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Ranking All 16 Possible Matchups for Super Bowl LVIII

Historic matchups, superstars, revenge games and rematches from the regular season: There are many factors when thinking about the best possible way to end the NFL season.

Twenty-four NFL teams have been eliminated, and eight remain. As the divisional round approaches, there are seven more football games left to play and every story line we have breathlessly followed will lead us to one of 16 possible Super Bowl matchups. As I’ve done in years past, I will rank each one of them based on how good a matchup I think it would be.

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But remember: It’s the Super Bowl. It’s not strictly about the game on the field, but all the pomp that surrounds it and turns it into the sports equivalent of those increasingly ridiculous cruise ships that keep popping up. What are my factors? It’s part art, part science and lots of vibes. I’ve been thinking about the names on the front of the jerseys as well as the faces that would be on billboards all over Las Vegas. I took into account past history between individual and team opponents, leading characters and story lines, which games would offer satisfying conclusions to the narrative that has been the 2023 season and which angles would be the least painful to be beaten over the head with for two full weeks.

We’ll save the best game for last.

Separate photos of Patrick Mahomes, Brock Purdy, Lamar Jackson and Jared Goff holding the ball.

Four of the quarterbacks hoping to have their faces on signage all over Las Vegas.

16. Houston Texans vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Well, listen … it’s still the Super Bowl. We’ll all watch (it won’t be on Peacock!), and we’ll talk ourselves into a fun time. But one game must be ranked last, so here we are. The four teams still standing in the AFC are three perennial contenders with star quarterbacks whose narratives we have followed for years, and the Texans—who rebooted themselves entirely in a span of about eight months. It would be fun to watch C.J. Stroud become the first rookie QB to start a Super Bowl, and the attention on him will increase if he knocks off the Ravens and then either the Bills or Chiefs between now and then. But the Texans don’t have a ton of history with most of the teams still alive in the NFC, and they suffer a bit in these rankings.

For what it’s worth, this outcome would be a rematch of one of the wilder games of the regular season. Back in Week 9, the Texans beat the Bucs in a 39–37 shootout featuring 31 total points in the fourth quarter. This was the game in which Texans kicker Ka’imi Fairbairn went down with an injury, and Dare Ogunbowale had to kick a field goal. The Bucs scored a go-ahead touchdown with 46 seconds left, and then Stroud took Houston 75 yards in six plays and threw a game-winner to Tank Dell with six seconds left. So we have proof of concept that these two teams can play an exciting game on the field.

15. Houston Texans vs. Green Bay Packers

O.K., so we’re still on the Texans. Again, the NFL’s newest franchise just doesn’t have quite the same history as some of these other teams. But stick with us, Houston fans, I promise you have one game that ranks much higher. I gave this game a slight edge over No. 16 because Stroud vs. Jordan Love would be a fascinating battle between two first-year starters at quarterback. It would be more interesting if Love were a rookie, too, but it would be interesting nonetheless. That said, I think Super Bowls generally benefit from having a superstar on the marquee, and this game would lack that established brand. These guys may be on their way to spending a decade deep in the postseason and high in the MVP voting, but they aren’t there yet.

I suppose it would be a fun game if you were consuming the postseason strictly for the screenshots of the early 2010s Washington coaching staff, in which case you will certainly get to enjoy a photo of Bobby Slowik and Matt LaFleur. But we can do better.

14. Buffalo Bills vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The dream of seeing Baker Mayfield play a Super Bowl against the Cleveland Browns died this past week (honestly, I might have put it No. 1 on this list), but seeing Mayfield in the Big Game would still be off the charts if you had made a Surprising vs. Intriguing graph over the summer. This game would feature two quarterbacks from the vaunted 2018 draft class, which saw five QBs go in the first round. None of them have won a championship yet, but we’d be guaranteed to get one if the No. 1 pick (Mayfield) plays against the No. 7 pick (Josh Allen).

This would be yet another rematch of a regular-season game with a dramatic ending (did the Bucs secretly play in every great game this year?): The Week 8 Thursday Night Football game that ended with Mayfield throwing a perfect Hail Mary into the end zone that Chris Godwin may not have seen until it was too late.

13. Houston Texans vs. Detroit Lions

There are four teams in the NFL that have never appeared in the Super Bowl, and these are the only two still alive in the playoffs (the Browns and Jaguars are the other two). This game would pit the Lions, a team that has played in Detroit since 1934 and been miserable for the entirety of the Super Bowl era, against the Texans, the NFL’s only team that has not played in even the conference championship round. The last time two teams made their Super Bowl debuts against each other was in Super Bowl XX, when the famed ’85 Bears beat the Patriots. So the stakes would be high, and we’d be guaranteed the first first-time champion since the Philadelphia Eagles won Super Bowl LII.

It would be a fun matchup of head coaches—Dan Campbell and DeMeco Ryans—whom plenty of fans are old enough to remember watching in their recent 10-year playing careers. I guess we would also talk about Robert Woods being former teammates with Jared Goff? We always find something.

12. Buffalo Bills vs. Green Bay Packers

To cap a year that will be remembered for the accelerating chaos of college football realignment perhaps finally reaching its tipping point, give us a Super Bowl with two Mountain West alumni quarterbacks! That would be Wyoming’s Josh Allen and Utah State’s Jordan Love, of course.

The Packers are not rated highly in my rankings here, and I know their fans already had pitchforks out when LaFleur and Love failed to get any shine in our staff regular-season awards voting. It’s nothing personal; it just doesn’t feel like they have been the story of the year—though of course they would retroactively be remembered that way if they do make the Super Bowl as a seven-seed in Love’s first year.

Everyone has been making the same “Love will play 15 years in Green Bay and then get traded to the Jets” jokes for a while now, and I do think the larger public sentiment if the Packers got to the Super Bowl would be, “These guys again?” with the Jesse Pinkman he can’t keep getting away with this meme. I am not trying to slight you, Packers fans. (Or you, Micah Hyde, who would be the Andrew Whitworth memorial “I played for both of these teams” guy in this game.) I know Love has played lights out in the second half of the season, and the Packers are probably better than most seven-seeds because they are an ascending young team. But they will have their time. You know, the next 14 years or so.

11. Baltimore Ravens vs. Green Bay Packers

I don’t have a ton to say here that I didn’t just write about the Packers in the previous blurb. I’ll just add that I had a tough time separating these two games on the list, but ultimately thought a game against the Ravens would be a little more interesting. The biggest story line surrounding the Packers has been their youth, not just at quarterback but in just about every person Love looks to throw to. It feels like every week I see some new fun fact about the Packers having whatever total or percentage of receiving yards going to first- or second-year players. So if this crew gets all the way to the Super Bowl, it would be fun to see them go toe-to-toe with Kyle Hamilton and the rest of this excellent Baltimore defense.

And we’ll have chances to say more about the Ravens.

10. Baltimore Ravens vs. Detroit Lions

The games at the top of this list all include teams not only at the top of the standings, but also considered preseason heavyweights that have held that position wire to wire. And while I certainly love a good underdog story, I do think it’s nice when the final game reflects the bigger stories of the season, allowing us to remember a special postseason with the full 18-week regular-season schedule preceding it.

This would be a rematch of the Week 7 game in which the Lions thought they were riding high at 5–1, and then the Ravens wiped the floor with them to the tune of 28–0 at halftime and a 38–6 final. But don’t forget these teams also met in Week 3 of the 2021 season, Dan Campbell’s first in Detroit. You’ll remember this one because Campbell thought he would get his first win as a head coach, but then Justin Tucker booted a record 66-yard field goal as time expired to snatch it away. The Lions started 0–8, and then 0-10-1, before finally getting that first win. If the Lions make the Super Bowl, we are guaranteed to be inundated with reminders of (1) how long it has been since the Lions were good, and (2) how bad they were at the start of this era. It would be a fitting narrative to look back to that game as a window into how far they have come, and this Detroit run would truly come full circle if the Lions get another shot at Baltimore. If the game came down to another potential game-winning kick from Tucker, or Michael Badgley for that matter, even better.

Tampa Bay quarterback Baker Mayfield celebrates after leading the Buccaneers past the Philadelphia Eagles in an NFC wild-card game Sunday.

Mayfield has now gotten through the wild-card round with two different franchises.

9. Kansas City Chiefs vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The Chiefs have looked stunningly mortal this season, no longer the automatic offense we have seen since Patrick Mahomes took over in 2018. I’d say we’ve never seen anything like it, but we have in one rare instance: the devastating Super Bowl LV loss to these Buccaneers. Todd Bowles was the defensive coordinator on Bruce Arians’s staff for that masterpiece, and he is now the head coach in Tampa Bay, with a lot of proud veterans who played in that game still on his defense (Antoine Winfield Jr., Shaquil Barrett, Lavonte David, Vita Vea, Devin White, Jamel Dean and Carlton Davis). In a year that has been such a struggle, it would be interesting to see Mahomes get a chance to avenge his one Super Bowl loss.

But let’s brush aside that little Super Bowl to bring up the game everyone would really be talking about that week: The legendary 2016 affair in which Oklahoma (Mayfield) topped Texas Tech (Mahomes) by a totally ridiculous score of 66–59, and the two combined for 1,279 passing yards. The two also met in the ’20 divisional round, when Cleveland nearly pulled off a stunner after beating the Pittsburgh Steelers to end the franchise’s postseason win drought. (This was the game Mahomes exited with a concussion that Chad Henne had to close out.) Give us another round!

8. Kansas City Chiefs vs. Green Bay Packers

This feels like “the matchup that got away” for the NFL over the past handful of seasons, with Green Bay losing in the NFC title game in the two seasons of Patrick Mahomes’s first Super Bowl appearances. And people have been tracking for years that Mahomes and Aaron Rodgers, MVPs who joined each other in State Farm commercials, have never played against each other. This matchup, an NFL classic thanks to its standing as Super Bowl I (and it being the two franchises that combined to take home three of the first four), has now lost a little luster without the four-time MVP on the other side. However, Love actually has a surprising amount of history with Kansas City, owing partly to that note about Mahomes never facing Rodgers.

Remember that Love’s first career start came against these Chiefs in 2021 when Rodgers was out with COVID-19. That was the game when Love’s mom and girlfriend had famously awful seats at Arrowhead, and it would be the easiest prop bet you make that they’d show this screenshot on the broadcast:

Meanwhile, the teams also played earlier this season, so a date in the Super Bowl would make the interconference Chiefs the first team Love has started against three times in his career. (Weird!) That game this year, by the way, was a 27–19 Packers win that improved Green Bay to 6–6 and was a key pivot point in the season. It also took the Chiefs down to 8–4, as many saw them headed in opposite directions. It would be fun to see Kansas City right the ship and then face a Packers team that has only gotten better since.

I have not yet mentioned Taylor Swift, though of course she will be a big story if Kansas City makes it to the Super Bowl. The biggest Swift-related game would have been a Chiefs-Eagles rematch, given that Swift was born in Pennsylvania, and her dad would have had to pick a side. But the previous Chiefs-Packers game bubbled up some stories linking Swift and Simone Biles (whose husband, Jonathan Owens, plays for Green Bay). Both Swift and Biles are great, and both would be in front of the camera plenty.

7. Houston Texans vs. San Francisco 49ers

Here you go, Texans fans. This game would fit a classic mentor vs. mentee archetype, with Ryans squaring off against a San Francisco team for which he spent the past six years as an assistant, including two as defensive coordinator. And not just Ryans, but Houston OC Bobby Slowik also worked for the Niners, from when Kyle Shanahan got the job in 2017 until this year. It would be fun to watch Shanahan match wits with coaches on both sides of the ball who know him well.

This game would also feature one rookie quarterback in Stroud against a second-year QB in Brock Purdy. Purdy almost feels like a forgotten man these days, probably because Lamar Jackson overtook him as the MVP favorite a few weeks ago, and then everyone got caught up in Stroud and Love winning their playoff debuts while he sat home on a bye week. But let’s not forget that last year Purdy could have been the first rookie QB to play in a Super Bowl, before he was injured in the 49ers’ NFC championship loss. The list of second-year QBs to win the Super Bowl is still relatively short and quite storied: Kurt Warner, Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger and Russell Wilson. The only others even to make it are Dan Marino and Colin Kaepernick. So Purdy has a chance to join some elite company, and it would be fun to see the first rookie QB in Super Bowl history as the guy standing in his way. One of the two would come out of the game as a legend.

6. Buffalo Bills vs. Detroit Lions

Again, it’s been 38 years since a Super Bowl featured two franchises both appearing in the game for the first time. It has also been a while since we saw two teams both in search of their first Super Bowl win. (That hasn’t happened since the St. Louis Rams beat the Tennessee Titans in Super Bowl XXXIV after the 1999 season.) This would guarantee us a first-time champ, and it would be a battle between two of the more famously long-suffering fan bases in the league (no offense to Cleveland and Minnesota). I imagine the crowd would be incredible—given what we know about Bills Mafia and what we have seen from the Lions on the road this season—with longtime fans of the teams hopefully filling Allegiant Stadium and displacing some of the rich people who like football but don’t care about the teams (the “dinner party,” as Joe Burrow famously called it.)

These two teams do have a little bit of recent history, as it would be a rematch of a memorable game from Thanksgiving Day 2022. That game came during the stretch of season when the Bills played two consecutive games in Detroit because of a blizzard. The Lions were in the midst of climbing out of their 1–6 start, had won three straight and took the Bills down to the final seconds, kicking a game-tying field goal with 23 seconds left. Then Allen needed only three plays to get into Tyler Bass’s field goal range for a dramatic win, but it felt like a pivotal moment in Detroit’s journey back to respectability. It would be fun to see a rematch with Buffalo on the biggest stage of all.

Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen reacts after the game against the Miami Dolphins at Hard Rock Stadium.

Allen and the Bills are seeking to finally break through and reach the Big Game after years of being top contenders.

5. Buffalo Bills vs. San Francisco 49ers

As I wrote in this exercise last year (when it was my No. 2 choice), Bills vs. 49ers is forever in my brain as the Chris Berman Bowl, as it is for so many of us who watched him pick these teams to face each other every year. It never actually happened, but it feels destined to one of these days. From Super Bowl XXIII through Super Bowl XXIX, the two teams made seven consecutive games between them, but never together. The Bills haven’t exactly held up their end, absent from the Big Game for 30 years. But if they met now, this would be a matchup between two perennial contenders over the past half decade looking to finally break through and win a title. It feels almost silly that Allen hasn’t played in a Super Bowl, considering how many big games we have seen him in. Any matchup he is in would be exciting, but seeing him take on the NFC’s best team would be the most fun.

The Bills are 0–4 all-time in Super Bowls, while the Niners are the team that won their first five appearances in the game but have since fallen to 5–2. And I mentioned Bills Mafia’s ability to travel earlier, but this would present an interesting fan split, as Buffalo to Vegas is quite a schlep compared to the trip from the Bay Area. Though something tells me Bills fans would find a way to be there.

4. Baltimore Ravens vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

This may seem a little high for the Bucs, but this is easily the most exciting matchup for Mayfield. If we can’t see him take on the Browns, the next best thing would be seeing him face the Browns’ most hated rival, the team that once skipped town and became the Ravens. It would add an exciting dash of mayhem to see Browns fans out in full force rooting for their old guy for two weeks.

Speaking of Mayfield, this is the other remaining possible matchup between two quarterbacks from the 2018 draft class. This one would feature the first pick (Mayfield) against the final pick of the first round (Jackson).

Meanwhile, these two franchises are both 2–0 all-time in Super Bowls. And this is a trivia question some of your friends might struggle with, but they are actually the only two teams to have appeared in multiple Super Bowls without losing one. One of them would be the 11th team to win a third Lombardi Trophy and the only team still perfect in multiple trips. Both teams would be trying to reach 3–0 with three different quarterbacks (Ravens: Trent Dilfer, Joe Flacco, Jackson. Buccaneers: Brad Johnson, Brady, Mayfield).

3. Kansas City Chiefs vs. Detroit Lions

This would be yet another regular-season rematch, and there’s no doubt you remember this one. It would be perfectly appropriate for these two teams to bookend the season by playing in Game No. 1 and Game No. 285. Way back in the spring, Dan Campbell talked to our Albert Breer about how meaningful it was for Detroit simply to be selected to play in the opening night game. Now the Lions have met every expectation they had for this season (especially in this as-yet-fictional scenario in which I’m fast-forwarding them through two more rounds of the playoffs).

Let’s not forget that Detroit won that game, kicking off this dream season. The night was a sloppy one for the Chiefs, featuring dropped passes and penalties. A rematch would not only cement the Lions’ rise to contender status, but also show the Chiefs’ ability to overcome their offensive shortcomings to land right back in the game we’ve grown accustomed to seeing them play.

Similar to the Chiefs-Packers game, the rematch is a lot more intriguing when the upstart team scored a win over the perceived heavyweight. Goff would face Mahomes in another showdown after they famously met in the 54–51 Rams-Chiefs game in 2018 before Goff scored only three points in Super Bowl LIII and was traded for Matthew Stafford.

This game would have the potential to tie up so many loose ends still hanging out there.

2. Kansas City Chiefs vs. San Francisco 49ers

There are four possible Super Bowl rematches, and three of them involve the Chiefs. There may be some Chiefs fatigue, but this is the one I find most interesting—though not necessarily as seen through the lens of Kansas City. Let’s instead view Shanahan as the protagonist here. He has been on a quest since his team blew that 10-point fourth-quarter lead to the Chiefs in Super Bowl LIV. He built up a juggernaut while replacing Jimmy Garoppolo first by trading up for Trey Lance, then catching lightning with Purdy. For the coach to finally get back to the Big Game after consecutive conference championship game defeats, only to get another shot at Andy Reid and Mahomes would be poetic, and the schematics and strategizing would be a fun chess match.

This would be a second Super Bowl between George Kittle and Travis Kelce, two of the best tight ends to ever do it, before they are eventually replaced at the top by some young tight ends who have entered the league in recent years.

The Niners would be seeking their sixth Super Bowl, which would tie them with the Patriots and Steelers for most of any franchise. On the other side, a third in five years for the Chiefs (and fourth overall) would put them in rare air. This would be a Super Bowl with superstars and plenty of familiar faces with scores to settle.

1. Baltimore Ravens vs. San Francisco 49ers

Here we go, the game of the year. This would be a rematch of Super Bowl XLVII, but that interests me much less than some of the more recent repeat matchups. Sure, John Harbaugh is still in place (and Tucker!), but both teams have different quarterbacks and so many other new faces. I am picking this strictly for reasons having to do with this season.

I like it when the Super Bowl tells the story of the season, and this game would best do that by matching two dominant No. 1 seeds. It would be a rematch of the Christmas Day nightcap, which felt like a Super Bowl preview at the time. These are the top two teams by DVOA, and it would also mean the 49ers’ No. 1–ranked offense against the Ravens’ No. 1–ranked defense.

Jackson is going to win the MVP, and it would be fun to see his special season associated with a trip to the Super Bowl (after his first MVP, he bowed out to the Titans in the divisional round). This game would feature 13 All-Pros, everyone from two first-team linebackers (Fred Warner and Roquan Smith) to the first- and second-team fullbacks (Kyle Juszczyk and Patrick Ricard, respectively).

Would Jim Harbaugh show up on the Ravens’ sideline during the rematch of the original HarBowl, as John did when Jim won his national title at Michigan last month? (Even if he was hired by a different NFL team by then?)

Did you know Ravens tackle Ronnie Stanley is a Vegas native? Or that Ravens linebacker Kyle Van Noy and Niners receiver Brandon Aiyuk are both from Reno? 

This game would have absolutely everything and be a worthwhile capstone to the 284 that preceded it.

Editors’ note, Jan. 18, 11:30 a.m. ET: A previous version of this story stated that the Ravens-49ers game took place on Christmas Eve. It was on Christmas night.