The Giants forced everyone to work a lot harder to come up with Super Bowl storylines when they were eliminated from the playoffs.
Not only are the Giants conveniently located across the bridge from the headquarters of practically everyone, but they come pre-packaged with easy-to-pitch story hooks. Think of the prefabricated column/feature ideas the Giants denied us when they got hammered by the Falcons and Ravens in back-to-back weeks: Giants-Patriots, or Coughlin versus Belichick III (this time, it’s monotonous); Giants-Ravens, a rematch of the Worst Super Bowl Ever; Giants-Colts, a rematch of the Greatest Game Ever Played (as selected by people who don’t count anything that happened after 1958). And of course, the godfather of them all: Manning versus Manning in the birthplace of Mannings, a story so dense that light itself would not be able to escape its event horizon.
Without the Giants, everyone from television producers to talk radio hosts to goofballs like me must do our homework if we want to have our Super Bowl story ideas ready for pitch meetings in three weeks. There are 36 possible Super Bowl matchups, and while some of them come with a ready-to-flog rivalry/rematch/revenge angle, many require a little digging, creativity and salesmanship. Here is a countdown of all 36 matchups, ranked by “ease of hype.” The further down the list you go, the more likely you are to hear something interesting, spontaneous, and fresh about the participants when late January arrives. But if everyone works extra hard, we can avoid it.
1. Broncos versus Redskins: Mike Shanahan seeks revenge against the organization that employed him for 14 years and paid him extravagantly while allowing him to reach the highest echelons of his profession. The Broncos seek revenge for Super Bowl XXII, as John Elway is strapped into a chair and forced to relive the Redskins’ 35-point second quarter over and over again until he apologizes for foisting Tim Tebow on an unsuspecting world. Alfred Morris tries to replace former rookie sensation Timmy Smith in the Super Bowl record book; sadly, Smith will then fade from sight, Back to the Future-style. With a little creativity, we could probably spin a “changing of the quarterback guard” out of this matchup somehow.
2. Colts versus Redskins: Rookie quarterbacks! Brace yourself for two weeks of “who’s better” arguments about Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin, tweaked a dozen different ways: who is better now, who will have a better career, and so on. It will be just like the run-up to the draft, except that there is a chance that some people offering opinions about Luck and Griffin before the Super Bowl may have actually seen them play.
3. Colts versus Seahawks: Rookie quarterbacks! As with Luck-Griffin, the Luck-Wilson debate is conveniently color coded to simplify things for First Take producers and guests.
4. Ravens versus 49ers: The Harbaugh brothers are like the Manning brothers with a dash of Cain and Abel, or the Ryan brothers with success. Archie Manning gives Jack Harbaugh his cell phone number so he can be his “sponsor” if things get out of control.
5. Broncos versus Falcons: A rematch of Super Bowl XXXIII gives us a chance to relive the Dirty Bird and the exploits of Eugene Robinson, the Falcons veteran safety who was arrested the night before the Super Bowl for soliciting a prostitute. Soliciting a prostitute the night before the Super Bowl is illegal, unprofessional, icky, and when she turns out to be a cop, kinda hilarious. Mike Smith institutes a 4:00 PM Big Easy curfew to keep any of his players from following in Robinson’s footsteps, foiling Michael Turner’s plan to pay a call girl $40 to let him win a footrace.
6. Broncos versus Packers: Yet another Super Bowl rematch. Peyton Manning can reenact John Elway’s heroic Super Bowl XXXII dive for a first down, with 30 layers of Memory Foam covering the Superdome floor and a team of paramedics standing by. Given the Super Bowl’s ability to force old quarterbacks and opponents to say nice things about new quarterbacks and opponents until the mutual-admiration becomes creepily sensual, Elway & Manning & Favre & Rodgers could end up as the quarterbacking equivalent of Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice.
7. Bengals versus 49ers: The Bengals are only allowed in the Super Bowl when facing the 49ers, and they are also only really interesting when facing the 49ers. Ickey Woods becomes more of an in-demand interview than BenJarvus Green-Ellis, whose name cannot be shuffled. Ken Anderson, Boomer Esiason, and Andy Dalton share Super Bowl memories; with their dark, light blond, and red hair, they will look like a spumoni. Analysts can tell the famous Joe Montana-John Candy story from Super Bowl XXIII over and over again. Colin Kaepernick can admit that he has no idea who the heck John Candy was or why Montana would care about him.
8. Colts versus Packers: A rematch of the Colts comeback in the ChuckStrong game. Chuck Pagano’s battle with cancer was one of the truly powerful, inspiring stories of this season, and the further the Colts go in the playoffs, the more coverage his triumph will receive. Unfortunately, Super Bowl hype has the counterintuitive ability to trivialize by overexposure: “Thanks for that heart-warming feature about the most serious topic in the world. Up next, speculation about Beyonce’s halftime wardrobe.” Packers-Colts would also provide Jeff Saturday with a platform to discuss the five Pro Bowl berths he earned for the Colts and the one he did not earn this year with the Packers.
9. Patriots versus Packers: A rematch of Super Bowl XXXI could only mean one thing: Brett Favre with a pulpit. Hand Favre a microphone, ask him how his career stacks up to Brady’s, or whether Aaron Rodgers’ legacy supersedes his if Rodgers wins a second Super Bowl, and watch as the very concept of self-awareness dies.
10. Patriots versus Vikings: The Patriots have become such a Super Bowl institution that coverage of them gets stale in a hurry: you can only debate Bill Belichick’s or Tom Brady’s legacy so many times. The Vikings would provide a great David versus Goliath angle which would make both teams more interesting. Media Day highlight: when asked for the fifteenth time to say nice things about Christian Ponder, Brady’s eyes glaze over so thoroughly that it looks like he is wearing bifocals made by Krispy Kreme.
11. Broncos versus Vikings: Most Valuable Player versus Comeback Player of the Year, even though Peyton Manning and Adrian Peterson may have those titles mixed up. For accuracy’s sake: Manning should be Comeback Player of the Year for 2012, and Peterson should be Comeback Player of the Year for 2013, because that’s when any normal human who needed a comeback would have come back.
12. Patriots versus 49ers: Careful film study of the wild Week 15 game where the Patriots came back from a 31-3 deficit, but lost 41-34, reveals that it was raining.
13. Texans versus Redskins: Gary Kubiak and Mike Shanahan: protégé and master. They can share “John Elway chews with his mouth open” stories. Interviews with Alex Gibbs, the longtime assistant to both coaches, grow awkward when both coaches call Gibbs multiple times asking for zone-blocking advice.
14. Patriots versus Seahawks: Pete Carroll coached the Patriots for three seasons between the Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick eras. Carroll led the Patriots to the playoffs twice but was criticized for being easygoing and taking his players bowling. Carroll can tell “Bowling with Bledsoe” stories while Belichick neither confirms nor denies that he has ever bowled. Also, a “Running Up the Score” sportsmanship symposium hosted by a traumatized Ryan Fitzpatrick.
15. Texans versus Falcons: After the “Matt Schaub was once a backup for the Falcons” story burns a few minutes, theoretical physicists can explain to a horrified nation that the only way this Super Bowl is possible is if the NFL season actually ended on December 8th. The whole last month never happened …
16. Broncos versus 49ers: Broncos seek revenge for Super Bowl XXIV. There is only so much humiliation we can put poor John Elway through with these rematches of 55-10 losses: it was the 1980s, Super Bowls were gnarly, and Elway was grody to the max when he played in them. An Aldon Smith-Von Miller feature can focus on two exciting young pass rushers and the challenges of not being J.J. Watt.
17. Ravens versus Falcons: The two top rookie quarterbacks from the 2008 draft class take the next step and finally achieve hey did Bart Scott just say something dishy about Mark Sanchez? Let’s cover that instead.
18. Patriots versus Redskins: Two coaches with five Super Bowl rings: it is hard to quibble with that kind of success, but we’ll manage.
19. Bengals versus Packers: Instead of game analysis, this game calls for journalistic navel-gazing: a detailed profile on professional sports contrarians as they soldier through two weeks of emphatically touting the Bengals, sponsored by the anti-depression medications that keep these troopers going.
20. Bengals versus Seahawks: Andy Dalton was selected 35th in the 2011 draft. Russell Wilson was selected 75th in the 2012 draft. An hour-long special on each of the 118 players selected before them would kill a few days of airtime. Up next on NFL Network: Danny Watkins, the 26-year old Canadian firefighter. Seriously.
21. Patriots versus Falcons: Falcons cornerback Asante Samuel relives painful memories of his dropped interception for the Patriots during the fateful final Giants drive of Super Bowl XLII. “There is more to me than blown tackles” a defiant Samuel asserts. Also, former Patriots executive/Beau Brummel Thomas Dmitroff merges wardrobes with squeegee-chic Bill Belichick so both dress like normal person for a week.
22. Ravens versus Seahawks: Two teams legendary for home field advantage try to make New Orleans feel more like home. “Crawfish taste just like crab cakes!” asserts John Harbaugh. “Zydeco is just grunge with accordions!” claims Pete Carroll. Russell Wilson and Joe Flacco pose together for pictures, creating one of history’s greatest photo-cropping nightmares
23. Bengals versus Redskins: A rematch of the Week 3 shootout, which the Bengals won 38-31. You may not remember the game, as it occurred just when the replacement referees stopped simply blowing calls and started awarding imaginary touchdowns while players bashed each over the head with chairs.
24. Broncos versus Seahawks: These two teams were in the same division from 1977 through 2001, with the Broncos holding a 34-18 lead in the all-time rivalry. That’s some history, folks. We could spend two solid weeks reliving epic games like … September 23rd, 1990: Derrick Fenner rushes for three touchdowns, but David Treadwell kicks a 25-yard field goal in overtime to give the Broncos a 34-31 victory. What, Derrick Fenner doesn’t interest you? Fine. Two weeks of Peyton Manning fawning it is.
25. Bengals versus Vikings: Vikings receiver Jerome Simpson’s somersault touchdown catch for the Bengals in 2011 is shown in an endless loop, like a yule log, until fans and experts are hypnotized into thinking that Simpson vaulted into the end zone but hundreds of times in his career. Don’t laugh: this is the same process that got Lynn Swann into the Hall of Fame.
26. Texans versus Vikings: Skip Bayless awakes in a cold sweat and says, syllogistically: “Only elite quarterbacks can win Super Bowls. Either Matt Schaub or Christian Ponder will win the Super Bowl. Therefore, either Matt Schaub or Christian Ponder is an elite quarterback.” Socrates rises from the dead and spends the rest of the night poking Bayless with a sharp stick. (This is technically not a storyline, but admit that you would love for it to happen).
27. Ravens versus Redskins: A regional sort-of rivalry. Media members can camp out in Beltsville, Maryland, the borderline between Ravens and Redskins country. There, fans will congregate to argue and cheer, or at least they would if they weren’t stuck in I-95 traffic.
28. Texans versus 49ers: The most dangerously oversimplified offense in the NFL faces its most needlessly complicated offense. As a promotional stunt, Matt Schaub reads off the entire Texans playbook in the time it takes Colin Kaepernick to locate his secondary receiver. In a tribute to the culinary legacies of each city, Arian Foster espouses the virtues of a San Francisco-style vegan diet while Jim Harbaugh bites the haunch of a live cow.
29. Bengals versus Falcons: A.J. Green and Julio Jones, former SEC rivals and first-round draft picks, take the spotlight. Which is more freakishly athletic? And how creepy is the phrase “freakishly athletic?” It sounds like these guys leap for touchdown passes, then sprout antlers.
30. Texans versus Packers: Clay Matthews and A.J. Hawk use tennis rackets to simulate J.J. Watt’s pass-swatting abilities in Packers practices. Maria Sharapova and Caroline Wozniacki get short haircuts before the Australian Open, just to prevent confusion.
31. Colts versus Vikings: Luck story, Peterson story, Pagano story, eleven days of wondering how the heck it came to this.
32. Colts versus 49ers: Jim Harbaugh coached Andrew Luck at Stanford. So really, Harbaugh gets to claim success no matter what happens in this game. Just what he needs.
33. Ravens versus Packers: Charles Woodson and Ed Reed reflect on Hall of Fame-caliber careers in the secondary (plop) Zzzzzzzzzzzzz
34. Ravens versus Vikings: Forget rookie quarterbacks: this is a battle of outstanding rookie kickers, with Justin Tucker dueling Blair Walsh. Kicker stories don’t move the needle much, so the rest of the Super Bowl build-up will be spent writing articles about purple.
35. Colts versus Falcons: Pregame coverage cancelled in favor of a Real Housewives of Atlanta marathon, which ironically means more exposure for Falcons defender Kroy Biermann.
36. Texans versus Seahawks: Fans and players on both sides spend two weeks arguing who is disrespected and overlooked more while the rest of us fill air time and websites with carefully-crafted features on Tom Brady and Peyton Manning.