Every January, as soon as the NFL's regular season ends and the NFL playoff schedule takes shape, I immediately start trying to figure out what the best Super Bowl matchups would be.
I'm a dork, sure, but I've been ranking the possible Super Bowls for four years now (2009, 2010, 2011, 2012), and it's worked, sort of: the No. 3 matchup in 2012 was the Patriots-Giants game that delivered a classic, No. 6 in 2011 was the Steelers-Packers game that gave my Packers another title, and my No. 1 matchup in 2010 was the Colts-Saints game that ended up thrilling America.
In 2009, when I had the it-turned-out-to-be-awesome Steelers-Cardinals game No. 18, I barely missed having No. 1, Steelers-Eagles, come true. (And, also, Tarvaris Jackson started a playoff game ... after taking over from a hurt Gus Frerotte late in the season and getting the Vikings the NFC North title. I swear it happened.)
As always, as a Packers fan, I'll confess my bias: I want to see Green Bay go far. But that was easier to justify in the last two years, when the Packers were more clearly the NFC's 1a or 1b team in terms of excitement and were looking for a repeat. Aaron Rodgers' superb work is aesthetically appealing as always, but is it cooler than Russell Wilson or Robert Griffin III leading a team to the Super Bowl?
I also, of course, factor in the off-field freight and on-field matchup totes. No Tim Tebow this year makes that a lot easier in one sense, but one quarter of the playoff field being quarterbacked by rookies (and another quarter by guys in their sophomore seasons) makes it harder.
Without further ado, here are the 36 possible Super Bowl 46 matchups. Disagree? I'll see you in the comments.
36. Cincinnati Bengals vs. Minnesota Vikings
One of a few Someone's Getting A First Super Bowl matchups, this one pits Andy Dalton against Christian Ponder in the worst quarterback matchup in a Super Bowl since ... Trent Dilfer vs. Kerry Collins?
35. Cincinnati Bengals vs. San Francisco 49ers
A rematch of one of the better Super Bowls in history is kicking this countdown off from the bottom spot. I would be fairly excited for this game, and for Dalton and Colin Kaepernick facing off in the year of the rookie quarterback. That is how deep and interesting this playoff field is. But I think this would be a very low-scoring game.
34. Cincinnati Bengals vs. Atlanta Falcons
One team has A.J. Green and the other has Julio Jones, and the Super Bowl is in New Orleans this year. I suspect one or both of the SEC products would ball out. Also: The Falcons are the No. 1 seed in the NFC, but they're just good, and not an exciting kind of good, so they're going to keep showing up here near the bottom.
33. Indianapolis Colts vs. Minnesota Vikings
It would boil down to Andrew Luck's offense against Adrian Peterson's offense, because neither team is anything special on the other side of the ball, but it would be significantly more fun than good, and I'm OK with that.
32. Indianapolis Colts vs. San Francisco 49ers
Luck playing Jim Harbaugh's team is a much better matchup for papers than on paper: how does the Colts defense (No. 29 in the league in run defense) stop the No. 4 running game in the NFL?
31. Indianapolis Colts vs. Seattle Seahawks
Or, uh, the No. 3 running game in the league? And could the Colts do anything against the Seahawks' defense, equipped with the corners to neutralize anyone the Colts trot out? This is the less compelling of the two Rookie QB Bowls, of course, and the Seahawks are simply a lot better than the Colts.
30. Cincinnati Bengals vs. Seattle Seahawks
This is probably the weirdest possible Super Bowl, but sit with me and imagine Bengals and Seahawks fans bonding on Bourbon Street over their mutual hate for the Steelers. It would be great.
29. Indianapolis Colts vs. Atlanta Falcons
Amusing Narrative Clash No. 1 would end most amusingly if Luck led the Colts over the Falcons after Matt Ryan finally gets the "YOU'RE NOT CLUTCH IN THE PLAYOFFS!" monkey off his back. Neither of these teams is particularly good at run defense, but the Falcons start 98-year-old Michael Turner (seriously, how is he just 30?) at running back, and the Colts start Vick Ballard, so that's probably not going to matter much.
28. Houston Texans vs. Atlanta Falcons
¿Quien es más deceptionante? It's the Fraud-Off! Houston's late-season swoon has concealed the fact that the Texans looked much better than the similarly skepticism-dogged Falcons for most of the year while each team bolted to gaudy records out of the gate. But the Texans have a win over the No. 1 seed in the AFC on the road, while the Falcons have a win over the No. 1 seed in the AFC at home ... and haven't played a playoff team since a rather fortuitous injury helped them escape the Redskins in Washington in Week 5. So, yes, both teams would be doing some heavy lifting to get here, and some poor soul (Rembert Browne, probably) would have to write the oral history of the trade that sent Matt Schaub to Houston.
27. Cincinnati Bengals vs. Green Bay Packers
My Packers vs. the first person who got me a job writing about sports' Bengals (hi, Sporting News' Chris Littmann) comes in here because my team would win this game by 14.
26. Cincinnati Bengals vs. Washington Redskins
And this game comes in here because it's between Littmann's Bengals and SB Nation's Chris Mottram's Redskins, and they both live in Charlotte, so something embarrassing will probably be wagered, in the "We drink craft beer" version of Deadspin's old Will Leitch vs. A.J. Daulerio bet that involved a tattoo and a cookie sheet. (Also, it's a better game than the Bengals taking on the Packers.)
25. Houston Texans vs. San Francisco 49ers
If you like defensive line play, this is probably your dream Super Bowl, and you are probably pretty fun to talk to at parties, huh? Also contains: 75 tight ends of various levels of importance, Alex Smith having to commiserate with T.J. Yates, Californians mixing with Texans on Bourbon.
24. Baltimore Ravens vs. Minnesota Vikings
In most other years, I would've used the Ravens as one of the easy picks to fill out the first 10 spots, but Ray Lewis' Last Ride (and Ray Lewis' return as a player of average efficacy) bump them up quite a bit. Adrian Peterson getting a chance to take Lewis for a ride would be awesome, and Uni Watch's Paul Lukas quitting blogging for two weeks as a result of purple overload would be funny. This is also the best running back matchup available, for my money, but that's because the AFC has Ray Rice and Arian Foster and no one else beyond being described as "above average."
23. Indianapolis Colts vs. Green Bay Packers
The NFL's two major prototype quarterbacks still in their athletic primes make for a drool-worthy matchup, and the game the two teams played in Indianapolis earlier this year was a very good one, but the Colts haven't gotten significantly better since, and the Packers have.
22. Baltimore Ravens vs. Atlanta Falcons
Two perennial playoff teams (the last playoffs either missed came in 2010, or the playoffs after the 2009 season, and the last both missed was in 2008) with good quarterbacks that are ripe for being ripped on their playoff play. Joe Flacco and Matt Ryan have both had strong years, though, and Ryan's in particular was the best of his career by an immense margin. This is also the worst Bird Bowl available.
21. Baltimore Ravens vs. Seattle Seahawks
The Ravens are the old example of how to build a defense in the NFL. The Seahawks seem to me to be the new one, and they're certainly far more exciting on offense than the old Ravens led by Trent Dilfer and everyone Baltimore used between him and Flacco were. You may also remember that Cam Cameron gave Rice five carries in a 22-17 loss to the Seahawks in Seattle in 2011, which was really the point at which he probably should have been shown the door. This is the best Bird Bowl available.
20. Houston Texans vs. Seattle Seahawks
Two teams with interesting characters (the Texans have Arian Foster, the Seahawks have everyone the Seahawks have) that run two very different takes on zone runs! This would be more fun if the Texans defense hadn't spent the last month drooling in its sleep on the field, but you can get hot again in the playoffs! Ask the Giants! They're not doing anything else!
19. Houston Texans vs. Green Bay Packers
Seen it. Wasn't pretty for the Texans.
18. Houston Texans vs. Washington Redskins
Hey, did you know that RGIII is from Texas? Did you know he committed to Houston before going to Baylor? You might learn these things about 5,000 times during this Super Bowl's fortnight.
17. Houston Texans vs. Minnesota Vikings
Hey, did you know that RGIII is from Texas? Did you know he committed to Oklahoma instead of giving Texas a Vince Young-Adrian Peterson backfield? You might learn these things about 5,000 times during this Super Bowl's fortnight.
16. Baltimore Ravens vs. San Francisco 49ers
The Harbowl is a thing I know I cannot handle and am underrating as a result, even if Ray Lewis transfers all of his powers to Patrick Willis at some point after the game. I'm not excited by coaches matching up against each other unless their teams are contrasts in some way, and Ravens-Niners doesn't provide that.
15. New England Patriots vs. Minnesota Vikings
Tom Brady's crew taking their lowest ranking at No. 15 should tell you something about how few of the teams in the AFC are thoroughly entertaining. (That's exactly the blurb I used last year for this spot. It still works.)
14. Baltimore Ravens vs. Green Bay Packers
The Ravens and Packers rarely play, with just four games in NFL history between them, but the only time they've met with Flacco and Rodgers at the helm was a fairly nondescript game. A bonus, though: Omar vs. Fez!
13. New England Patriots vs. Seattle Seahawks
Russell Wilson's first major NFL pelt to come without controversy (still bitter, sorry) was a brilliant come-from-behind win over the Patriots that featured a dime of a bomb from Wilson to Sidney Rice, three 50-yard drives in the fourth quarter, and a 14-point rally to erase a 13-point deficit. The Patriots play a lot better at home when not inexplicably losing to the Cardinals (weird but true: three of the Patriots' four losses this year are to NFC West teams) than they do on the road, though, and they've certainly played a decent game in the Superdome before.
12. Denver Broncos vs. Minnesota Vikings
Would Peyton Manning on one side and Christian Ponder on the other be the most lopsided Super Bowl quarterback matchup ever?
11. Indianapolis Colts vs. Washington Redskins
I tried to put this in the top 10. Really, I did. But Luck-Griffin should happen when Indy has a better team than the one Luck resurrected this year, one that is dominant and Luck-fueled, not fraudulent and luck-fueled. This would almost assuredly be the first Super Bowl started by two rookie quarterbacks, but the Colts and 'Skins also start rookie running backs, so that would be a first, too. And in more eerie parallels: both teams have veteran Miami receivers (Reggie Wayne, Santana Moss) and young guys who played college ball in South Florida (T.Y. Hilton, Leonard Hankerson) in the passing game.
10. Baltimore Ravens vs. Washington Redskins
The first Beltway Bowl of the year was a classic, with Griffin leading a drive on one leg that Kirk Cousins finished in dramatic fashion to send the game to overtime, and even the less thrilling ending to the extra period (a punt return set up a winning field goal) won't short-circuit the excitement over this matchup.
9. Denver Broncos vs. Seattle Seahawks
Better revival: Peyton Manning in Denver or Pete Carroll in Seattle? The two best defenses in the playoffs (I would believe in the Niners' defense a little more if Justin Smith were healthy; its failures against the Patriots and Seahawks say plenty) are on the undercard, and Manning-Wilson is the main event: it's the quarterback more destined for NFL success than any other in history against a guy who most assumed would be a backup when he was drafted eight months ago.
8. Denver Broncos vs. Washington Redskins
Meanwhile, this is two completely different protoypes -- Manning, the statuesque cannon-armed passer, on one side, and Griffin, the fleet-footed slinger, on the other -- meeting, with two incredibly hot teams taking each other on with double-digit win streaks. If this transpires, bet on a dazzling affair. Also, Mike Shanahan against the team that ran him out of town for no real reason other than being spoiled by playoff berths? Not a bad deal.
7. Denver Broncos vs. Atlanta Falcons
This was a really, really good game early in the season, when Denver was finding its way and Peyton Manning was finding his arm strength. With Denver operating at a significantly different level now, it could be a much better game, one that Eugene Robinson would still manage to miss by getting arrested on Saturday night. It's his curse, y'know?
6. New England Patriots vs. Washington Redskins
Two different versions of the future collide: RGIII and the 'Skins show how the pistol and zone-read concepts can flip the NFL on its ear, and the Patriots' Oregon-style up-tempo attack is the most exciting introduction to the spread offense the Pats have been running for several years since Randy Moss arrived to catch Brady's passes. Neither defense is good, either, meaning there would be points aplenty.
But there's another really interesting parallel here. What Tom Brady did in reviving a franchise that even its most loyal fans had largely written off is more impressive in retrospect: no one thought, heading into that upset of the mighty Kurt Warner-led St. Louis Rams, that Brady and the no-name Pats were going to be able to do what they did. What RGIII has done, even with virtually everyone in football thinking the world of him, might be more impressive: in a division with the defending Super Bowl champions and two of the more talented non-playoff teams in the league, a rookie-rife squad has emerged as the likely new perennial power.
Oh, and the Redskins haven't lost since Mitt Romney did.
5. New England Patriots vs. Atlanta Falcons
There's a chance that this NFL season, so exciting for the young talent bubbling to the surface everywhere, has really just been the lead-in to Matt Ryan's coronation as the NFL's latest elite quarterback. And Ryan, who went to Boston College and looked like a young Brady there, could really seal that by doing something only Eli Manning has previously done and beating Brady's Pats in a Super Bowl.
4. Denver Broncos vs. San Francisco 49ers
So Jim Harbaugh wanted Peyton Manning to replace Alex Smith last offseason, and Manning picked the Broncos instead, and Smith still lost his job to Colin Kaepernick, and now the Broncos have looked like the league's best team over the last two months, and the Niners have looked shaky at times after benching a guy with a 100+ passer rating (really, look it up) for a second-year player. Manning vs. Kaepernick is another past vs. future game, but the two defenses in this game are probably going to make both offenses work pretty hard.
3. New England Patriots vs. Green Bay Packers
No. 1 last year, this falls two spots because the Packers' defense has risen off the abattoir floor and reconstituted itself, eliminating the once-in-a-lifetime potential for two of the worst defenses in NFL history to play against two of the best offenses in NFL history in a Super Bowl. Brady vs. Rodgers is still a tremendous marquee line, and the Packers' secondary facing Brady is as terrifying for Packers fans as Rodgers facing the Patriots' secondary is for New England partisans, but this just isn't quite up there with the two best possible games.
2. New England Patriots vs. San Francisco 49ers
I had this at No. 4 last year, but the Patriots and 49ers hadn't played one of the best games in the NFL season before the playoffs last year. I don't think we would see anything like the huge lead-huge rally-pull-away-win script that night in New England in early December produced, but I do think we would get a fantastic game from this matchup.
1. Denver Broncos vs. Green Bay Packers
The Broncos and Packers have already played one classic Super Bowl in which a Broncos quarterback in the twilight of his spectacular career knocked off the seemingly ascendant Packers. Peyton Manning won't be helicoptering over any defenders, assuredly, but the Manning-Rodgers matchup is a magical one, and the two defenses in this game are underrated. (Charles Woodson entered the NFL in 1998 and Champ Bailey entered in 1999; they're still very good defenders.)
I really want this game because Manning was great against the Packers when Brett Favre was around (586 yards, eight touchdowns, and one pick in two games against Favre-led Packers teams) and was awful in 2008 against the Packers in Rodgers' first year at the helm, throwing two pick-sixes from Packers territory. It feels like Manning and Rodgers should duel at least once before Manning steps toward the sunset, and there's no better place and time for them to do it than in Manning's backyard in Louisiana ... where Rodgers could once and for all step out of Favre's shadow by beating the team that denied him a second Super Bowl in the same stadium where he won his first.