This is a casual football fan's dream.
As sportswriters—heck, even just as fans of the game—we all start the season by picking which two teams we think will get to the Super Bowl. Part of the decision is based on in-depth analysis, trends, matchups, coaching styles and good ol' fashioned football know-how.
Part of the decision, to be honest, is usually based on which teams we want to cover. Let's face it, some teams just have a more interesting back story, and while that never—repeat never—makes one NFL team a more worthy champion than another, it does make the two weeks leading up to the title game that much more interesting.
The Super Bowl has become such an enormous event that the actual playing of the game can become secondary to the buzz around it.
For hardcore football fans, the conference championship weekend is your Super Bowl and this year the NFL has given us the absolute best possible games to decide which teams advance to the biggest spectacle in American sports.
Go back again to the start of the season, when everyone was talking about San Francisco as the hot team coming off a loss in last year's Super Bowl. The one team that stood in the 49ers' way was the Seattle Seahawks, a trendy pick to thwart their division rivals and get a crack at this year's Lombardi Trophy.
Troy Aikman called the 49ers and Seahawks the best rivalry in football during the Fox telecast of the divisional playoffs and with so much on the line this coming weekend, it's certainly going to play like that.
For more casual football fans, the best rivalry in football may have less to do with hard-nosed NFC West foes and more to do with aging AFC quarterbacks.
The Denver Mannings host the New England Bradys with a chance to get back to another Super Bowl. I don’t care what season it is, if you told casual football fans back in September they would get a chance to watch Peyton Manning and the Broncos play Tom Brady and the Patriots with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line, everyone would just sign up then and be done with the regular season.
This matchup should be a hardcore fan's dream as well, with two of the best quarterbacks of all time leading two insanely prolific offenses in what could be a shootout for the ages.
This coming Sunday may give us the best single day of pro football in years. It's almost impossible for the Super Bowl to live up to this kind of hype. And yet…it's the Super Bowl. With these four teams, there is no way the hype won't be off the charts.
With that, which of the four possible Super Bowl games will be the most enjoyable…and the most buzzworthy?
Remember, the most buzz doesn't always create the best football game—thank you very much Super Bowls XXXIV and XLIII—so we will attempt to break each matchup down into categories that interest both the casual football fans and the hardcore fans.
The Super Bowl cannot always be all things to all fans, but this year, with these teams, it really can. Let's look at which of the matchups will deliver the most to the most.
Before we get to which matchup will be the best, it seems necessary to score each in our simple and un-empirical ranking categories from 1 to 4.
The five categories we will use to rank each team are:
1. Style of play
2. Impact of a victory
3. Impact of a loss
After gathering a total from the first four categories, we will add one more category: matchup style compatibility and storylines.
1. Style of play – 4
2. Impact of a victory - 4
3. Impact of a loss - 4
4. Personalities – 1
Even though Peyton Manning wears cement shoes when he plays, the Broncos still have the most dynamic offense of the four remaining teams. Manning's record-setting regular season was something to behold and with receiving weapons all over the field and a one-two punch at running back, Denver has everything on offense that a Super Bowl team should want.
Defense is a weakness for Denver, but the unit has oftentimes played well enough to win, most notably stifling the San Diego Chargers in the divisional round. Having said that, if the Broncos get to the Super Bowl, they may have to win by outscoring teams, which is exactly what fans like to see.
The impact of both a win and a loss would be huge for Denver. A Super Bowl win would give Peyton Manning his second title in three tries, tying him with the likes of John Elway among quarterbacking greats. A loss would ostensibly nullify the importance of all the records Manning put up in the regular season.
Who cares about regular-season records if you don't win the Super Bowl?
As for personalities, there are a lot of recognizable football players for the Broncos, but outside of Manning and maybe Wes Welker, Denver doesn't have a huge list of household names.
Fantasy fans know all the characters on offense, but most of them have done their talking on the field, not in the media. With Von Miller out due to injury and Champ Bailey a relatively insignificant part of the Denver run this year, it's really been Manning's team all season. That won't change heading into the Super Bowl.
And Peyton's not exactly giving anyone bulletin board material is he? Neither will his coach, John Fox, who is the lowest profile head coach left in the tournament. That's how Fox likes it, but it doesn't make for great Super Bowl build-up in terms of buzz.
Total Super Bowl Ranking: 13 points
1. Style of play - 3
2. Impact of a victory - 3
3. Impact of a loss - 3
4. Personalities – 2
Early in the season the New England Patriots felt like they were a team made up of a Hall of Fame quarterback and 52 guys they signed off the practice squad. The defense was young, the receivers were new and untested, there was early inconsistency at running back and with injured and otherwise unavailable options at tight end, it looked like the Patriots were only going to go as far as Brady took them.
Well look how far Brady has taken them.
The style of play is no different than other Patriots offenses, with the addition of a late-season power running game that makes New England that much harder to stop.
The defense is still young, but it has risen to the occasion at times this season, most notably against the Indianapolis Colts in the divisional playoff round. The Patriots run defense has been poor this year, so whichever team they would face in the Super Bowl could limit the time Brady has the ball.
As for the impact of a win, had I wanted to take the easy way out and tie the Patriots with the Broncos, I probably could have. Just by getting to the Super Bowl, Brady will be the first quarterback to ever start in six Super Bowl games. A win would tie him with Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw for the most Super Bowl victories by a quarterback (4).
The impact for New England goes beyond that, at least in terms of recent history. The Patriots won three out of four Super Bowls from 2001 to 2004 but haven't won since in two trips to the title game.
Brady losing another Super Bowl wouldn't have as much resonance as Manning losing it this year, but from a historical perspective, it just might.
As for personalities, New England is a lot like Denver in that the focus is really on one guy who never says anything that crazy. Without outspoken guys like Rob Gronkowski in the mix, the Patriots would be a relatively buttoned-up Super Bowl team.
Even though neither of them really says anything of consequence, Brady does seem to have a bit more openness than Manning. He's not as stiff, which makes his answers seem less rehearsed, for whatever that's worth.
And while head coach Bill Belichick is a curmudgeon who never tells anyone anything ever, that's become part of his charm. Watching Belichick have to navigate through Super Bowl media day is always one of the highlights of any Patriots' trip to the game.
Total Super Bowl Ranking: 11 points
1. Style of play - 2
2. Impact of a victory - 2
3. Impact of a loss - 2
4. Personalities – 3
The 49ers are really clicking. The San Francisco defense has been very good all season and over the last five or six weeks the offense has caught up, thanks to the return of top skill position players to aid Colin Kaepernick in his meteoric rise to becoming a bona fide playoff hero.
Much like Seattle, the 49ers employ a dynamic running attack to set up a passing game that, if not prepared, can thrash a team. In any other year, the 49ers could have the most outstanding and enjoyable offense left at this point in the playoffs, it's just that San Francisco—read: Kaepernick—lacks the consistency that Manning and Brady have in their attacks.
But boy can they run, and they sure can play defense. It's a great formula to win a Super Bowl; I'm just not sold on how enjoyable that will be for casual fans to watch.
In truth, there is no bad option in terms of style—it's just that the two teams in the AFC have a slightly more palatable brand of overall football. Credit weaker defenses for that, so I get the sense San Francisco fans are quite happy if the rest of us find them a tad more boring.
As for impact, winning would have big historical context. There have only been two teams in NFL history—the 1972 Dolphins and the 1971 Cowboys—that have lost a Super Bowl and come back the next year to win. A victory would also tie the 49ers franchise with Pittsburgh for six Super Bowls, putting it ahead of Dallas. That would be pretty huge.
Losing two Super Bowls in a row would be disheartening, but the 49ers would have to get to three losses in four years—think Minnesota or Denver—or four in a row—sorry, Buffalo—before the losses have that much historical impact.
As for the personalities...have the 49ers made a heel turn?
Last year when San Francisco played Baltimore in the Super Bowl, the 49ers seemed like the team most of America was rooting for to win. Despite having the far more cantankerous of the Harbaugh coaching brothers, the presence of Ray Lewis turned so many people off to the Ravens that San Francisco felt like the team more people wanted holding the trophy.
That seems different this year. People have really turned on Jim Harbaugh for his sideline antics and even Troy Aikman talked openly during the 49ers' win over the Carolina Panthers about how he is sick of Anquan Boldin's trash talking after every play.
I could not believe the backlash after Kaepernick mocked Cam Newton's touchdown celebration. I mean, seriously people, the guy pretends he's Superman and some of you thought is was disrespectful for Kaepernick to mock that? Let's have some perspective.
But maybe those people do. Maybe it's all part of the heel turn for the 49ers, the team we now love to hate. They do have a ton of personality, from Kaepernick and his hat choices—chill out on the backward look, folks—to Boldin running his mouth to the dynamic and demonstrative receiving corps to a defense that always seems to back up their chatter.
Their general lack of likeability—namely Harbaugh and Boldin—is the only thing that didn't make them tops on the list. Again, any other year.
Total Super Bowl Ranking: 9 points
1. Style of play - 1
2. Impact of a victory - 1
3. Impact of a loss - 1
4. Personalities – 4
Before Seahawks fans freak out, these rankings are only in comparison to the other remaining teams. Seattle's style of play would not be a one out of four if each team was being rated independently.
Having said that, the defense really knows how to slog a game down.
That's not a bad thing from a football standpoint, but I am not one of those people who want to see a Super Bowl being decided by punts and field position for three-and-a-half quarters.
If just the quarterbacks were being ranked in terms of style of play, Russell Wilson may be the top-ranked guy. He is incredibly dynamic and has a knack for keeping plays alive that no other quarterback in the league—even Kaepernick—has.
The Seahawks have a pounding running game as well—fourth in the league in that category this season behind Wilson and Marshawn Lynch. In any other scenario, the Seahawks could be tops in style. They are the perfect team to host an NFC title game. It's just that, well, the defense might be too good to make the Super Bowl an enjoyable game to watch.
Not that Seahawks fans should care.
In terms of impact, truly there isn't much. Locally, of course, the win would be huge for Seattle to bring home the franchise's first Super Bowl in 38 years of existence, but from a national perspective, a win or a loss wouldn't be as interesting, for lack of a better word, than the other three teams.
Seattle may be the best overall football team left in the tournament, but from a buzz standpoint on the field, it seems to be a distant fourth.
Having said that, the personalities on the Seahawks may make up for it.
I said this last season, but as talented as Wilson is as a quarterback, I wouldn't be upset if the guy has a truncated career and goes into broadcasting. He is incredible on the mic, better than any current studio or in-game analyst working in television today. And he's only a second-year pro. I seriously hope Wilson doesn't make so much money in his career that he decides he doesn't need to do television after he retires. He's already that good.
And you know what, Richard Sherman isn't far behind him. The difference between Wilson and Sherman? Sherman isn't afraid to put some bulletin board material out there. The entire Seattle defense has a confidence about them they aren't afraid to share, and that comes from their head coach, Pete Carroll.
Carroll is the anti-Belichick in every way, ebullient and excitable in all the ways that would make the Super Bowl that much more exciting if he's patrolling one of the sidelines.
Total Super Bowl Ranking: 7 points, reluctantly
New England Points – 11
Seattle Points – 7
Style Compatibility & Storylines (out of 4) – 2
Total Points - 20
If we simply add up the points from each team, the lowest combined number would be New England and Seattle. When factoring in the compatibility of the two teams and any storylines that come out of them playing one another in the Super Bowl, frankly, there isn't a whole lot that would make this matchup anything but the least attractive still.
Keep in mind, by least attractive I mean that in a way in which a Porsche is the least attractive when parked next to a Ferrari, Lamborghini and an Aston Martin.
The styles are not terribly conducive to a free-flowing game, and Tom Brady's presence would not come with the added pressure of watching Peyton Manning face the Seahawks defense. The fact that we still think Manning can't win big games adds a level of drama we don't have with Brady.
There is the quirky fact that Bill Belichick replaced Pete Carroll as Patriots head coach, but that was 15 years ago, so it's not exactly a big deal today.
This would be a great Super Bowl, but if we are (read: I am) ranking them, it comes out as the worst possible option.
New England Points – 11
San Francisco Points – 9
Style Compatibility & Storylines (out of 4) - 1
Total Points – 21
Did you know Tom Brady grew up rooting for the 49ers?
We went through that storyline when the Patriots almost made it to the Super Bowl to face the 49ers last year. Other than that one player-related connection, that's really all the casual fan would be interested in between the two teams in terms of crossover human interest.
Both coaches are cantankerous jerks, at least publicly, and both teams seem to be the ones you would root against if not facing the other.
It's a bit of a lose-lose in terms of general likeability, though I still think San Francisco has more good will across the country than New England, due to Aaron Hernandez and lingering Spygate hate. Plus, the backlash to the Kaepernick backlash makes people see him as someone worth rooting for, especially against New England.
As for style, the teams both employ punishing running backs and, given the chance for inclement weather in the New York area for the Super Bowl, it could be a formula for success. Is it a formula for excitement? Not so much.
Now, it's important to reiterate the point from earlier in this piece: The title games are WAY more compelling than any possible Super Bowl outcome. The fact that both Denver Super Bowls are ranked ahead of both New England games has no bearing on the fact that the AFC title game is every bit as dramatic as the NFC's this year.
Denver Points – 13
Seattle Points – 7
Style Compatibility & Storylines (out of 4) - 4
Total Points – 24
The league's best defense against the best offense in the history of the game.
The top seed in each respective conference.
Watching Peyton Manning attempt to solve the most difficult defense in the NFL would be a perfect matchup for the league to end the year.
This would be the most compelling matchup in terms of style and NFL-related compatibility. In an era where parity reigns over the entire league and the playoffs are about to get watered down even more with the inclusion of an additional Wild Card team in each conference, it would be great for the league to have the two tops seeds make the Super Bowl.
The last time the top two seeds made the Super Bowl was 2009 when Manning's Indianapolis Colts lost to the New Orleans Saints. The time before that? The 1993 NFL season. Only nine times since 1975 have the top two seeds made it to the Super Bowl. It would be rare, and it would be incredibly compelling to see which team is truly the best.
A Seattle and Denver Super Bowl would also pit two former division rivals against each other in the title game for the first time since Super Bowl XXXVIII when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers—who played their first season in the AFC West—played the Oakland Raiders.
Methinks the Seahawks and Broncos have a bit more history as division rivals. Denver holds a 34-19 record over Seattle, with the last matchup coming in 2010. The two franchises played 50 times between 1977 and 2001, but just thrice since Seattle moved to the NFC.
Having said that, this game could be incredibly one-dimensional, at least in terms of analysis. Are we ready for two weeks of every pundit in America pulling up the All-22 footage to see how Seattle plans to stop Peyton Manning? Is there much more to the matchup than "Can Peyton beat that defense?"
I think in terms of football nerdiness, this is the best possible Super Bowl option. In terms of build-up, buzz, casual fan interest and football on the field, there may be one better game.
Denver Points – 13
San Francisco Points – 9
Style Compatibility & Storylines (out of 4) - 3
Total Points – 25
This matchup has the best of all worlds. It has a great defense in San Francisco going up against the game's best offense. It has the two most polar opposites at quarterback in terms of style both on and off the field.
The matchup also pits two teams desperate to win the game before this bubble bursts.
Denver is led by a quarterback who will turn 38 years old in two months. How long can Manning realistically play at this level, and how many chances will Denver get to win another Super Bowl while he's there? Last season Denver had home-field advantage in the AFC and didn't make it to the Super Bowl. If the Broncos get there this year, they have to go into it thinking it's Peyton's only shot with them to win it.
That pressure will be immense no matter which team he faces, but if the Broncos meet Seattle, the pressure is relatively one-sided. The Seahawks are great, but they haven't been there under Carroll, and there isn't the same sense of unfinished business that Harbaugh and the 49ers should have.
This might be a silly way to look at a football game in 2014, but the 49ers are just a more storied franchise than the Seahawks. Yes, Seattle was the better team this year, but the game feels bigger when the most celebrated franchises are in the game.
It's just our human nature. When the Pittsburgh Steelers or Green Bay Packers got into the Super Bowl as a No. 6 seed it still felt "bigger" with those storied franchises involved in the game. The fact the 49ers are going for a sixth ring, in back-to-back seasons, makes their inclusion a little bigger than Seattle, which is what puts this matchup slightly over the top.
The Super Bowl is as much about history as it is one game. How many times will we see the highlights of Super Bowl XXIV when the 49ers thrashed the Broncos 55-10? Manning, with John Elway up in the executive's box, would finally get a chance to redeem that loss for the franchise.
All four games would be great, but the 49ers and Broncos making the Super Bowl would be the best.