Now that the wild-card round of the NFL playoffs is in the books and we’re down to 16 potential matchups for the Super Bowl's golden anniversary in Santa Clara, Calif., next month, we’re faced with an embarrassment of riches to pick through in the remaining eight-team field. A whopping nine Super Bowl rematches could materialize, including a too-good-to-be-true Chiefs-Packers throwback tribute to Super Bowl I, and an instant rematch of last year’s instant classic between New England and Seattle. I’ve got a hunch Pete Carroll runs the ball this time.
And once again, we're left with a very familiar elite eight. Five of these teams—the Patriots, Broncos, Panthers, Seahawks and Packers—made the divisional round of the playoffs last season, and all but the Packers were involved in 2013’s final eight as well. Only Arizona, Kansas City and Pittsburgh are relative newcomers to this round: the Steelers haven't reached the divisional playoffs since 2010, the Cardinals haven't since 2009, and the Chiefs haven't since 2003, when they were seeded No. 2 and had a first-round bye.
You know the drill by now. Below are our annual rankings—from most appealing to least intriguing—of the potential Super Bowl pairings based on sizzle factor, juicy storylines and my interest level of the two teams involved. As always, your results may vary.
1.) No. 1 Carolina vs. No. 1 Denver
The contrast in quarterbacks would be ridiculously exquisite, with the stationary but still crafty Peyton Manning perhaps playing in his final NFL game against Cam Newton, the likely league MVP and pre-eminent dual-threat weapon in the game today. Denver’s strength on defense would be challenged by Carolina’s multi-faceted offense, with the Panthers carrying a sterling 17–1 record into the game. Could the soon-to-be 40-year-old Manning possibly wipe out his year of misery and mistake-filled play, going out with one last blaze of glory to capture that elusive second Super Bowl title? Or will Newton’s magical season be capped with a ring, earning him some matching jewelry to go with his national championship at Auburn, and delivering Carolina its first Super Bowl crown? A billing of the two top seeds is usually inviting, and it would make it the third straight year of that scenario unfolding.
2.) No. 5 Green Bay vs. No. 5 Kansas City
Sometimes in life, symmetry is at work, and what would prove that point any better than having the Packers and Chiefs reprise their roles from historic Super Bowl I, in the same state where this whole pro football-palooza started 49 years ago? Alex Smith and Aaron Rodgers will be forever linked by being the first two quarterbacks of the 2005 draft, and now, at the close of their 11th seasons in the league, they would meet on the game’s grandest stage to duel the same way Len Dawson and Bart Starr once did in the Los Angeles Coliseum. I’m enough of a nostalgia lover to sign up for that, no questions asked.
3.) No. 2 Arizona vs. No. 2 New England
Some of the oldest coaching hands in the NFL were notable successes this season, and so it seems fitting that we would be headed for a Super Bowl coaching matchup between Bill Belichick and Bruce Arians, who are both 63 years young and were born fewer than six months apart in 1952. Besides that interesting little footnote, the Cardinals and Patriots have been two of the league’s most consistent and efficient teams this season, and the multi-layered chess match of Arizona’s superb defense against Brady and receiving weapons Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman is delicious to contemplate. Could the Patriots head west to knock off the NFC West champion for a second Super Bowl in a row? Could Arians set a Super Bowl record for entertaining pregame sound bites?
4.) No. 2 New England vs. No. 6 Seattle
We’ve only had one instance of the same teams meeting in back-to-back seasons in Super Bowl history, and those 1992-93 Cowboys-Bills encounters were both blowouts in Dallas’s favor. This one would be a re-do of one the best games the Super Bowl has ever seen. And how rich would the redemption angle for Seattle be, after it lost in such gut-wrenching and controversial style to New England in Glendale, Ariz., last year? If the Seahawks could make it two rings in a three-year span—the first team to do that since the Patriots won three out of four in 2001-04—a lot of last year’s angst and frustration would be wiped away for Pete Carroll’s team. I’ll gladly take Bill Belichick versus Carroll, in the battle of New England’s past and present, one more time.
5.) No. 2 Arizona vs. No. 6 Pittsburgh
Besides being another incarnation of the matchup that gave us that memorable 27–23 Steelers win over the Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII in Tampa seven years ago, this game has classic coaching sub-plots galore. Bruce Arians was the successful Steelers offensive coordinator and Ben Roethlisberger’s confidant until the end of the 2011 season, when his contract was not renewed, prompting him to declare he was “re-fired” instead of retired, as Pittsburgh at first intimated when explaining the move. Todd Haley replaced Arians as the Steelers OC, and he, of course, was the Cardinals' offensive coordinator on Arizona’s 2008 Super Bowl team that lost narrowly to Pittsburgh. These also might be the two best passing offenses in the NFL this season, with quarterbacks Carson Palmer and Roethlisberger—old AFC North foes—still at the top of their game and surrounded by big-play receiving talent.
6.) No. 6 Seattle vs. No. 1 Denver
I’m a sucker for closure and a sense of coming full circle, and what’s to fear about the idea of Peyton Manning and the Broncos getting a chance to avenge the embarrassment of that 35-point blowout loss to the Seahawks in the Meadowlands two years ago? Manning, with his tortured postseason history, could end his career with an exclamation point upset, helping erase the sting of his worst-ever playoff-game memory. Then again, Seattle could win in another rout, and then Manning and the Broncos would have doubled down on all that pain. Seattle would be facing some history of its own, because no losing Super Bowl team has returned to the game the following year and won since Miami managed it over the span of the 1971-72 seasons.
7.) No. 1 Carolina vs. No. 2 New England
These were the two best teams in their respective conferences for most of the regular season, and a showdown of the top-seeded Panthers and No. 2-seeded Patriots would offer an intriguing collision of the NFL’s ranking dynasty against an emerging Carolina squad that represents one of the league’s new powerhouses. And don’t forget that the Patriots and Panthers gave us one of the quirkiest but most under-appreciated Super Bowls in recent memory, that dramatic New England win that Adam Vinatieri decided with his 41-yard field goal with four seconds remaining in Houston back in February 2004. That game went scoreless for almost 27 minutes, then went nuts, with a Super Bowl-record 37 fourth-quarter points scored.
8.) No. 2 Arizona vs. No. 1 Denver
Larry Fitzgerald and Carson Palmer trying to win their first Super Bowl rings against the backdrop of Peyton Manning trying for a career-capping second Super Bowl crown would be the top draw in this game. Plus, the top-seeded Broncos’ highly ranked defense being challenged by the Cardinals’ dynamic offense is an irresistible secondary sub-plot. Arizona didn’t quite make it to the Super Bowl when it was held in the Cardinals' own stadium last season, but winning it on a division rival’s field in Santa Clara would be a decent consolation prize.
9.) No. 1 Carolina vs. No. 6 Pittsburgh
This game would feature two of the largest and toughest-to-tackle quarterbacks in NFL history in Cam Newton and Ben Roethlisberger. And it would also have a lot of meaning for Steelers' lead running back DeAngelo Williams, who has subbed superbly for the injured Le’Veon Bell this season, after spending his entire career with the Panthers before 2015. The Panthers defense and the Steelers offense are a match made in heaven, and the 1-on-1 duel between Pittsburgh receiver Antonio Brown and Carolina cornerback Josh Norman might wind up being the stuff of legend.
10.) No. 2 Arizona vs. No. 5 Kansas City
The Cardinals have never won a Super Bowl and the Chiefs won their only ring following the final AFL season of 1969, so there’s a party of at least 46 years brewing for the winning fan base. Two of the best secondaries in the NFL would give this game a potential defensive look, but both teams would be supremely confident, given Kansas City would be entering on a 13-game winning streak and Arizona would be 13–1 in its past 14 games.
11.) No. 5 Green Bay vs. No. 2 New England
Any meeting of the No. 12s—Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers—is must-see TV. And let’s not forget they both grew up as Northern California boys and 49ers fans, so for one of them the dream of winning a Super Bowl championship in their proverbial backyard, on San Francisco’s home field, would come true. The Pats and Packers didn’t play this season, but they treated us to a regular-season classic last year on Thanksgiving weekend, with Green Bay prevailing 26–21 and snapping New England’s seven-game winning streak. The Patriots’ eighth Super Bowl appearance in Robert Kraft’s ownership era would mirror the first: The Packers and Patriots met in New Orleans 19 years ago, with Green Bay winning to give Brett Favre his singular Super Bowl ring.
12.) No. 1 Carolina vs. No. 5 Kansas City
This would be a collision of the clubs with the two longest victory streaks in the league this season. The Chiefs, after starting out 1–5, would enter with that previously mentioned astounding 13-game winning streak, while the Panthers ripped off 14 wins in a row this season before losing at Atlanta in Week 16. Panthers head coach Ron Rivera served as Andy Reid’s linebackers coach for the first five seasons (1999–2003) of Reid’s long tenure in Philadelphia, while at quarterback, both teams start a former No. 1 overall pick, with Alex Smith (2005) and Cam Newton (2011) getting it done in different ways, but winning nonetheless.
13.) No. 5 Green Bay vs. No. 6 Pittsburgh
No two starting quarterbacks in Super Bowl history have met twice in games separated by as many as five years, but that’s what we would be in store for if the Packers’ Aaron Rodgers and the Steelers’ Ben Roethlisberger face off in Super Bowl 50, after Green Bay got the best of Pittsburgh in Super Bowl XLV in icy Dallas. Rodgers and the Packers triumphed 31–25 in that game, so the rematch would be about revenge for Roethlisberger and the Steelers. When these two offenses are at their best—and they’ll have to be to fight out of their dual wild-card slots to get to this game—the points come in droves, which could make for a wildly entertaining Super Bowl.
14.) No. 5 Green Bay vs. No. 1 Denver
This is yet another Super Bowl rematch—the Broncos pulled the mammoth upset in San Diego 18 years ago—but more importantly it's a rematch of Week 8 this season, when the Broncos pummeled Green Bay 29–10 to improve to 7–0 and saddle the previously 6–0 Packers with their first loss. Not a ton has gone right for either team since that game, but all will be forgiven if they’re still standing come Feb. 7. Back in that regular season game, Aaron Rodgers and his receivers could do next to nothing against the Broncos’ superb secondary that night, and that would again be one of the key matchups in the game. With a win, Peyton Manning gets the shot to mimic John Elway’s career, and ride off into the sunset of retirement with a second Super Bowl ring.
15.) No. 6 Seattle vs. No. 5 Kansas City
So, we meet again, say the two old AFC West foes of 1977-2001, before divisional realignment sent them to separate conferences. One of the best subplots if the Chiefs make the Super Bowl is the return of Alex Smith, the former 49ers starting quarterback from 2005-2012, to the Bay Area. He never got a chance to lead San Francisco at Levi’s Stadium, but I’m sure he’ll overlook that for a win there in Super Bowl 50 with Kansas City. The coaching veterans, Andy Reid and Pete Carroll, spent an earlier chunk of their NFL careers working back east with the Eagles and Patriots/Jets, respectively. But they’ve moved on and are finding great success further west these days.
16.) No. 6 Seattle vs. No. 6 Pittsburgh
Ten years after these two met in Super Bowl XL in Detroit, the rematch would unfold in the NFL’s biggest anniversary game yet. And like those 2005 Steelers, who prevailed 21–10 over the Seahawks, both teams would enter this game as their conference’s No. 6 seeds, giving us our first Super Bowl matchup of bottom seeds. Seattle’s talented secondary against the prolific passing game of Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers makes for the game’s headline attraction.