XLV intrigue: Ranking 16 potential matchups for Super Bowl in Dallas
Patriots-Falcons would be second straight Super Bowl with two No. 1 seeds
Bears-Patriots would be repeat of Super Bowl XX blowout, 25 years later
Jets-Packers would be the first Super Bowl pitting two No. 6 seeds
Paring down to the elite eight in the NFL playoffs means 16 matchups remain possible for Super Bowl XLV in Dallas next month. Here's at least one potential storyline or reason to care about each and every Super pairing, as we rank them from most intriguing to least appealing....
1. Patriots-Falcons -- We'd have a showdown between Mr. Brady of Boston and Matt Ryan, formerly of Boston College, the young quarterback who always tried to emulate No. 12 while playing collegiately in Brady's proverbial backyard. Having the two top seeds (combined record of 27-5 in the regular season) meeting in the Super Bowl for the second year in a row -- when it hadn't happened since 1993 before the Colts and Saints did it a year ago -- wouldn't be a bad trend to continue.
2. Falcons-Ravens -- These birds of a different feather have a lot in common. There's the Matt Ryan-Joe Flacco storyline, with 2008's two first-round quarterbacks having careers that closely mirror each other's, and the coaching prowess of Mike Smith and John Harbaugh, who have combined for five playoff trips and six winning records since arriving in Atlanta and Baltimore at about the same time in early 2008. The Falcons and Ravens met in a Week 10 thriller this season in Georgia, with Atlanta squeaking past the Ravens 26-21 on Ryan's 33-yard scoring pass to Roddy White with 20 seconds remaining.
3. Steelers-Packers -- This matchup would revolve around the showdown between the best quarterback to come out of the deep 2004 draft class (Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger) and the best quarterback to come out of the disappointing 2005 draft class (Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers). And it's worth noting that neither was the first passer off the board in his draft. Big Ben would be a victory away from his third Super Bowl ring in just seven seasons, while Rodgers would be chasing his first.
4. Packers-Patriots -- Not only a rematch of their wildly entertaining 31-27 game from Week 15 (watch out for those offensive linemen on kickoff returns, Green Bay), but also we trust that this time Aaron Rodgers would get to play for the Packers rather than backup QB Matt Flynn. As an added bonus, it would also be a Super Bowl rematch of 14 years ago, when Brett Favre won his only ring going up against a Patriots defense that was coached by a guy named Bill Belichick.
5. Steelers-Falcons -- If this pairing comes to fruition, Pittsburgh and Atlanta will have opened and closed the 2010 NFL season facing one another. For a finale, we could do worse than a repeat of their first meeting, Week 1 in Pittsburgh. The Steelers won 15-9 in overtime when running back Rashard Mendenhall snapped off a 50-yard touchdown run around right tackle on Pittsburgh's first offensive play of the extra period. If there is overtime in the Super Bowl for the first time ever, I seem to remember we have some new rules governing that particular situation.
6. Bears-Patriots -- Twenty-five years after Mike Ditka's 1985 Bears destroyed Raymond Berry's 1985 wild-card Patriots in Super Bowl XX for Chicago's only Super Bowl title, New England could exact its revenge. Then again, maybe it's the Bears who will be out for payback after the Patriots embarrassed them 36-7 at snowy, blustery Soldier Field in Week 14, becoming the first team this season to clinch a playoff berth.
7. Ravens-Packers -- The quarterback matchup of third-year veteran Joe Flacco and sixth-year veteran Aaron Rodgers would make this season's game only the second Super Bowl in the past 20 years to feature two first-time Super Bowl QBs who were drafted by the teams they led to the game (joining Indy's Peyton Manning and Chicago's Rex Grossman in 2006). It would also guarantee that either Flacco or Rodgers becomes the fifth quarterback in the past six years to earn his first Super Bowl ring, a list that includes Drew Brees, Eli Manning, Peyton Manning and Ben Roethlisberger.
8. Falcons-Jets -- You might have forgotten, but second-year Jets head coach Rex Ryan interviewed twice with the Falcons in early 2008 and was actually seen as one of the front-runners for the job that Mike Smith eventually landed. That bit of history would certainly be explored during a Jets-Falcons Super Bowl week, as would the March 2006 three-team trade that sent defensive end John Abraham from New York to Atlanta, where he still commands respect as one of the game's preeminent pass rushers.
9. Jets-Bears -- The overlapping ties that bind these franchises in history are pretty rich: It was 25 years ago that Rex Ryan's dad, Buddy Ryan, was the architect and coordinator of the famed 1985 Bears defense, which dominated Chicago's only Super Bowl-winning team. Rex Ryan was a ball boy for that squad, and was on the sideline that day in New Orleans when the Bears routed the Patriots and carried Buddy Ryan and Mike Ditka off the field on their shoulders. And there's more: Buddy Ryan won his first Super Bowl with the Jets, as the defensive coordinator on the 1968 New York team that upset Baltimore in Super Bowl III.
10. Seahawks-Ravens -- With Jim Harbaugh and Pete Carroll now coaching in the NFC West, they're in position to resume their Stanford-USC rivalry, which prompted the infamous "What's your deal?'' exchange between the two at midfield after the Cardinal routed the Trojans in 2009. But until the 49ers-Seahawks rivalry amps up next season, a proxy war of sorts could be waged by Carroll and Ravens head coach John "Brother of Jim'' Harbaugh. That could spice up Super Bowl week quite nicely.
11. Jets-Packers -- Once the NFL expanded the playoffs to 12 teams and started seeding the field in 1990, it took until the 2005 Steelers for a No. 6 seed to even make the Super Bowl, let alone win it. But a New York-Green Bay matchup would make history as the only No. 6 seed versus No. 6 seed Super Bowl pairing ever. The Wild Card Super Bowl would give hope to all and mark the first time in 45 years that a division champion didn't make the game.
12. Seahawks-Patriots -- All we'd have to chew on would be Seattle head coach Pete Carroll facing off against the team he led from 1997 to '99, between the Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick eras in New England. Pats owner Robert Kraft fired him, but in retrospect, Carroll's record doesn't look too bad. He never had a losing season, got to the playoffs twice in three years, won a division title and a playoff game, and his .549 winning percentage is second-best in franchise history (behind the man in the hoodie). What was the problem?
13. Bears-Ravens -- Defense likely would be the predominant theme of this Super pairing, with middle linebackers Ray Lewis and Brian Urlacher matching Pro Bowl-studded résumés and leading teams that have long made their reputation on that side of the ball. Other than that, the Bears and Ravens have had running back Chester Taylor in common, and not much else in recent years.
14. Seahawks-Steelers -- Where have we seen this one before? Try five years ago, at Detroit's Ford Field. The Steelers beat the Seahawks 21-10 in Super Bowl XL, in a coaching matchup of the since-departed Bill Cowher and Mike Holmgren. Pittsburgh earned its long-awaited fifth ring, and the Seahawks came away feeling as if all the game's close calls went against them. And upon further review, they had a pretty valid point.
15. Steelers-Bears -- Somehow, despite the Bears and Steelers being two of the NFL's historic old-guard, family-run franchises, they've never met in the postseason. And the teams first played one another in 1936, so you would have thought the Rooneys and the Halas/McCaskey clan might have run into each other a time or two in the playoffs. Maybe the Bears and Steelers would go the throwback uniform route in the Super Bowl and make the whole thing way retro cool.
16. Seahawks-Jets -- Yet another Super Bowl storyline would emanate from the eventful coaching career of Seattle's Pete Carroll. The former Jets defensive coordinator got promoted to his first NFL head coaching gig with New York in 1994, replacing Bruce Coslet. But alas, the Jets weren't quite ready for Carroll's rah-rah style just yet -- not to mention the basketball court he had painted in the team's parking lot -- and New York fired him after just one 6-10 season. Carroll did all right for himself, of course, and now the Jets have another head coach in Rex Ryan who likes to do things his own distinctive way.