be fun. Both defenses can really bring it, and the age versus youth quarterback matchup of Manning versus Wilson would make for a nice contrast. Seattle's talented secondary against Manning would be the game's premier focal point, but don't overlook Denver's Champ Bailey-led defensive backfield.
10. Patriots-Falcons: Well, Asante Samuel might have something to say all week. The former Patriots cornerback has always been clutch in the postseason (a league-record four playoff interception returns for touchdowns), and you know he'd love to pick Brady's pocket with the game on the line. The quarterback pairing is a good one, too, because Brady and Matt Ryan got to know each other well when Ryan was winning games for Boston College while Brady was down the road winning titles in Foxboro.
11. Texans-Falcons: It would be vindication day for somebody in the Super Bowl, because Houston quarterback Matt Schaub and Atlanta quarterback Ryan entered this postseason with zero career playoff wins. The clubs also share some history with Schaub, with Atlanta having drafted him in 2004's third round, before trading him to Houston in the spring of 2007. The Texans and Falcons also have Wade Phillips in common. The current Houston defensive coordinator was once the Falcons defensive coordinator.
If nothing else, Texans and Falcons fans would love this pairing, and would flock to it. If you had to pick a party spot roughly halfway between Houston and Atlanta, it'd be New Orleans.
12. Falcons-Ravens: The all-Bird Super Bowl would pair two of the best franchises in the NFL in terms of personnel judgment, and seem a natural culmination of the fresh starts that both clubs made at quarterback and head coach in 2008. That's when the Ravens and Falcons drafted Joe Flacco and Matt Ryan in the first round, respectively, and hired John Harbaugh and Mike Smith to lead their organizations. Good calls all the way around.
In the 10 combined regular seasons since those moves, the Ravens and Falcons have combined for nine playoff trips and 10 winning records. The dual Lewis and Tony Gonzalez retirement plans would make for an irresistible Super Bowl week storyline as well.
13. 49ers-Texans: The talented defenses and stout running games of San Francisco and Houston headline this matchup, which would also produce a first-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback and head coach. Speaking of the Texans' Kubiak, he was the 49ers quarterbacks coach for Steve Young during San Francisco's last Super Bowl season of 1994.
14. Texans-Seahawks: Only two of the league's top six rushers made the divisional round, and this Super Bowl pairing would put them on center stage and make them the featured attraction: No. 3 rusher Marshawn Lynch for Seattle (1,590 yards, 11 touchdowns) and No. 6 Arian Foster for Houston (1,424 yards, 15 touchdowns). Seattle's 224 yards rushing per game led the NFL, and Houston's 158 yards ranked fourth overall.
15. Ravens-Packers: Though Baltimore isn't what it once was, I have to imagine the theme of this game would be the Packers' explosive passing offense against the proud and veteran-led Ravens defense. And Lewis matching wits with Rodgers is a showdown I can't ever remember seeing before.
16. Seahawks-Ravens: I'm grasping here. Pete Carroll with a shot at building some tension versus the other Harbaugh coaching brother? Ray Rice versus Sidney Rice? The quality running games led by Rice and Lynch? With ex-Ravens kicker Steven Hauschka now sidelined by injury in Seattle, we don't even have that link between these two franchises. But it's the Super Bowl. We'll watch.