With the 2011 NFL playoffs upon us and the playoff schedule set, the Super Bowl is frighteningly close: just five Sundays from now, the Super Bowl XLV champions will be crowned at Cowboys Stadium.
But, even though my team's in the playoffs, I care about good matchups and better games. So here's my attempt to answer one question: how do we rank the 36 possible Super Bowl matchups?
(The answer? In a way that will inevitably make Seahawks fans mad.)
36. Baltimore Ravens vs. Seattle Seahawks
There's no denying that a Super Bowl featuring the Seahawks, even if they make an improbable run through the NFC playoffs, has an enormous chance of being a stinker. But the worst case scenarios are truly bad: would the Seahawks even score on the Ravens?
35. Indianapolis Colts vs. Seattle Seahawks
Could the Seahawks stop the Colts? Could Matt Hasselbeck (or Charlie Whitehurst?) outduel Peyton Manning? Could you pay attention to anything other than the commercials if it's 24-7 at halftime and the Black Eyed Peas' halftime show delivers on its threat to murder recorded music?
34. Kansas City Chiefs vs. Seattle Seahawks
This game, a matchup of teams from the old AFC West, has already happened once this year: the Chiefs pasted Seattle, 42-24, in Seattle. Anyone want to see Round Two?
33. New York Jets vs. Seattle Seahawks
The first of two possible Pete Carroll Bowls is the lesser one, though the Mark Sanchez subplot (Carroll publicly admonished Sanchez for leaving USC) would be juicy. And between Rex Ryan and Carroll, I think there might be a few sound bites.
32. Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Seattle Seahawks
The most noteworthy thing about the first Super Bowl between these two teams was the officiating. In the meantime, the Steelers have gotten better and the Seahawks have gotten worse. And if we have concerns about the Seahawks scoring on the Ravens, we should have fears about what the Steelers defense might do.
31. New England Patriots vs. Seattle Seahawks
This is the better Pete Carroll Bowl, but also the Bill Simmons Bowl: the ESPN columnist loves to rag on Carroll, who he blames for the struggles of the late '90s Patriots. Seattle completing the Cinderella run to end all NFL Cinderella runs with a win over the Patriots would be fun, if only to see Simba self-immolate.
30. Kansas City Chiefs vs. Chicago Bears
If only because the Jamaal Charles vs. Jay Cutler subplot is the Misused Talent Bowl.
29. Indianapolis Colts vs. Chicago Bears
Seen it before with a better Devin Hester, a better-stocked Colts arsenal, and a more compelling pair of black head coaches playing for a Super Bowl.
28. New York Jets vs. Atlanta Falcons
Brett Favre's first team and the team Brett Favre played for while allegedly committing sexual harassment would make this a very Brett Favre Super Bowl, whether we like it or not. I don't think we would.
27. Kansas City Chiefs vs. Atlanta Falcons
Two fairly traditional offenses with strong running games and "triplets" (Matt Cassel, Charles, and Dwayne Bowe; Matt Ryan, Michael Turner, and Roddy White) would meet, and one earns the franchise's first Super Bowl Not bad, but not terribly exciting, right? And can you name more than two players on defense for each team?
26. Baltimore Ravens vs. Atlanta Falcons
The Joe Flacco vs. Ryan story would be heated up again, which is, uh, something? These two teams did play a game with a thrilling fourth quarter earlier this year.
25. Baltimore Ravens vs. New Orleans Saints
The Saints have so few natural rivalries against the AFC's teams (it's a product of their years of misery) that any matchup feels a bit forced. But pitting Sean Payton's relentlessly creative offense against the veteran Ravens defense would be fun.
24. Kansas City Chiefs vs. New Orleans Saints
This produces a game with two of the NFL's finest playcallers in Charlie Weis and Payton. Middling defenses increase the shootout potential.
23. Baltimore Ravens vs. Green Bay Packers
Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay passing game having to throw on Ed Reed after the Packers' duct-taped running game sputters? Yeah, that's a good one.
22. New York Jets vs. New Orleans Saints
Think Ravens-Saints, but if the Ravens were 12 times more compelling.
21. Baltimore Ravens vs. Chicago Bears
Two mean, talented defenses and two cannon-armed quarterbacks means that both defensive struggle and score-a-thon would be in play. That makes up for the lack of playmakers.
20. Baltimore Ravens vs. Green Bay Packers
AFC East champions. First round bye and home field advantage throughout AFC playoffs. Will host lowest seed remaining at Gillette Stadium in two weeks.
19. New York Jets vs. Chicago Bears
Two fanbases with love-hate relationships with their teams get to go to Texas and yell at each other? Heck, I'll watch a webcam set up in a bar on Super Bowl Sunday.
18. Baltimore Ravens vs. Philadelphia Eagles
It's the best of the bird-on-bird matchups. And any defense trying to stop Michael Vick is going to be good.
17. Indianapolis Colts vs. Atlanta Falcons
Are you ready for two weeks of "Is Matt Ryan the next Peyton Manning?" Because that's what this matchup will bring, followed by 180 yards and two touchdowns from Michael Turner that makes the question look silly.
16. New York Jets vs. Green Bay Packers
More of the ghost of Favre past here, but the Packers are a fun team with a fun quarterback, and the Jets are a fun team with a fun quarterback.
15. Indianapolis Colts vs. New Orleans Saints
This seems ... familiar. Once we all get past the inevitably suffocating hype for a Super Bowl rematch that each team had to work even harder for, Peyton Manning vs. Drew Brees will look pretty good.
14. Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Chicago Bears
You want defense? This is one of your ideal matchups.
13. New England Patriots vs. Atlanta Falcons
All the "Ryan vs. Manning" debates from the Colts-Falcons Super Bowl? Replace Manning with Tom Brady, and you'll probably get the gist of the hype about this one. But, more subtle and more interesting: do the no-name Falcons and Mike Smith have the inside track on being the NFC's Patriots?
12. Indianapolis Colts vs. Philadelphia Eagles
Peyton Manning vs. Michael Vick? I'll take that in a heartbeat, and not just because the Colts have as good a chance of stopping Vick as I do of being Vick. This is also more or less the line of demarcation between "meh" and "maybe, just maybe, this will be a classic."
11. Kansas City Chiefs vs. Green Bay Packers
This might be high, but a Super Bowl I rematch is pretty cool, no? The chances that the game is like its predecessor, a 35-10 Packers rout, are not insignificant, but the novelty factor is better for this tilt than any other potential game.
10. Indianapolis Colts vs. Green Bay Packers
Take all of the Manning comparisons that Matt Ryan would get, and substitute Aaron Rodgers' name, and you can probably imagine the run-up to this one. Neat subplots: how good are the stables of wide receivers these two teams have? And will the Packers' very resistible running game be able to do anything against the Colts' very movable run defense?
9. Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Atlanta Falcons
Two very good quarterbacks, two competent offenses, and two good defenses, sure. But the two teams have good games in their recent history, including an overtime game earlier this year (when the Steelers were without Ben Roethlisberger) and the 34-34 tie in 2002. Can whatever weird magic produced those two games happen again?
8. New England Patriots vs. Chicago Bears
Get past a guy whose name rhymes with Schmill Schmimmons calling this a "revenge game" for one of the biggest beatdowns in Super Bowl history, and there's a decent game here: the Bears could pressure Tom Brady like few teams have this season, producing a game that could be eerily reminiscent of another year and another dominant Patriots team being undone by an NFC team with a ferocious pass rush.
7. Pittsburgh Steelers vs. New Orleans Saints
We've seen this game before, in Week 8, and the Saints won 20-10. Here's hoping a rematch would be better.
6. Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Green Bay Packers
Great young quarterbacks and tough, aggressive defenses make for a potentially excellent matchup. Subplot to watch: who hates their coach more, Steelers fans who loath offensive coordinator Bruce Arians' playcalling or Packers fans who hate Mike McCarthy's playcalling?
5. New England Patriots vs. Green Bay Packers
These two teams already played one great game this season. And that was with Aaron Rodgers sidelined with a concussion
4. New England Patriots vs. New Orleans Saints
See the Saints as all that is good in the world of the NFL, and the Patriots as evil? Here's your clash of opposites. The rest of us will admire Tom Brady vs. Drew Brees, and the coaching brilliance of Bill Belichick vs. Sean Payton. Overrated subplot: the symmetry of the Patriots seeming starting a second (or third) phase of the Belichick dynasty with a win over the team from the city where they won their first Super Bowl, which is even less worthwhile than "Jerome Bettis is from Detroit."
3. New York Jets vs. Philadelphia Eagles
Anyone who wants to spark a completely meaningless sports radio conversation that will last for years will hope that the Eagles clobber the Jets, producing the City of Brotherly Love's biggest triumph over the Big Apple yet. Anyone who wants a great game will hope that Rex Ryan quits yapping for two weeks and locks himself in a film room to devise a master plan to shut down Michael Vick. (Bonus points for the smirks generated by inevitable discussions about Vick's footwork that seem like double entendres because of Ryan's personal life.)
2. Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Philadelphia Eagles
How about this one? It's a potentially game — the Steelers defense trying to corral Michael Vick is maybe the best possible offense-defense matchup — and an potentially enormous PR nightmare for the NFL. PETA will come out in force for any Vick Super Bowl, and Ben Roethlisberger in another Super Bowl will make any person who cares about women's rights antsy. But fans having to choose between a convicted felon who killed dogs and an alleged rapist will trigger an avalanche of "Who are we rooting for, really?" columns that the NFL isn't exactly eagerly anticipating. Underrated subplot: do the owners benefit from players being vilified and fans questioning their faith in the players heading into a potential NFL lockout?
1. New England Patriots vs. Philadelphia Eagles
In the end, tabbing this as the best possible 2011 Super Bowl matchup isn't hard: the NFL's best offense and best quarterback taking on the NFL's most exhilarating player and getting the final shot at thwarting his remarkable renaissance has all the makings of a superb Super Bowl, and there are a thousand subplots that are actually interesting. Can the individual brilliance of Michael Vick beat a juggernaut with machine-like efficiency as its foundation? Will Andy Reid finally win a Super Bowl? What is DeSean Jackson going to do if he scores a touchdown in a Super Bowl? Who's better, Vick or Tom Brady?
This is the sort of matchup that makes waiting for the beginning of February seem intolerable, and one whose afterglow might make the intolerable football-free offseason a little less painful. For a week, at least.