The NFL is down to its elite eight in the Super Bowl tournament, and it breaks down neatly into four teams that have made it back to the divisional round -- Denver and New England in the AFC, Seattle and San Francisco in the NFC -- and four teams that weren't playing at this time last season: Indianapolis, San Diego, Carolina and New Orleans. Of that second group, only the Colts made the playoffs a year ago.
With 16 potential matchups for our first cold-weather outdoor Super Bowl in New Jersey next month still in play, here's our ranking of their sizzle factor, from most intriguing to least appealing, and a quick tease of a storyline or two for each of them. As always, your results may vary when it comes to the level of heat that these Super Bowl matchups generate.
1. Saints-Broncos: Not sure there's anything we could get that would be more delicious than a Super Bowl revenge rematch of Peyton Manning versus Drew Brees, the pair who squared off four years ago in South Florida, with the Saints and Brees upsetting the Manning-led Colts. This time around they'd again be leading the two most prolific passing offenses in the league, with both quarterbacks fighting to overcome the notion they struggle in cold weather.
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The coaching angle is interesting and well-intertwined as well, with Denver's John Fox and New Orleans' Sean Payton once working side by side as Giants coordinators on the staff of New York head coach Jim Fassel. Fox and Payton did their best work together in 2000, helping lead an upstart Giants team to the Super Bowl. The loss to Baltimore obscured the 41-0 masterpiece blowout of favored Minnesota in the NFC Championship Game that Fox and Payton crafted the gameplan for.
2. Seahawks-Broncos: There's always a sense of anticipation when the respective top seeds in each conference meet for a Super Bowl showdown, a pairing that rarely takes place any more and hasn't happened since the Saints and Colts faced off four years ago in South Florida. But there's more to commend in this matchup of onetime AFC West rivals than their identical 13-3 regular-season records. The talkative and talented Seattle secondary trying to slow down the record-breaking passing of Peyton Manning would get top billing in terms of storylines, and we'd get our fill of the age versus youth quarterback matchup of Manning and Seattle's Russell Wilson as well. If there's an old face of the NFL, and a new face of the NFL -- at least in the dreams of those in the league office -- it's probably Manning and Wilson, with their obvious talent and ability to always project the best image.
3. 49ers-Broncos: This is one of four potential Super Bowl rematches, but I don't think many of us outside San Francisco would care to relive the 55-10 drubbing the 49ers laid on the Broncos in New Orleans after the 1989 season. It's still the largest blowout in the game's history, and the drama that day ended shortly after the national anthem. I love the plentiful contrasts of the quarterback matchup of Colin Kaepernick and Peyton Manning: youth versus experience, mobility versus the quintessential pocket passer, and both of them dominating the airwaves with ubiquitous TV commercials.
The other angle that I can't get enough of involves Jim Harbaugh and Manning, the two ex-Colts quarterbacks who are linked in history. The last quarterback to start in Indianapolis before Manning was drafted first overall in 1998? Harbaugh, who led the Colts to the playoffs twice in his mid-90s stay in the Hoosier State.
4. Saints-Chargers: Drew Brees and Philip Rivers would take center stage all week, with the rest of us getting to revisit the eventful quarterback decision San Diego made in the middle of last decade. After taking Brees with the first pick of the second round in 2001, the Chargers swung their high-profile trade with the New York Giants in April 2004, landing Rivers in exchange for Eli Manning. Brees continued to start for San Diego in 2004, taking the Marty Schottenheimer-coached Bolts to an AFC West title and a playoff berth. But then the Chargers slipped to a 9-7 non-playoff finish in 2005, Brees injured his shoulder in the season finale as free agency approached and San Diego turned the reins over, as planned, to Rivers in 2006.
Brees signed with the Saints in 2006, won a Super Bowl in 2009 and has gone on to break a bevy of NFL passing records while making New Orleans a near-perennial playoff team. Rivers has had success in San Diego, but not on the same level as his predecessor.
And if we got tired of hashing over Brees versus Rivers during Super Bowl week, we could always revisit the Darren Sproles decision in San Diego.
5. 49ers-Patriots: Besides the fact that both tight-lipped coaches -- Bill Belichick and Jim Harbaugh -- treat virtually any scrap of information related to their team as if it were vital to national security, there's plenty to love about this East meets West Super Bowl pairing. They played a tremendous showdown as recently as Week 15 of 2012, in Foxboro, with the 49ers prevailing 41-34 to hand the Pats their first December home defeat since 2002. San Francisco led 31-3 in that game, but New England tied it at 31-31 midway through the fourth quarter. We'd take a repeat of that on Super Bowl Sunday.
The Patriots' Tom Brady is nine seasons removed from his third Super Bowl ring, and he's still trying to win that fourth piece of jewelry, tying his boyhood idol, San Francisco quarterbacking legend Joe Montana. Harbaugh would be shooting to become the second consecutive Super Bowl-winning coach named Harbaugh, beating a three-time winner like Belichick in the process.
6. Patriots-Saints: Tom Brady and Drew Brees in a matchup of Super Bowl winners and future Hall of Famers would be the foremost storyline, but the matching of coaching wits between the offensively-gifted Sean Payton of the Saints and the defensively-minded Bill Belichick of the Patriots would be just as intriguing. And we've already seen one classic involving these two teams this season. In Week 6, Brady authored one of his greatest comebacks ever, leading New England on a 70-yard drive in 1:08, capping it with a improbable 17-yard touchdown pass to rookie receiver Kenbrell Thompkins in the back left corner of the end zone with five seconds left in the Patriots' 30-27 win.
The Saints had stopped the Patriots on downs at the New England 24 with 2:50 remaining, and intercepted Brady at their 30 with 2:16 to play and the Patriots down to their final timeout. But New Orleans still couldn't use up enough clock and wound up losing for the first time all season, falling to 6-1. "I know you can't give Tom Brady and that offense three chances at a two-minute drill,'' Brees said later. "Lord knows we had our chances at the end.'' Here's hoping the Saints and Patriots get one more crack at each other, in early February.
7. Patriots-Seahawks: Yeah, I'll take a week of chatty Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman trying to get under Tom Brady's skin ("You mad, bro?''). And their duel on gameday would be even better. New England's offense doesn't have all its weapons, but this would still be a great strategic matchup with Brady trying to dissect and dilute the strength of Seattle's defense. Like Brady, Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson didn't get a first-round grade in the draft, and has made teams regret that mistake ever since.
The coaching pairing has a lot of potential as well, because Seattle's Pete Carroll and New England's Bill Belichick are the two most recent Patriots head coaches, after all. In three seasons in Foxboro (1997-99) working for Bob Kraft, Carroll led New England to a pair of playoff trips. Pete's West Coast and Bill's East Coast, but they both have done all right for themselves, haven't they?
8. Colts-49ers: These two played an eye-opening game in Week 3 at Candlestick Park, with the 10½-point underdog Colts stunning the defending NFC champion 49ers 27-7, giving San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick his first home-field loss as a starter. Indy quarterback Andrew Luck, facing his former collegiate head coach Jim Harbaugh for the first time since they left Stanford, threw for 164 yards and scored on a game-clinching, fourth-quarter six-yard run, spiking the ball emphatically for good measure.
The Harbaugh-Luck connection would be irresistible all week, but don't forget Harbaugh has had his name up on the Colts' Ring of Honor since 2005, having quarterbacked the team to a pair of wild-card playoff berths and a memorable 1995 run to the AFC title game in his four-season stint in Indianapolis. Beating Luck and the Colts would help make up for last year's Super Bowl near-miss against his brother's Ravens.
The youth-is-served quarterback pairing of Luck and the multi-talented Kaepernick would be another marquee element to the game's billing.
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9. Colts-Seahawks: The hype would begin with the marquee pairing of the two best and most accomplished quarterbacks from the celebrated Class of 2012, Indy's No. 1 overall pick, Andrew Luck, and Seattle's diamond in the rough, Russell Wilson, who lasted until the third round (75th overall). They are just the 10th and 11th quarterbacks since 1950 to start a playoff game in each of their first two seasons, and Wilson's 24 regular-season wins in his first two seasons lead all passers since the 1970 merger, with Luck and Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger tied for second on that list with 22. But Luck and the Colts got the upper hand in the regular season, when Indy dug out of an early 12-0 hole to beat Wilson and the visiting Seahawks 34-28 in Week 5, leaving both teams 4-1 and looking like clear-cut Super Bowl contenders.
10. Panthers-Patriots: A rematch on a couple levels. First, there was their Super Bowl showdown of 10 years ago in Houston, when New England squeaked by Carolina 32-29 on Adam Vinatieri's late 41-yard field goal, giving the Patriots the second of their three Super Bowl wins. That game is still the closest Carolina has ever come to scaling the NFL pinnacle. And then there was the Panthers' controversial 24-20 win over New England on the Monday night of Week 11 this season, when the whole world (except for referee Clete Blakeman) saw Carolina middle linebacker Luke Kuechly mug Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski in the end zone on the final play of the game.
There was a flag thrown for pass interference, but it was later picked up, with Carolina winning a statement game to improve to 7-3 and stamp itself a legitimate Super Bowl contender. Cam Newton's late-game heroics included a game-winning 25-yard touchdown pass to receiver Ted Ginn Jr., which extended the Panthers win streak to six games.
11. Colts-Saints: Indianapolis owes New Orleans one. Four years ago in the Super Bowl, the underdog Saints knocked off the Colts in South Florida, denying Peyton Manning and Co. a second ring and a much larger legacy. That loss really stung in Indianapolis. Just ask Jim Irsay. Manning eventually was gone and so too was Colts head coach Jim Caldwell and general manager Bill Polian. The revenge factor would be there for Indy, but not for quarterback Andrew Luck, who'd be making his first Super appearance against former Super Bowl MVP Drew Brees, the kid who went to college in Indiana (Purdue).
12. Panthers-Broncos: Welcome to the John Fox Bowl. ("What does John Fox say?'' would unfortunately be the official song of this Super Bowl.) The Broncos' third-year head coach was the Panthers' most successful head coach ever, leading them to three playoff berths, a 78-74 record and a 2003 Super Bowl run in his nine seasons in Charlotte (2002-10). Denver's defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio, who filled in as the team's interim head coach this season when Fox had heart surgery, was the Panthers' DC under Fox in 2002. Since being hired by the Broncos in 2011, Fox is 3-for-3 in winning the AFC West and making the playoffs.
Peyton Manning and Cam Newton would make for a great quarterback matchup, with Newton having a couple things over on his more accomplished adversary. Manning has a Super Bowl ring and all those MVP awards. But Newton won a Heisman and a national championship at Auburn, two prizes that eluded Manning at Tennessee.
13. Panthers-Colts: The first-ever meeting of strong-armed glamor quarterbacks Cam Newton of Carolina and Andrew Luck of Indy would headline this Super Bowl pairing. The Panthers would be making only their second Super Bowl trip and their first in 10 years, since New England edged them by a field goal in Houston in February 2004. The guy who kicked that game-winner from 41 yards out for the Patriots? Current Colts kicker Adam Vinatieri, who's still booting them home every season.
14. Chargers-Panthers: The coaching storyline would be rich: San Diego rookie head coach Mike McCoy spent nine seasons (2000-08) coaching in Carolina, in various roles on the staffs of both George Seifert and John Fox. The Panthers third-year head coach Ron Rivera came to Carolina after four seasons coaching in San Diego, as both inside linebackers coach and defensive coordinator under head coach Norv Turner. Both men are making their first playoff run as a head coach, and bring a different side of the ball to the game as their expertise. The game would also pit Chargers veteran quarterback Philip Rivers against his adopted home state and its fans, as Rivers was a standout at North Carolina State early last decade.
15. Chargers-49ers: Another Super Bowl rematch of yesteryear, and how ironic would it be if only the second-ever all-California-team Super Bowl were played in the cold-weather climes of New Jersey/New York? At least when San Diego and San Francisco collided in January 1995, with the 49ers blasting the Chargers 49-26 to get that monkey off Steve Young's back, it unfolded in the warmth of South Florida, in temperatures both teams were used to. San Francisco head coach Jim Harbaugh also has some history with the Chargers, having ended his NFL playing career by starting 17 games for them in 1999-2000, and having begun his head coaching career with great success at the University of San Diego from 2004-06.
16. Chargers-Seahawks: The Charlie Whitehurst Bowl? I'm grasping at straws to come up with a legitimate connection between these two Left Coast clubs. Like the Broncos and Seahawks, the Chargers and Seahawks were once division rivals in the AFC West, but they've only played three times since 2002's realignment and haven't met since 2010. And, of course, as with any final pairing involving the Chargers, there's that bizarre streak by which San Diego could become the fifth team in a row to win the Super Bowl after visiting Philadelphia for the Eagles' home-opener.