The Final Four has been set, and it might not have been the one you were expecting. The AFC did get its top two seeds through to the championship, but over in the NFC the two best teams – or what everyone thought were the two best teams (the Packers and Saints) are gone.
That leaves this: The Baltimore Ravens (13-4) vs. the New England Patriots (14-3) on one side, and the upstart New York Giants (11-7) vs. the San Francisco 49ers (14-3) on the other. On Feb. 5 two of them will meet in Super Bowl XLVI at Lucas Oil Field in Indianapolis.
We’ll find out soon enough whom those teams will be. The question right now is: Who do you want to see? Do you want a rematch of Super Bowl XLII, one of the greatest ever played? Or a rematch of Super Bowl XXXV, which might have been one of the worst. How about a battle of franchises that have 11 Super Bowl appearances and eight championship rings between them? Or maybe the Harbaugh Brothers Bowl?
Or what about any matchup that involves a team from Baltimore playing in Indianapolis, 28 years after Indianapolis stole a football team from Baltimore?
Keep all that in mind when you’re watching the championship games on Sunday. Which of these four matchups do you want to see?
New England Patriots vs. San Francisco 49ers
There have been 45 Super Bowls and 11 have featured one of these teams, but never has there been a game that involved both. The Patriots are a dismal 3-3 in the big game, while the 49ers are a sparkling 5-0. It’s been 18 years since the 49ers – one of the dominant franchises of the ‘80s – has been to the Super Bowl, and you can bet they’re still smarting over the Steelers picking up their sixth ring two years ago.
Beyond the franchise matchup, there’s Bill Belichick, arguably the greatest coach of this generation, facing Jim Harbaugh whose 14-3 rookie year as an NFL coach has been spectacular. Alex Smith, in his long-awaited breakout year, would go a long way towards proving he’s for real by beating Tom Brady. And then there’s the age-old question: Does defense really win championships? The Patriots don’t really have one. The 49ers definitely do.
New England Patriots vs. New York Giants
This might be the most tantalizing matchup of all, considering they played four years ago in Super Bowl XLII and they put on one of the greatest NFL shows ever. The Giants won that game, of course, in spectacular, come-from-behind fashion complete with the David Tyree catch that became an iconic play.
What the Pats likely remember most is this: They were 18-0 and dreaming of the NFL’s second perfect season and its longest. They were an absolutely offensive machine that year and looked nearly unbeatable, until the Giants’ pass rush left them overwhelmed. Now the Giants’ pass rush is leading their charge again, with many people finding comparisons to their miracle run in 2007.
The Patriots would love to get in their way in the end, this time with much different results.
And if that isn’t enough, how about this: Eli Manning, months after insisting he was an “elite” quarterback in Tom Brady’s class, getting a chance to beat him in the biggest game? Or what about Brady and Eli Manning battling it out for another ring in Peyton Manning’s backyard?
Baltimore Ravens vs. New York Giants
Most of the players on these teams were mere kids when the Ravens, with their all-time defense, hammered the Giants in Super Bowl XXXV, putting a stain on Jim Fassel’s pretty good coaching career in New York that he never really washed away. One guy who clearly remembers will be Jessie Armstead, now an assistant with the Giants.
In that game he had an early interception that he returned for a touchdown that was nullified by a terrible defensive holding penalty on defensive tackle Keith Hamilton. That play could’ve turned everything around. Instead the Giants fell apart and were beaten by Trent Dilfer, one of the worst quarterbacks to ever win the big game.
This game also would pit two strong defenses against each other, and linebacker Ray Lewis – arguably the greatest defensive player of his generation – against Giants defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul, who might turn out to be one of the best of the next.
Baltimore Ravens vs. San Francisco 49ers
The headline would be Ravens coach John Harbaugh vs. 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh, who may already be the most successful coaching brothers in any sport, ever. John has been knocking on the Super Bowl door ever since he took over the Ravens. It’s hard to imagine he wants to see Jim on the other side when he finally kicks it in.
It would be compelling TV, though, and a great storyline for the entire week. Never have two brothers faced each other with stakes this high.
And if you can get past that, this also is the matchup that probably should’ve been most likely, considering how the NFL has gone this season. It’s been the Year of the Quarterback, with three of them topping 5,000 yards and passing offenses exploding all over the league.
Wouldn’t it just figure, then, that the Super Bowl would feature two of the best defenses in the league?
By RALPH VACCHIANO