The NFL playoff tournament bracket is set, with 14 teams chasing the ultimate goal of hoisting a Lombardi Trophy at State Farm Stadium on Feb. 12.
A topsy-turvy 2022 regular season saw seven teams that didn't participate in the playoffs a year ago make the postseason field: Baltimore Ravens, Jacksonville Jaguars, Los Angeles Chargers, Miami Dolphins, Minnesota Vikings, New York Giants and Seattle Seahawks.
The yearly turnover offers intrigue early in the postseason slate, but the ultimate goal is to win a Super Bowl.
Not to discount the path to the Lombardi or the excellent matchups we're sure to have along the way, but it's never too early to consider the matchups we could get next month in Glendale, Arizona.
Before I get to my personal list of Super Bowl bouts I want to see, a couple notes:
First, apologies to fans of any club omitted. I do not, in fact, hate your team or think it is trash. The assignment was five matchups. I stuck to that script. Someone had to be left out.
Second, I elected to constrain the parameters to one selection per team. Sure, I could have picked the Bills, 49ers, Chiefs, Eagles, etc., multiple times. But that's unimaginative and dull. Also, I don't like repeating myself. I really don't like repeating myself.
Alright, enough preamble. Let's get to it.
The Bills surging to a Super Bowl off Damar Hamlin-infused emotion could fill a week of stories. And the 49ers -- playing the best football of any team in the league, with a third-string, seventh-round quarterback in Brock Purdy helming Kyle Shanahan's offense -- certainly don't lack intrigue themselves.
Josh Allen, Stefon Diggs and an explosive Bills offense against DeMeco Ryans and the top defense in the NFL would make a dynamite chess match. Allen taking off running, leading to battles with Fred Warner, Dre Greenlaw and a Niners D that brings a sledgehammer could become legendary. Purdy, for our purposes, would remain the starter even if Jimmy Garoppolo were to be cleared, given that the rookie hasn't lost a game as a starting QB in the NFL. The last pick of the 2022 NFL Draft has played splendidly, throwing for at least two TDs in every game since Jimmy G was sidelined by a foot injury. How would he fair against Sean McDermott and Leslie Frazier's D? Matt Milano going toe-to-toe with Christian McCaffrey. Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk versus Tre'Davious White. The game would be dripping with juicy matchups regardless of which team has the pigskin.
We'll call it the Andy Reid Bowl. Reid's current team versus the club he helmed for 14 seasons but couldn't get over the Lombardi hump -- that's a fun tale. The two No. 1 seeds could be on a collision course. Patrick Mahomes has played like an MVP candidate despite a season of change on offense. The magician still finds a way to move the chains and make jaw-dropping plays every week, even when the chunk gains are stifled. Mahomes playing in a Super Bowl is a win for all, regardless of the opponent. But facing an Eagles defense that allowed the fewest passing yards in the regular season and led the NFL with 70 sacks (15 more than the second-place Chiefs) would be a tantalizing matchup. Would Mahomes be patient enough with the run against an Eagles D susceptible to the ground game?
Then there is the Jalen Hurts-led Eagles attack that's as dangerous as any in the league when everything is clicking. Hurts' ability to run against a Chiefs D allowing the fifth-most yards on the ground to QBs would be tremendous. Add in A.J. Brown and DeVonta Smith against young Chiefs corners, and we could get a high-flying shootout. Oh, and the last time two No. 1 seeds met in the Super Bowl, the Eagles took down Tom Brady and the Patriots for their first Lombardi.
Joe Cool vs. America's Team. I'm picturing Joe Burrow beaming all week after guiding his team to back-to-back Super Bowls, then heaving deep shots to Ja'Marr Chase while taking massive hits in the pocket from Micah Parsons. A rematch of Week 2, when the Bengals were scuffling and Dak Prescott was on the shelf, should be much more wide open. As in that game, when Dallas sacked Burrow six times, the Cowboys, with Parsons and DeMarcus Lawrence, would have a big edge against a banged-up Bengals O-line. But the QB is fearless, routinely standing in and delivering. Against a suspect Cowboys secondary, Cincy could produce huge plays downfield to Chase, Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd.
Prescott didn't play in Week 2 and has struggled down the stretch, but if the Cowboys were to make it to the Super Bowl, we can presume the QB went on a hot streak. The Bengals' ability to slow the run would put the onus on Prescott and CeeDee Lamb to puncture Lou Anarumo's underrated defense through the air.
This matchup wouldn't be for everyone, but it comes with fascinating subplots. Tom Brady stiff-arming Father Time yet again to drag a Bucs team to his 45,000th Super Bowl appearance versus Justin Herbert in his first postseason. A moribund Bucs run game that generated an NFL-low 3.4 yards per carry in the regular season against an equally bad Chargers run D, allowing a league-worst 5.4 YPC. Brady getting the ball out quickly over and over again before Joey Bosa and Khalil Mack can destroy an injury-plagued Bucs O-line. Herbert zipping darts to Keenan Allen and bombs to Mike Williams on the move.
And two coaches maligned for their game management -- Brandon Staley and Todd Bowles -- facing off with a Lombardi on the line could make for some heated postgame discussions.
(EDITOR'S UPDATE: Chargers WR Mike Williams (back) has been downgraded to out for Saturday's wild-card game versus the Jacksonville Jaguars, the team announced Friday. NFL Media Insider Tom Pelissero reported Friday that after an initial tests came back negative, Williams underwent further testing that revealed a fracture in his back that likely will sideline him a couple of weeks.)
It's a long-shot matchup, but a rematch of Super Bowl VIII could provide entertaining fireworks. Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle prancing through the Vikings' secondary. Justin Jefferson eating up Dolphins defensive backs. We could call this a YAC battle. This season, Minnesota and Miami have allowed the second- and third-most yards after the catch, respectively, which would set up some explosive plays for all pass-catchers involved. In their Week 6 matchup, a 24-16 Vikings win, Hill (12/177), Waddle (6/129) and Jefferson (6/107) each dazzled. Let's see that again on the grandest stage for football.
Kirk Cousins could have his biggest redemption story yet. And if he's cleared from concussion protocol, Tua Tagovailoa playing in a Super Bowl would be an amazing story to end a turbulent season. Teddy Bridgewater potentially facing his former team in the biggest game would also be a fantastic plot line. Add in the anomaly of two first-year head coaches (Kevin O'Connell and Mike McDaniel) facing off, and the storyline cup is full.
(EDITOR'S UPDATE: Dolphins coach Mike McDaniel announced Wednesday that Tua Tagovailoa remains in the league's concussion protocol and has been ruled out of Sunday's game at Buffalo. Seventh-round rookie Skylar Thompson will start Sunday, McDaniel announced Friday, and Teddy Bridgewater )