When the NFL releases its playoff schedule -- like, say, the 2012 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 it's worked as wish fulfillment, if you believe in that: my No. 6 matchup in 2011 was the Pittsburgh Steelers-Green Bay Packers tilt that ended up transpiring, and my No. 1 matchup in 2010 was the Indianapolis Colts-New Orleans Saints game that ended up thrilling America.
For the possible Super Bowl 46 matchup rankings, as a Packers fan, I'm copping to a bias toward seeing Green Bay get a chance to repeat, and also admitting that I like offense a lot; it's only in the hopes that we get a matchup featuring Aaron Rodgers' brilliant play, or, failing that, a team that can be explosive.
And I also factor in the things that an on-field matchup would bring with it off the field, which is why Tim Tebow's Denver Broncos suffer in my estimation: even the most devout Tebow acolyte would be taxed by the madness a Super Bowl fortnight featuring the Broncos would bring.
Without further ado, here are the 36 possible Super Bowl 46 matchups. Disagree? I'll see you in the comments.
36. Denver Broncos vs. San Francisco 49ers
The only subplot that is even remotely interesting about this game, which would probably end 8-3 or something, is that it would feature Urban Meyer's two most prominent pupils, Tebow and former Utah star Alex Smith. This would definitely not make you hate Braxton Miller for no good reason.
35. Denver Broncos vs. Atlanta Falcons
The last time these two teams met in a Super Bowl, Eugene Robinson was arrested on Super Bowl eve for solicitation. If they meet again, and you bet on Tebow repeating Robinson's dubious feat, and it actually happens, I believe you will win seven infinity dollars. (Don't make that bet. It will not happen.)
34. Houston Texans vs. San Francisco 49ers
33. Cincinnati Bengals vs. San Francisco 49ers
It's a rematch of one of the Super Bowls that has gotten underrated over time — Joe Montana led the Niners to their third Super Bowl win with a last-minute drive that people remembered better before the flurry of great recent Super Bowls — but it would be far less intriguing than its predecessor. Unless, that is, you care deeply about Andy Dalton.
32. Denver Broncos vs. Detroit Lions
31. Cincinnati Bengals vs. Atlanta Falcons
One franchise gets its first Super Bowl victory, sure, and there will be an inevitable Ickey Shuffle vs. Dirty Bird segment on SportsFiefdom*, but the compelling on-field angle is what, exactly? A.J. Green and Julio Jones showing out? (*May not be actual thing.)
30. Cincinnati Bengals vs. Detroit Lions
Your mother will make a joke that involves "Lions and tigers, but where are the bears?" (Okay, that's what my mom's joke will be.) Matthew Stafford and Andy Dalton don't exactly set any worlds on fire, but the underrated Cincy secondary could make for an interesting matchup for Calvin Johnson and company.
29. Denver Broncos vs. New York Giants
Flyover Country's Football Jesus vs. The Great American Melting Pot's Eli the Errant is a fun thing to consider, but every single blogger in New York having an opinion on a thing is not good for the health of the Internet.
28. Houston Texans vs. Atlanta Falcons
Two determined running games would get the lion's share of the coverage, and rightly so, but the weird subplot of Matt Schaub getting a Super Bowl trip in a game featuring the two teams he has played for and not actually being able to see the field is one of the weirdest subplots possible, and weird things could get Jon Bois to write things so funny that I cannot breathe.
27. Cincinnati Bengals vs. New York Giants
26. Baltimore Ravens vs. Atlanta Falcons
¿Quien es más deceptionante? I don't know that there are a lot of people clamoring for the only possible Bird Bowl, but I'm sure that people who love ripping Joe Flacco and Matt Ryan as average quarterbacks with really good teams around them would love to watch at least one of them fail.
25. Houston Texans vs. Detroit Lions
Near-polar opposites on offense in this one: Houston wants to run, and Detroit needs to throw. The Texans having the better of the two defenses is a wrinkle that certainly proves the unpredictability of the NFL.
24. Baltimore Ravens vs. New York Giants
Just what the world needs: a rematch of one of the least compelling Super Bowls ever, and an excuse for Trent Dilfer to fashion himself as an expert. (Wait, he already does that? And you trust him?)
23. Cincinnati Bengals vs. New Orleans Saints
Who Dey! Who Dat! Who said college football had a monopoly on bizarre fan participation?
22. Cincinnati Bengals vs. Green Bay Packers
I don't know that anyone but me remembers this, but the Bengals and Packers played a rather good game when they last met in 2010. I don't know if that matters, either.
21. Denver Broncos vs. New Orleans Saints
The NFL's most saintly player vs. the NFL's most lovable Saints is fun on a facile level, but Drew Brees vs. the worst team in the 2012 NFL playoffs coming at No. 20 should indicate how fun any Saints Super Bowl run could be.
20. Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Detroit Lions
Hate hearing about how the NFL's teams are woven into the fabric of the cities where they play? Make sure to avoid much of the pre-Super Bowl coverage of this one, then. It could overshadow an interesting shootout.
19. Pittsburgh Steelers vs. San Francisco 49ers
The only thing that made the Niners' rout of Pittsburgh on Monday Night Football in December vaguely interesting was the lights going out at Candlestick Park. Something tells me that the lights at Lucas Oil Field might stay on for the entirety of the Super Bowl.
18. Houston Texans vs. New Orleans Saints
If this Southern-Fried Super Bowl** happens, I hope that it comes after a non-career-threatening injury to T.J. Yates that brings Jake Delhomme off the bench to face his old team again as a Super Bowl starter. America would set a record for use of the word "Cajun" over a two-week period in the two-week run-up, and someone prominent would explain what "coonass" means. It would be great. (**Yes, someone will call it that.)
17. Baltimore Ravens vs. Detroit Lions
It's two teams few seem to love from two cities widely recognized as epicenters of American urban decay! We can have a discussion about what constitutes dirty play in football and whether that compares to foul play in life! And we get to watch Joe Flacco throw against a porous secondary!
16. Houston Texans vs. New York Giants
Finally, Houston and New York can settle their long-running feud about whether Enron or Lehman Brothers failed more spectacularly. In fact, just swap out the second quarter for that debate so we don't have to watch
Tebow Eli struggle before turning into an all-world quarterback late.
15. New England Patriots vs. Atlanta Falcons
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.
14. Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Atlanta Falcons
Yep, the Steelers have the best matchup against the Falcons, and not the Patriots. That's because weird things have happened when Pittsburgh and Atlanta have tangled this century: a 34-34 tie in 2002 (Shawn Jefferson and Tommy Maddox figured in that one) was followed by a 41-38 overtime barnburner in 2006, and the two teams met in 2010 and kicked three field goals apiece before a Rashard Mendenhall touchdown in overtime gave the Steelers a 15-9 win. If you really want Super Bowl mayhem, you want the first use of the NFL's new playoff overtime rules to come in its last game of the season; the weird voodoo of the Pittsburgh-Atlanta series might produce that.
13. Houston Texans vs. Green Bay Packers
This has everything to do with the Packers being very fun to watch, and little to do with the Texans. But the upstart Houston team gunning for its first title against a juggernaut that is slightly suspect sounds a little like Patriots vs. Rams, right?
12. New England Patriots vs. Detroit Lions
The case could be made that the Patriots and Lions playing a wildly entertaining Thanksgiving game in 2010 and Detroit blowing out New England in this year's preseason establishes this as a series that makes interesting things happen. Another more interesting angle: New England is probably the team that is seen as the most "white" and perhaps "overachieving" squad among teams left in the running for the championship, but Spygate's shadow still lingers over the franchise as a whole; Detroit, thanks to Ndamukong Suh's ill-tempered stop, has gotten a lot of variations on "dirty" thrown its way, but Jim Schwartz' crew seems very much grounded in the Motor City and attached to its work ethic. Nothing's particularly easy about that narrative, but it's one that would be fun to explore.
11. Denver Broncos vs. Green Bay Packers
This might be high, but I'm ceding one relatively big number to the national interest in Tebow: if he makes a Super Bowl in his first year as a full-time starting quarterback, we will never ever ever get rid of the "He's a winner!" mentality that allows so many to willfully deceive themselves and Skip Bayless will get his own ESPN channel. Here's hoping this does not happen.
Oh, and you know what would be worse than that? What if Tebow beats the Packers with John Elway looking on? Would you even turn on ESPN before April?
10. Baltimore Ravens vs. New Orleans Saints
A confession: I think that purple and gold on the field together would be kind of neat. That's all I have, though these teams are both actually good.
9. Baltimore Ravens vs. Green Bay Packers
Both teams come equipped with defenses that are better on paper and in theory than on the field, but two of the four lifetime meetings between them were notable: Brett Favre threw for 337 yards and three touchdown passes in a 2003 game that kicked off one of his many late-career renaissances, and the Ravens gave Green Bay a 48-3 beatdown in 2005 on Monday Night Football that featured both Favre and Aaron Rodgers throwing interceptions.
8. Baltimore Ravens vs. San Francisco 49ers
The Harbaugh Bowl (slap the first person you see using HarBowl for me) is a better narrative than it is a game, though the Ravens' 16-6 victory on Thanksgiving night was fun for defense aficionados. Consider this affirmative action for the sort of defense that is going out of style on the NFL level.
7. Pittsburgh Steelers vs. New Orleans Saints
The "Black and Yellow" vs. black and gold undercard is cool, I guess, but the potential for a shootout in this game is massive, and there would be about seven exciting offensive players on the field.
6. Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Green Bay Packers
This one ends up right where it was last year. That Super Bowl 45 gave my team a title is not forgotten, but there are five other better matchups this season, and that Super Bowl wasn't all that great, anyway.
5. Pittsburgh Steelers vs. New York Giants
For my money, and with apologies to Joe Flacco, no two quarterbacks on good teams drive their fans more nuts than Ben Roethlisberger and Eli Manning. And the Steelers and Giants both have national fan bases, making it exceedingly unlikely that you don't know a few fans of both teams. This is a game that makes people-watching at Super Bowl parties a lot of fun, and also one that pits one of the more amusing and harmlessly odd NFL quarterbacks against a guy who has "an unrelated sexual assault" on his Wikipedia page.
4. New England Patriots vs. San Francisco 49ers
The best offense vs. defense matchup available given the 12 teams in the playoffs is also Tom Brady's chance to to move into the rarefied air that only Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw occupy by winning a fourth Super Bowl. It's also an interesting meeting of two different concepts of an NFL system built in the coach's image — Bill Belichick's star-averse and endlessly innovative dynasty against Jim Harbaugh's grinding, physical offense and defense — but I suspect most people care more about Tom Brady.
3. New England Patriots vs. New York Giants
The last three games between the Patriots and Giants have a) been decided by a total of 10 points b) have all featured at least one lead change in the fourth quarter c) been really, really awesome. I think I'm safe in rating this one this highly despite the Giants' lackluster record.
2. New England Patriots vs. New Orleans Saints
Brady vs. Brees would be enough for most, but there are about a dozen other plots and storylines at hand. How about Rob Gronkowksi, Jimmy Graham, and Aaron Hernandez revolutionizing the tight end position and making offenses incredibly potent without go-to wide receivers? The use of Darren Sproles and Danny Woodhead as runners and receivers? Chad Ochocinco in a Super Bowl? (That counts for every Patriots Super Bowl, but whatever.) Two teams that have hurt the Colts again and again playing a Super Bowl on Indianapolis' home field? You won't wake up the morning of the Super Bowl wanting to watch this one; you will wake up the Monday after the AFC and NFC championship games wishing for a fast-forward button for life.
1. New England Patriots vs. Green Bay Packers
Both defenses are the sorts of high-risk, high-reward units that will either make the other offense look good or create turnovers. This is the sort of game that looks like a 45-42 thrill ride on paper, which probably means it will be a 27-10 snoozer, but it looks good because it almost surely will be good: these two teams don't play boring games often, if ever, and putting the NFL's most fearsome cold-weather offenses inside on a fast track could just add more intrigue.
And nothing touches Tom Brady vs. Aaron Rodgers as a central storyline. You might get sick of hearing about it during the Super Bowl fortnight, but there's little chance that those two quarterbacks won't be remembered among the best of the early post-millennium era, and for good reason. If they can improve on 2010's great Patriots-Packers game, one that Rodgers didn't play in, we're in for a classic Super Bowl.