When the NFL releases its playoff schedule, I immediately start trying to figure out what the best Super Bowl matchups are. I've been ranking the possible Super Bowls for three years (2009, 2010, 2011), and my first set of Super Bowl XLVI rankings ran last Friday. This week, we've cut out the teams that lost in Wild Card weekend and re-order the best remaining possible matchups.
In my opinion, losing the teams we lost in the Wild Card round of the 2012 NFL playoffs didn't do much to diminish the potential for a great Super Bowl XLVI. The No. 1, No. 2, No. 3, and No. 4 games in my original rankings are all still possible, in part because the New England Patriots factor into all of them, and just three of the worst 12 games from the original rankings remain.
But the other interesting wrinkle of Wild Card Weekend was the re-examination of the teams that played in it. The Broncos, if Tim Tebow can actually throw the ball, don't seem like such a terrible team to watch, and the Houston Texans sort of do, considering how awful their win over the Cincinnati Bengals was. The New Orleans Saints, of course, remain compelling and explosive, but the New York Giants seem to have a Super Bowl-caliber defense all of a sudden.
With all of that and the other off-field considerations in mind, I re-ranked the 16 remaining potential Super Bowl XLVI matchups. As always, I welcome spirited disagreement in the comments.
16. Houston Texans vs. San Francisco 49ers (Prev. No. 34)
T.J. Yates' longest completion against the Bengals in a 31-10 win over a squad that did its damnedest to avoid looking like a playoff team was a 40-yard touchdown pass to Andre Johnson, who Pacman Jones appeared to completely forget about. I doubt that happens against the Niners' stifling defense, and I also doubt there would be even 35 points in this game.
15. Baltimore Ravens vs. New York Giants (Prev. No. 24)
There's one unquestionably good quarterback left in the AFC (his name rhymes with Mom Shady), and so any team that isn't his is going to have quarterback questions against the NFC. But is there a bigger contrast of performances in big games than the one between Joe Flacco and Eli Manning? I'd bet this game ends up coming down to something other than the two QBs, but watching fans reconcile Manning being in a Super Bowl and being by far the more competent semi-flaky quarterback would be amusing. To me, anyway.
14. Denver Broncos vs. San Francisco 49ers (Prev. No. 36)
There's an easy way to disparage this game: Denver allowed 156 rushing yards on 23 carries to the Steelers despite Pittsburgh running just 10 times in the second half, and San Francisco runs the ball more than any other NFC team remaining, so the Niners could just follow their blueprint and play better than Denver. But that Urban Meyer Bowl subplot is even more intriguing if former Meyer signal-callers Tebow and Alex Smith, both at their best when mobile, somehow lead their teams to the Super Bowl against each other by doing the things that Meyer will want to do with Braxton Miller next year at Ohio State, and will burnish Meyer's reputation while Dan Mullen fumes in Starkville. Dan Mullen fuming in Starkville is also amusing to me.
13. Houston Texans vs. New York Giants (Prev. No. 16)
I'm almost certain that Eliologist Katie Baker would write 4,000 words on Manning's benign weirdness vs. Arian Foster's benign weirdness. The problem is that piece would be way more entertaining than the game.
12. Houston Texans vs. New Orleans Saints (Prev. No. 18)
11. Denver Broncos vs. New York Giants (Prev. No. 29)
If the Broncos end up in a Super Bowl against the Giants, every newspaper, magazine, website, parody Twitter account, semi-anonymous Tumblr and zine based in the Big Apple will find a way to cover Tebow, because Tebow moves the meter. And there is no way that all of that will be as good as Gawker's guide to Tebow for non-sports fans, so I'm looking forward to the train wrecks. Get excited for Thought Catalog's 6,000-word piece on what a Pastafarian Tebow would be like!
10. Houston Texans vs. Green Bay Packers (Prev. No. 13)
The Packers and Texans have met twice: in 2004, Brett Favre threw for a season-high 383 yards and the Packers scored 13 straight points to win a 16-13 squeaker; in 2008, the Texans outdueled the Pack, 24-21, in a game that featured 25 points in the fourth quarter and Matt Schaub setting his career high for passing yards with 414. Both teams were 5-7 heading into that game, and yet some called the Texans' win one of the biggest in the franchise's existence. So, no, there isn't a lot of history between these two teams.
9. Denver Broncos vs. New Orleans Saints (Prev. No. 21)
I'm bumping this up because I kind of want to see who writes the column calling Tebow the closest thing we have to a saint on Earth, and because I think Matt Ufford's reaction to having his completely nonsensical predictions about Tebow winning the Super Bowl come true would make the end of the world more enjoyable.
8. Baltimore Ravens vs. San Francisco 49ers (Prev. No. 8)
SI.com's Super Bowl matchup rankings enthrone this game at No. 1 for obvious fraternal Harbaugh foofaraw, with Don Banks writing "I see some potential here." I see Joe Flacco and Alex Smith starting in a Super Bowl, and though I will give Banks credit for noting that this is the Super Bowl for defensive-minded purists, the Super Bowl decidedly does not lend itself to low-scoring games. The Giants' 17-14 win over the Patriots in Super Bowl 42 and the Pittsburgh Steelers' 21-10 victory over the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl 40 were the lowest-scoring Super Bowls since 1975, and yet the former is remembered best for an impossibly spectacular offensive play and the latter is remembered for ... I'm not even sure.
7. Denver Broncos vs. Green Bay Packers (Prev. No. 11)
Tim Tebow vs. Aaron Rodgers is just about the best storyline for ESPN in the post-"Who's Now" era of studio shows about sports that are run like carnival games, which makes me fearful of putting this higher than No. 1,000,000,000,000, but there's also a good chance that Rodgers plays the best game in NFL history by a quarterback in this Super Bowl, given how great he was against the Broncos earlier this year. (Bonus sentence at that link: "Tim Tebow is lost at sea in the Rocky Mountains." Remember when, right?)
6. Baltimore Ravens vs. New Orleans Saints (Prev. No. 10)
I still have nothing more than an interest in the color combinations and a hunch on this one.
5. Baltimore Ravens vs. Green Bay Packers (Prev. No. 9)
Unflappable Rodgers vs. eminently flappable Flacco? Eh, sure. A last hurrah for the aging Ravens defense against the tip of the spear of the new wave of unstoppable NFL offenses? That's more interesting.
4. New England Patriots vs. San Francisco 49ers (Prev. No. 4)
This is even more obviously the best offense vs. defense matchup available than it was last Friday, because the Broncos' defense has taken a step back from its midseason dominance, the Ravens' defense hasn't done anything to change anyone's appraisal of it, and because I said so. The last reason is the most important one.
3. New England Patriots vs. New York Giants (Prev. No. 3)
Here's a question: if the Patriots get to the Super Bowl again and lose to the Giants again, is there going to be a regional hue and cry in New England about the Curse of David Tyree? And does Eli let a single conversation with Peyton go by for the rest of his life without mentioning that he has more Super Bowl rings or using the phrase "I beat New England when it counted"?
2. New England Patriots vs. New Orleans Saints (Prev. No. 2)
I mentioned the explosive potential of this game last week, but there's another really intriguing angle here: aren't the Patriots and Saints sort of mirror images of each other? Both teams have built running games despite not really getting contributions from their most recent first-round picks of running backs -- Laurence Maroney never had more than 835 yards in a season and is long gone from New England, while Mark Ingram is third in rushing yards for New Orleans despite having the most carries on the team (Brees averages more yards per carry, incredibly) -- and have largely faceless defenses that rely on creating turnovers rather than down-by-down dominance. And then there's the idea that Tom Brady and Brees are flip sides of the coin about how rare great quarterbacks are and how serendipitous their discoveries can be.
1. New England Patriots vs. Green Bay Packers (Prev. No. 1)
I could get cute and talk about systems and opposing ideologies and so on, but come on, folks: it's Brady vs. Rodgers for all of the glory in a sport that manufactures more glory for its quarterbacks than some sports do for their leagues. That satisfies any conceivable standard for importance; Brady and Rodgers should take care of the quality of play.