Ranking the best possible Super Bowl LI matchups
The football gods deserve our praise. Even though only one of the NFL's eight postseason games thus far has qualified as a bonafide thriller (sorry, Cowboys fans), we're going to be blessed with a compelling Super Bowl matchup no matter which teams win the conference championships this weekend.
The New England Patriots, Pittsburgh Steelers and Green Bay Packers all rank among the top four NFL franchises in wins since 2000, and qualify as some of the most popular teams in the nation. The Atlanta Falcons, meanwhile, are led by the MVP frontrunner in Matt Ryan, scored the most points in the league this season and by some metrics rank as one of the best offenses in NFL history.
In fact, each remaining squad has the ability to unleash explosive touchdowns at any second. Perhaps even more importantly, there's no defense out there that'd be favored to contain any of these offenses for an extended period. The NFC championship features the highest over/under in playoff history at some sportsbooks, and Super Bowl LI could very well top the championship record for most total points (75, Super Bowl XXIX). That's a winning proposition for everyone glued to their TVs.
Choosing the most exciting potential matchup between these teams is splitting hairs. But there is a clear favorite most non-partisan fans would like to watch in Houston.
Before previewing that juicy clash, let's run down the other scenarios.
4. Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Atlanta Falcons
It'd be a treat to see Antonio Brown and Julio Jones try to out-do each other in a matchup of the league's best all-around wideouts.
But Atlanta's Charmin-soft rush defense could allow Le'Veon Bell to control the game by churning out chunks of yards at a time and keeping the ball out of Ryan's hands. That possibility means this matchup possesses the lowest floor of them all.
There's also not a whole lot of history between these two franchises. Pittsburgh leads the all-time series 13-2-1, with the Steelers claiming the only contest featuring both Ryan and Ben Roethlisberger -- a 27-20 victory at the Georgia Dome over a 5-9 Falcons team in 2014.
3. Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Green Bay Packers
A rematch of Super Bowl XLV, a 31-25 victory for Green Bay that proved to be thoroughly entertaining as Pittsburgh's last-minute comeback effort was thwarted by a Packers secondary featuring future Hall of Famer Charles Woodson. The clash between two of the NFL's most iconic franchises shattered the (since broken) TV viewership record, and Rodgers-Roethlisberger II would have a good chance at reclaiming it.
Both of these teams have changed in the six years since, however, especially the Steelers. Back then, Antonio Brown was a rookie return specialist who caught one pass for one yard against the Packers as Hines Ward, Antwaan Randle El, Mike Wallace and Emmanuel Sanders split the targets in a truly stacked receiving corps. Bell was but a twinkle in Mike Tomlin's eye (and in Bill Belichick's, for that matter).
Other than the coaches and quarterbacks, the only true constants are Jordy Nelson, Clay Matthews, James Harrison and Lawrence Timmons. And Nelson hadn't amassed any of his four 1,000-yard receiving seasons yet, though Super Bowl XLV did mark his breakout on the national stage with a 9-catch, 140-yard virtuoso performance.
Fun fact: The state of Texas -- playing host this year at Houston's NRG Stadium -- also hosted Super Bowl XLV, which took place in Dallas at then-named Cowboys Stadium (now referred to as AT&T Stadium, or JerryWorld).
2. New England Patriots vs. Atlanta Falcons
This mouthwatering matchup presents a bunch of intriguing storylines. It'd pit the NFL's highest-scoring offense (Falcons) against its top scoring defense (Patriots). We'd get to see the presumptive MVP versus the guy who probably would be favored to win it if he hadn't been suspended for four games.
It would even represent a rematch of sorts between coaches Bill Belichick and Dan Quinn, who was the defensive coordinator for the Seattle Seahawks when they fell to New England 28-24 in perhaps the greatest Super Bowl ever two years ago.
Even a defensive mastermind like Belichick would have his hands full trying to stop Atlanta's attack, which consists of a seemingly endless amount of weapons for offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan to deploy. Ryan threw a touchdown pass to an NFL record 13 receivers in 2016.
New England has a deep stable of wideouts, too, and a trio of backs in LeGarrette Blount, James White and Dion Lewis (2,293 total yards from scrimmage) that nearly matched two-headed monster Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman (2,482 total yards from scrimmage) step for step this year.
In truth, this might be the most even matchup from a football standpoint. But in the NFL, a matchup of legendary quarterbacks is hard to turn down. And though Ryan has taken a major step forward this season, he hasn't achieved legend status like his NFC championship counterpart -- not yet, anyway.
1. New England Patriots vs. Green Bay Packers
Let's face it: Even though Matt Ryan is probably going to win MVP this year, the two quarterbacks most of America wants to watch are Rodgers and Brady. And who can blame the people in that corner?
The two future Hall of Famers have somehow battled only once before, a 26-21 victory by Green Bay at Lambeau Field in 2014 that would have been a Super Bowl preview if it weren't for Brandon Bostick. It's time for the real thing. This needs to happen before Brady, 39, succumbs to Father Time.
It's also worth noting that Rodgers and Brady are probably the NFL's two most famous quarterbacks in the post-Peyton era. That's a nice plus for casual Super Bowl observers who know these two better for their famous wives than their on-field accomplishments.
Plus, Pack v. Pats just has such a nice ring to it, doesn't it?