Power Ranking the Potential Matchups for Super Bowl XLIX
We are spoiled this year. Not only has the NFL regular season been as spectacular on the field as it's seemed demoralizing and unsettling off it, but the playoffs have somehow been even more enticing to watch than the four months that preceded them.
Drama, comebacks, scandals—not in the court-of-law sense but rather in the "how-is-that-not-a-penalty-and-or-catch" sense—have become staples this postseason. Let's not forget that we've also been gifted some quarterback matchups we could only dream of in previous seasons.
We've already seen Tom Brady get playoff retribution on Joe Flacco, Russell Wilson outduel Cam Newton, Aaron Rodgers thwart Tony Romo and the Dallas Cowboys on one leg, and the playoff arrival of Andrew Luck in a victory over Denver and Peyton Manning.
Add in the controversy around the catch that wasn't for Dez Bryant, the hysterically confounding formations employed by Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots, the vastly overreported calf injury for Rodgers and the woefully underreported quadriceps injury for Manning, and the divisional round of the playoffs was as good as the game could possibly get.
And still, there are two playoff rounds to go. The AFC matchup between Luck's Colts and Brady's Patriots may not be as historically sexy as a redux of Manning and Brady in the playoffs would have been. But it does provide one heckuva test for a young quarterback, who's on his way to creating his own lasting legacy in the league, to beat another team with an aging Hall of Famer.
The tilt between Green Bay and Seattle is a rematch of the conference's best two teams, and not even Rodgers' injury woes can quell the excitement for what's to come in the NFC title game.
But what about after that?
If you don't have a rooting interest this weekend because your team is out of the tournament, who should you back this weekend? What would make the most compelling Super Bowl matchup?
What are we—read: you—looking forward to the most when two teams land in Arizona for the final game of this already super season?
Here are the four potential matchups for the Super Bowl, ranked in an order based on the most compelling storylines, historical perspective and, yes, potential for giving us one hell of a game.
4. Green Bay and Indianapolis
It's funny, because there is truly no bad pairing for the Super Bowl when the worst game would be one with Andrew Luck and Aaron Rodgers at quarterback for their respective teams.
Perhaps no two players in the NFL this year did more for their teams than Luck and Rodgers. One—Rodgers—is a surefire pick for NFL MVP, while the other—Luck—probably did more with less than any other quarterback in the league this year.
Value? Is it possible for a player to have been more valuable to his team than Luck was this year? Yet while Luck led the league with 40 touchdown passes, adding another three rushing scores, he did throw 16 interceptions, with another six lost fumbles, putting his overall ratio of touchdowns to turnovers at just about 2-1.
Rodgers, on the other hand, threw 38 touchdowns and rushed for another two scores, while turning it over just seven times this season, five by interception and two lost via fumble, putting his ratio of touchdowns to turnovers closer to 6-1.
Those numbers are insane. And still there's a case to be made that given everything around them, Luck did more for his team than Rodgers.
Now, of course there are more to both teams than just their quarterbacks.
Am I right? Hello…?
Jokes aside, the Packers have far more weapons around Rodgers than the Colts have around Luck. Eddie Lacy rushed for more than 1,100 yards and nine scores this year. Jordy Nelson turned in an All-Pro season at wide receiver with 98 catches for more than 1,500 yards and 13 touchdowns, buoyed by Randall Cobb's stellar season with 91 grabs for nearly 1,300 yards and a dozen scores in his own right.
The Colts had T.Y. Hilton, who caught 82 balls for more than 1,300 yards and seven scores, and that's pretty much it. Coby Fleener came on and had a decent year with more than 50 catches, and Reggie Wayne caught 64 balls before going into the witness protection program during the playoffs—one catch for 12 yards in two postseason games.
On the ground, the Colts were led by, yes, Trent Richardson this season, who had 519 yards on 150 carries—so incredibly mediocre he can't even make the playoff roster this season, replaced by Dan "Boom" Herron and Zurlon Tipton.
Luck has handed the ball off to someone named "Zurlon Tipton" more than a dozen times this postseason. That, in a wonderfully anonymous nutshell, is the Colts' supporting cast for its budding star.
As for potential storylines outside of the "these are two great quarterbacks," there isn't a whole lot to chew on. Both teams play in the middle of the country, and while the Packers certainly have a national following, the Colts are a comparatively unheralded group. Both defenses are middle of the pack at best, and while the special teams are good, if we're relying on kickers and punters to make a Super Bowl matchup compelling, we're trying too hard.
Now, good quarterbacks and mediocre defenses could make for a high-scoring game—Green Bay and Indianapolis were first and sixth in scoring, respectively—which would certainly up the watchability of this contest, but in terms of buildup and potential payoff, that's about all we've got.
Both teams have been in the Super Bowl a combined nine times in the past—five for Green Bay to four for the Colts—but they have never faced each other, so while both teams have good title-game history, they don't have any with each other.
The Packers and Colts will make a fine Super Bowl, but of the four matchups, it sure feels like it has to be considered the least compelling.
3. Green Bay and New England
We've run through all the positives, and relative negatives, of Green Bay making the Super Bowl, and there aren't many knocks against one of the quintessential teams in NFL history getting to the big game this year. The reason both of their matchups are first is simply falling victim to the truth that Seattle being in the Super Bowl would provide more compelling drama than Green Bay, even with Aaron Rodgers on one good leg.
So why are the Patriots and Packers ahead of the Colts and Packers? For the simple reason that Tom Brady and Bill Belichick add more juice to any situation, especially when it's a Super Bowl in what could be one of the last chances the duo has to get another title before calling it quits.
Brady had somewhat of an odd year statistically. He threw for more than 4,100 yards, but his total was only good for 10th in the NFL. His 33 touchdown passes were tied for fifth in the league but seven off the pace of Luck. And while he had just nine interceptions, good compared to the league average, his turnover total jumped slightly to an even dozen when adding in three lost fumbles.
And yet when talking about a player's value, it's impossible to imagine the Patriots having any success without Brady. The team was fourth in the league in scoring with virtually no running game to speak of the entire year. New England totaled 1,727 yards on the ground this season with 12 different players recording at least one rush and no back carrying more than 96 times. By comparison, 44 players, including three quarterbacks, rushed more than 100 times this season, with 17 players carrying the ball more than 200 times.
It's easy, though, to be one-dimensional when Brady is in charge of that dimension. Add in great numbers for Julian Edelman and Brandon LaFell and a career year for All-Pro Rob Gronkowski, and the Patriots' passing numbers far outweigh the deficiencies in the run game.
And yet, that's not entirely the reason New England is more compelling in this matchup than Indy.
There are only five teams in NFL history to win the Super Bowl four or more times, and a win would make New England the sixth to accomplish that, all within the Brady-Belichick era. The two have gone to five Super Bowls in their time together, the same number Green Bay has gone to in its entire history.
It would be a game of NFL royalty and almost too good to pass up in any other year, but with the defending champions still in the tournament, this is just the third-most compelling matchup we could get this season.
2. Seattle and Indianapolis
When you make a ranking like this, there are two ways it can go: You can rank one of the NFC teams as the bottom two games, alternating the AFC contenders, or you can put one of the AFC teams as the least exciting team and alternate those in the NFC.
Why did this list end up the way it did? Frankly, I don't know. But I think it has something to do with getting the chance to see Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson play in the biggest game of the year, and how that would be more compelling than seeing Rodgers and Brady, making this matchup as much about the future as the present.
Imagine this scenario: Luck has already beaten Peyton Manning when he goes into Foxborough and beats Tom Brady on his way to his first Super Bowl appearance. Who does he have waiting for him after beating two Hall of Famers but Wilson and the defending champion Seattle Seahawks?
Manning, Brady, Luck and Wilson. The comparison seems to work on a level that makes a potential Super Bowl incredibly compelling to imagine this year.
One was the top overall pick, going to Indianapolis. The other fell a bit in the draft and was brought in to primarily serve as a backup before winning the job and never looking back.
One has been anointed as the next great player in league history without winning much of anything in the postseason, while the other is relatively overlooked as merely one part of a great team on the verge of a dynasty. Not in current style but in historical narrative, if this doesn't scream Manning-Brady at the early part of the 2000s, we aren't watching the same sport.
Luck and Wilson came into the league in 2012, and both have started every game in their respective careers, with both reaching the playoffs in each of their first three seasons.
Could Luck and Wilson be the next generation's Manning and Brady? For that to happen, they will have to face each other in the Super Bowl, as we won't get a chance to see them in the earlier rounds in the playoffs each year.
Manning and Brady have had the chance to play 15 times in the regular season or playoffs since 2002. Luck and Wilson have played just once. Ever.
It would be quite a treat to see Luck face Aaron Rodgers in the Super Bowl, but it might just be the start of a spectacular rivalry between two young burgeoning superstars if we got to see Luck's Colts face Wilson's Seahawks.
Now, the drawback to that matchup is clear: It could be a blowout. Seattle looks to be a far superior team to Indianapolis, so for all the wonderful buildup we'd get with Luck and Wilson, the game could be something of a disaster. Nobody wants a disastrous Super Bowl two years in a row.
1. Seattle and New England
The best possible Super Bowl is also the most probable at this point, with both top seeds still in the tournament and unlikely to lose at home.
Over the last three seasons, New England is 24-4 at home, including a 3-1 mark in the playoffs, while Seattle is 25-2 in its hostile confines, with an undefeated 3-0 record in the playoffs.
The game would pit the best team in each conference against each other for the second time in as many seasons (with hopefully more competitive results) but just the 10th time since 1975, when the league began awarding home playoff games based on seeding. More interesting is perhaps the note that the top two seeds have faced each other just four times since 1990—when the league added a sixth playoff team in each conference—and just twice since 2002—when the league went to four divisions in each conference.
While it has been likely that at least one top seed reaches the Super Bowl every year—the NFC has sent its top seed 23 times since 1975 with 15 wins, while the AFC has sent its top seed 20 times with six wins in that span—it's much harder to get both top seeds to the Super Bowl in the same year. That makes a Seattle and New England game that much more special.
Moreover, these don't feel like any ordinary top seeds. The Seahawks are looking to create their own dynasty with back-to-back Super Bowl victories, something that hasn't happened in the NFL since the New England Patriots did it in Super Bowl XXXIX and XL after the 2003 and 2004 seasons, respectively.
People in NFL circles still consider the Patriots a dynasty in the NFL, even though they haven't had a championship since that 2004 season. Winning a dozen or so division titles and getting to two Super Bowls in the last seven seasons can do that for a team, I suppose.
Another victory in the Super Bowl would be a darn good way to punctuate one of the great runs in NFL history, for both the coach and the quarterback. Doing it against the best team in football over the last two calendar years would be an even bigger win for New England. Yes, beating Seattle in the Super Bowl would be bigger than beating just about anyone else. That's how good Seattle is right now.
And that's why Seattle being back in the game, and potentially winning the game, would feel even bigger if that came against New England. With all due respect to the Colts, Seattle would be favored by about one thousand points over Indianapolis in the Super Bowl, but the Patriots would be a much more even fight.
New England scored more than 29 points per game this season, good for fourth in the league, while Seattle's 15.9 points per game topped the league in points against. Seattle had the best rushing attack in football, averaging more than 172 yards per game, while New England was ninth against the run and eighth in scoring defense. The matchup, more than any other, might be the most even.
And that's all before we even mention the head coaches!
Seeing Belichick and Pete Carroll face off in the Super Bowl would be too compelling to miss. The week leading up to the game would be a master class in how to (and not to) talk to the media, making the build to that game the biggest of any potential matchup by far.
The more I write about this potential contest, the more it feels too good to be true. But it could be true, as we are just one weekend away from getting it.
Let's be honest, though: Any Super Bowl with two of the four remaining teams would be great. Still, getting Seattle trying to defend its title against New England and the last remaining dynasty of a soon-to-be bygone NFL era has to be the best.