By the time the NFL playoffs reach the divisional round, we’re down to a manageable 16 potential pairings for the Roman-numeraled extravaganza known as the Super Bowl, with the 49th edition to be played Feb. 1 in Glendale, Ariz. The remaining field is pretty familiar to us this season, because five of the remaining eight teams -- New England, Denver, Indianapolis, Seattle and Carolina -- all played in this round of the postseason last year, with Green Bay and Baltimore also being playoff perennials. Only Dallas has that new-team sheen still intact.
You know the exercise to come. It’s our annual ranking -- from most intriguing to least appealing -- of the potential Super Bowl pairings based on sizzle factor, juicy storylines and our interest level from an irresistible force meets the immovable object perspective. As always, your results may vary, and beauty is the eye of the beholder. And in this case, I’m the beholder ...
The two No. 1 seeds both finished 12-4 this year and had to fight through some early-season malaise, with at one point the Patriots falling to 2-2 and the Seahawks to 3-3. But lately they’ve been the class of their conferences, and few football fans would complain if these two were still standing come Super Sunday. Two years ago, New England and Seattle gave us a classic regular-season contest at CenturyLink Field, with the Seahawks prevailing 24-23 on two Russell Wilson touchdown passes in the game’s final 7:21. Seattle picked off Tom Brady twice, with Richard Sherman later adding the immortal phrase "You mad, bro?" to our lexicon via Twitter.
I’d love to see how Seattle’s elite secondary would handle a rampaging Rob Gronkowski, and whether or not first-year Patriots cornerback Brandon Browner might exact some revenge on his former Seahawks teammates. And the coaching angle is enticing, too, with Bill Belichick and Pete Carroll being the two most recent men to lead the club with the Flying Elvis logos on their helmet. Patriots owner Robert Kraft fired Carroll after two playoff trips in three seasons from 1997-99, and pried Belichick away from the Jets. The hoodied genius has proceeded to make the postseason 12 times in the ensuing 15 years, with three rings, so that worked out pretty well.
For starters, these two treated us to a tremendous game on Thanksgiving weekend, when Green Bay staved off New England 26-21 at Lambeau Field in one of the few Super Bowl previews that actually lived up to the hype. The Patriots had their seven-game winning streak snapped that day, and really that’s their only loss in a game they were trying all-out to win since late September. That was the first meeting of Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers as starting quarterbacks, and it made us hungry for another helping of dueling No. 12s.
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Belichick and Mike McCarthy, and their respective players, seemed to have a mutual admiration society going after that game, and it was the kind of high-stakes battle that showcased the best the NFL has to offer. Not that Brady took the loss well, with his string of sideline F-bombs creating a bit of a problem for some who believe the air waves should be free of that sort of thing. I’m guessing Super Bowl Sunday would mean even a few more cameras trained on him.
Lastly, New England’s seventh Super Bowl appearance under owner Robert Kraft would be a matched pair with its first, the Packers-Patriots meeting in New Orleans in Super Bowl 31, 18 years ago. That one earned Brett Favre his only ring and sent Bill Parcells on his way to coach the Jets after a four-year stint in Foxboro.
OK, let’s try this again, because last year’s 35-point blowout in the Meadowlands didn’t leave anyone all that satisfied (except every Seahawks fan in the universe). I mean, after the Broncos went to all the trouble of loading up on defense last offseason with an eye toward fixing the flaws that were exposed against Seattle in the Super Bowl, the least we could do is grant them a rematch against their tormentors.
It would be only the second time in Super Bowl history that the same two teams met in consecutive years, matching the Dallas-Buffalo matchups of 1992-93. Come to think of it, those weren’t exactly classics either, with the Cowboys winning in a pair of routs. Denver is fighting some serious history this season, because no losing Super Bowl team has returned to the game the next year and won it since Miami turned that trick in Super Bowls VI and VII, some 42 years ago.
On a positive, hopeful note, Denver and Seattle played what was probably the Game of the Year in the NFL, in Week 3, with the host Seahawks prevailing 26-20 in overtime. That one was positively super, which prompts me to take another shot at this matchup, even knowing that it would mean more commercials for either Peyton Manning or Russell Wilson, depending on the winner.
I’m kind of rooting for this one myself, just to have a Harbaugh-Carroll showdown one more time, for old times' sake. If it can’t be Jim Harbaugh versus his long-time nemesis, Pete Carroll, I’ll take John Harbaugh as the family’s stand-in. Maybe the two could meet at midfield before the game, with Pete asking John: "What’s Jim’s deal? I mean, with Michigan? Did he get $8 million a year, or just $5 million?"
Defense would take center stage in this game, given Seattle's and Baltimore’s reputations on that side of the ball. But Justin Forsett would make for a nice little sidebar angle. The former Seahawks' running back has blossomed into a legitimate star in Baltimore’s backfield this season, and doesn’t have to take a backseat to Marshawn Lynch any more.
If you like offense, root for this Super Bowl pairing. Green Bay (30.4 ppg) and Denver (30.1) were the two highest-scoring teams in the league this year, and we don’t have much in the way of a Peyton Manning versus Aaron Rodgers mental scrapbook to this point. They’ve only met once in the regular season, in 2008, when the Colts lost 34-14 at Green Bay in Rodgers’ first season as the Packers’ starter. Manning threw a pair of pick-sixes in that game, but Green Bay didn’t even make the playoffs that year, while the Colts were a one-and-done playoff team in Tony Dungy’s final season of coaching.
The Super Bowl rematch angle is a pretty sweet one, however. The Broncos pulled one of the biggest upsets in beating Green Bay 31-24 in Super Bowl 32 in San Diego in early 1998, and that game was made famous by 37-year-old John Elway’s too-cool-for-words helicopter dive for a first down in the third quarter of 17-17 game. Maybe Elway could re-enact the moment in pregame ceremonies, or at least show the 38-year-old Peyton Manning how it’s done, should the opportunity present itself. On the Green Bay side, it would be fitting if Rodgers passed Brett Favre up once and for all, winning a second ring against the same Denver team that No. 4 couldn’t beat in his second Super Bowl appearance.
New England scored 468 points in the regular season, and Dallas tallied 467, making them the fourth- and fifth-highest scoring teams in the league, at 29.2 points per game, so offense shouldn’t be in short supply with this matchup. But the real competition surrounding this game would come at the owner level, where Jerry Jones is a three-time Super Bowl winner whose franchise was the Team of the 1990s, and Robert Kraft is a three-time Super Bowl winner whose franchise was the Team of the 2000s. Both want that vindicating fourth ring real, real bad, in the mid-10’s.
Jones and Kraft are actually very close friends and perhaps the two most influential owners in the league, at least in the eyes of some. They have a lot in common in leading two of the NFL’s flagship franchises, which also happen to be two of the teams other fans love to hate. And they can even swap stories about what it’s like to have Bill Parcells working for you as a head coach if they care. Like no other potential Super Bowl pairing this season, these two owners would command a stage all their own.
The whole Western theme of Cowboys and Broncos would work quite well in the desert of Arizona, and don’t forget the shootout that Denver and Dallas gave us in Week 5 of 2013, when Peyton Manning and Co. prevailed 51-48 over a dejected Tony Romo and friends. That was the fourth-highest scoring game in NFL history and featured 1,039 yards of offense, 884 passing yards, with Romo throwing for a team-record 506 yards and five touchdowns, but one crucial interception to Broncos linebacker Danny Trevathan with about two minutes left. The matter wasn’t settled until Denver kicker Matt Prater booted a 28-yard-field goal at the final gun.
That kind of thriller would easily beat the only Denver-Dallas Super Bowl we’ve had, when the Cowboys knocked Broncos quarterback Craig Morton silly in winning 27-10 in New Orleans in Super Bowl XII. Thirty-seven years have passed since that game, and the Broncos could earn a little revenge with a little Orange Crush defense of their own. One last footnote bears mentioning: DeMarcus Ware has starred for Denver this season after being released by the Cowboys in a cap move last offseason. Dallas might regret that move more than ever on Super Bowl Sunday.
Youth would be served in the quarterback matchup, with the most accomplished two passers from the esteemed Class of 2012 going head-to-head. The Colts’ Andrew Luck went first overall, while Seattle’s Russell Wilson lasted until the third round, 75th overall. But neither one of them know what it’s like to miss the playoffs, having gone a combined 6-for-6 in that department thus far in their nascent careers.
Luck is a sterling 35-17 (including playoffs) as an NFL starter, with the Colts winning two division titles in his three seasons. But Wilson has him beat, going a remarkable 40-12, with two division crowns and last year’s Super Bowl win. The worst season either one of them has endured is 11-5.
Indy and Seattle have played just once in the Luck-Wilson era, with the Colts rallying from a 12-0 deficit to win 34-28 at Lucas Oil Stadium in Week 5 of 2013. The Seahawks would have a clear-cut edge defensively in a Super Bowl showdown, but a matchup featuring the two best young passers in the game would be something worth hyping.
Three words: Steve Smith Sr. How much fun would that be all week at a Baltimore-Carolina Super Bowl? Put your goggles on, indeed. Smith, the veteran receiver whose messy divorce from the Panthers last offseason benefited the Ravens greatly this year, went off against his old team in Week 4, catching 139 yards of passes and two touchdowns in a 38-10 Baltimore victory. The rematch would be almost too much of a dream.
And there’s more to this matchup. For one, head coaches John Harbaugh and Ron Rivera were both Eagles assistants under Philly head coach Andy Reid from 1999-2003, so they know each other’s style and tendencies. Lastly, there were no two teams more in the middle of the NFL’s domestic violence issue this year than Baltimore and Carolina, with the cases of Ray Rice and Greg Hardy being front and center. So it’d somehow be a very fitting way to end the NFL’s challenging 2014 season to have the spotlight’s glare on a Ravens-Panthers Super Bowl.
With Andrew Luck and Aaron Rodgers at quarterback, it’d be more than just Indianapolis versus Green Bay. It’d be Stanford versus Cal, an NFL version of the "Big Game," one of the oldest and most colorful college rivalries going. Maybe a tuba player could do the honors on the opening coin toss.
There might not be two better arms in the NFL at work these days than the ones belonging to Rodgers and Luck. In a season in which he’s favored to win his second league MVP award, Rodgers goes for a second Super Bowl ring in five years. Luck will have an MVP trophy before all is said and done, and probably a ring or two as well.
Joe Flacco was drafted in the first round in 2008, the same year Aaron Rodgers was elevated to starting quarterback status in Green Bay. Rodgers won his first Super Bowl ring with the Packers in the '10 season, and Flacco followed suit in '12 with Baltimore. Now one of them is going to get a second ring, and join a pretty exclusive club with multiple Super Bowl wins. Aaron, Joe, you know Bart Starr, Roger Staubach, Bob Griese, Terry Bradshaw, Jim Plunkett, Joe Montana, Troy Aikman, John Elway, Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger and Eli Manning, right?
Not only have the Ravens never lost to the Cowboys (they’re 4-0, having outscored them 121-63 in the series), but also Baltimore had the unmitigated gall to win and ruin the postgame party Jerry Jones had planned for the final game in Texas Stadium history in December 2008 (33-24 was the final score that night). It was Baltimore’s only appearance ever in the stadium with the hole in the roof, and the Ravens put the game away with two huge touchdown runs of 77 and 82 yards by Willis McGahee and Le’Ron McClain -- on consecutive snaps.
That one has to still stick in Jerry’s craw. Another Baltimore-Dallas tie? Cowboys linebacker Rolando McClain has been one of the comeback success stories of the year for Dallas this season, after he was acquired by the Ravens in '13 and subsequently retired. And strictly speaking, Baltimore-Dallas is a Super Bowl rematch of cities, if you count the Colts win over the Cowboys in Super Bowl V in Miami. And the Romo-Flacco Bowl has a nice ring to it.
Eleven years ago to the day in Houston -- Feb. 1, 2004 -- these two gave us a quirky but memorable Super Bowl pairing, with the game being scoreless for the first 26:55, then evolving into a furious scoring-fest in the final 33-plus minutes, with New England eventually winning 32-29 on a 41-yard Adam Vinatieri field goal with four seconds remaining. I’d sign up for that again, with the two teams combining to score a Super Bowl-record 37 points in the fourth quarter and amassing 868 yards of offense overall.
Carolina obviously would represent the most unlikely Super Bowl entry of all time, given that the Panthers were just 3-8-1 entering Week 14 of the regular season. The Patriots were 9-3 at that point, as they always are. But hey, America loves an underdog, and somebody had to win the NFC South. Strangely enough, Brandon LeFell would be a go-to guy in the week-long build-up to the game, because he’s played for both clubs and actually had plenty to do with New England getting here.
Cam Newton was the No. 1 overall pick in 2011, and Andrew Luck was the No. 1 overall pick in '12. And they’ve never faced off, until now. In the biggest game of all. The two could commiserate that they were the first two No. 1 picks under the new CBA with the rookie salary structure, meaning they just missed hitting the mega-jackpot that used to accompany going first overall.
The Panthers would do well to keep a wary eye on Colts kicker Adam Vinatieri. As noted above, Carolina lost its only previous Super Bowl appearance -- 11 years ago in Houston -- when Vinatieri nailed the game-winner on behalf of New England. He’s still around, and still kicking. Quite well, in fact.
There’s the John Fox Bowl angle just sitting there waiting to be explored. Denver’s fourth-year coach has led both teams to the Super Bowl, losing with Carolina to New England, 32-29, in Houston 11 years ago, and then getting shellacked last year with the Broncos against Seattle. At 0-2 in the Big Game, it might be Fox’s last, best chance to earn a ring and join the Super Bowl winner’s circle.
Peyton Manning and Cam Newton would offer an intriguing quarterback matchup of former No. 1 overall picks, 13 years apart, with fairly contrasting styles of getting things done. Newton has his Superman schtick, but Manning has the Super Bowl experience factor.
There’s not a lot to work with here, although these two clubs did meet in Super Bowl V, a scant 44 years ago. That one was dubbed "The Blooper Bowl," and was easily one of the sloppiest Super Bowls in history. The Colts, then of Baltimore, of course, won it 16-13 on that last-second Jim O’Brien field goal, in the Orange Bowl.
Other than that, you’d have the quarterback matchup of Andrew Luck and Tony Romo to look forward to. And it would settle the debate of who has the best quarterback with a four-letter last name in the NFL. But we just saw the Cowboys and Colts play in Week 16 of this season in Dallas, and it wasn’t pretty, with the home team cruising 42-7 in a game that meant little to Indy but clinched the NFC East for Dallas.