Now that the wild card round is out of the way, the chase for the Super Bowl is down to eight teams.
The NFC has a former Super Bowl champion quarterback and another who was there less than a year ago, while the AFC has two quarterbacks who have combined for 10 Super Bowl appearances and seven rings. Then there's Nick Foles, Case Keenum, Blake Bortles and Marcus Mariota.
Which Super Bowl matchups carry the most intrigue, excitement and quality football hinges on quarterback play, but many other factors must also be considered. From maybe the two best quarterbacks in history to, well, the AFC South, these are the 16 possibilities remaining, ranked in order of quality and watchability:
Welcome to a blowout: The Saints are the best team in the playoffs, ranking first in DVOA efficiency ratings per Football Outsiders, while the Titans are the worst, coming in at 18th. New Orleans went 7-1 against teams ranked 16th or lower in DVOA, with the only loss coming to the Bucs in a wild Week 17 game that ended up not mattering.
Tennessee surprisingly has four wins over teams ranked in the top 10 of DVOA, but those wins don't come without an asterisk: two wins over Blake Bortles, one win over Joe Flacco and a playoff win over Andy Reid. That's entirely different than trying to beat Matt Ryan if he manages to get a chance at redemption for Super Bowl LI.
The Oilers/Titans have one appearance in the Super Bowl, while the Vikings have four, but both organizations are still looking for their first championship. Seeing Case Keenum as opposed to Drew Brees or Ryan is looking up for Marcus Mariota and company, but it's unlikely that they'll be able to move the ball against a defense ranked first in yards. It's a nice story, but not likely an exciting game to watch.
Any Super Bowl with Tennessee is going to be the worst possible outcome, but it's actually not that far-fetched: If the Titans upset the Patriots and the Jaguars beat the Steelers, then it sets up an AFC South title game. Tennessee swept Jacksonville in the regular season. Despite the narrative, teams are more likely to beat a team three times in a season than they are to lose the rubber match, as we just saw with the Saints and Panthers.
And that's how close we could be to a Mariota-Nick Foles Super Bowl. Total regular season passing touchdowns for those two: 18. Yes, Foles started only three games, but if he had started 16, the Eagles would not be here.
The Jags have more stars on defense than any team, so it would be interesting to see Jalen Ramsey, A.J. Bouye, Calais Campbell, Telvin Smith, Malik Jackson, etc., even if we also have to endure Blake Bortles. I believe this final score would heavily favor Jacksonville and resemble Super Bowl XLVIII -- Peyton Manning against the Seattle defense -- which doesn't have a lot of re-watch value unless you're a Seahawks fan. These two teams meet in London next year but probably will have different starting quarterbacks in that game.
The "Steagles" game might be the most important sporting event in Pennsylvania history, but what about the other 49 states and all those new London fans? We don't care, and we definitely don't want to see the 40-0 blowout that it could become if Foles has to face a coach and quarterback who have three previous Super Bowls of experience.
Like Steelers-Eagles, except more than double the amount of experience for Bill Belichick-Tom Brady. A rematch of Super Bowl XXXIX, aka "The Donovan McNabb puke (or did he?) game."
This matchup's peak is about one year off: if only it was the 2016 Falcons offense vs. the 2017 Jaguars defense, but that's not quite what we'd be getting here. Atlanta's offense under Steve Sarkisian has been decent, not great, ranking 15th in points, while the defense was 22nd in DVOA. It might be a close game, but also one that could be rife with mistakes.
Certainly a game for the defensive-minded fans of football, and that's not something that should be discounted. But when you're talking about a "defensive showdown" that involves having to stop Bortles and Keenum, it's "Madden" on easy. Ultimately, this lacks intrigue because you know the guys who are supposed to be the most important two on the field (the quarterbacks) aren't compelling players. That being said, never count out Keenum:
This is a second potential rematch game, as the Steelers beat the Vikings 16-6 in Super Bowl IX, the third of Minnesota's four Super Bowl losses. This game may be similarly low-scoring because of the Vikings' top-ranked defense, as well as their sketchy rushing offense. I've given Keenum a hard time despite his unexpectedly good numbers this year, because his track record suggests that his numbers aren't quite sustainable -- especially against a team like Pittsburgh on the world's biggest stage. Not that the Vikings can't win it all and get redemption for their four Super Bowl losses in their home stadium, but Pittsburgh did beat Minnesota 26-9 in Week 2. Things have changed a bit since then (and it seems that Xavier Rhodes has always owned Antonio Brown) but not a ton.
Xavier Rhodes vs Antonio Brown- Luke Inman (@Luke_Spinman) September 18, 2017
Both showed why they are regarded as Top-5 at their respective positions yesterday! pic.twitter.com/RVbY2V6Pma
As good as the last Super Bowl was by the end, we just saw this game. I think it would be a great story to see Atlanta get redemption for 28-3, but I don't need to see the Falcons do it against the Patriots' lackluster defense to make it worthwhile. Neither team -- 22nd on defense for the Falcons, 31st for New England -- has a championship defense we've come to expect, but Brady-Ryan II is better than many of the alternatives.
Jacksonville has fallen off a bit of late, making it harder to envision as an AFC champion, and maybe even a less intriguing option for the Super Bowl. The Jags lost their last two regular-season games to the 49ers and Titans, then barely got by the Bills in the wild card round, 10-3 at home. These are not the 2000 Ravens or '02 Bucs, but they're still fun to watch because of Ramsey and the defense. Running back Leonard Fournette is also capable of doing something we've never seen before on every play. The Saints are the best team in the NFC, and it would be great to see what Brees can do against the sport's most talented defense.
Here is the best opportunity for Atlanta to get redemption in an interesting way. Ben Roethlisberger going for his third ring, possibly with retirement looming; Ryan looking for his first ring; Le'Veon Bell going into free agency as a potential Super Bowl winner; Julio Jones and Brown competing for the most receiving yards in the game. It would be a watchable game and likely a close one.
Brady-Keenum is a worse QB-on-QB matchup than some others, but it does have the intrigue of the Patriots' top offense (yards, DVOA, second in points) against the Vikings' top defense. On the flipside, Keenum could put up MVP numbers against New England. The Vikings lost their starting quarterback, the quarterback they traded for to replace him and their rookie running back who was one of the best offensive skill players of the first month ... and they're still just two wins away from becoming the first team to play a Super Bowl at home. It would be an incredible narrative to follow.
The @Vikings had the NFL's #1 scoring defense and #10 scoring offense this season- NFL Research (@NFLResearch) January 10, 2018
In the Super Bowl era, there have been 26 previous teams to have the #1 scoring defense, as well as a top 10 offense for that season
Over half of those teams made the Super Bowl (14 of 26, 53.8%)
Who would have a better Hall of Fame resume if Pittsburgh won the Super Bowl this year: Roethlisberger with three rings but not the greatest stats or Brees with one ring and arguably the best stats ever? That might be a lot more up for debate than if they both have two rings, in which case Brees can also claim the best numbers and that he basically changed the game in 2006 when he signed in New Orleans. The Saints finally have a defense worthy of Brees, and Alvin Kamara has been more dynamic than Reggie Bush ever was. The Steelers aren't going to be easy to beat, though. These are arguably the two most-talented offenses in the NFL.
In Week 2, the Patriots beat the Saints 36-20, sending New Orleans to 0-2. The score itself was even a bit of a mirage, as New England pulled out to a 20-3 lead in the first quarter and 36-13 by the middle of the fourth. The next week, the Saints began their transformation, and soon enough, Kamara and Mark Ingram were unbelievable once they were outside of the shadow of Adrian Peterson. They won 11 of their next 14 games, with all three losses coming on the road, two of those to playoff teams.
Despite the win, New England was 2-2 after four games and had allowed the most points in the NFL, an average of 32 per game. The Patriots won 11 of their next 12 and didn't give up more than 27 in any of those. Brady had another MVP-caliber season, at age 40, and did so without his top receiver and top tackle and a 31st-ranked defense. He'd be looking for his sixth ring against the only contemporary active quarterback who might be able to compete with him as the greatest to ever play the game. Brees and Brady are ranked Nos. 3 and 4 in all-time passing yards and are tied at 488 for third all-time in touchdowns. That's 976 career touchdown passes and over 136,000 passing yards.
I believe New Orleans' defense will be the difference between if this ends up happening, but it has all the potential to go down as one of the best Super Bowl matchups ever. You could hate-root against the Patriots or respect-root for either Brady or Brees, but likely any football fan would have some skin in the game here.