I've been pinged by my editors to pick my top five dream matchups involving the clubs still breathing. As a longtime Cleveland supporter, it all feels like dark territory when my true list reads like this:
I get it, though: Nobody wants to hear about a coach-free, stumbling/bumbling franchise unable to get out of its own way when competent teams playing stellar football in real-time still exist.
After the juiciest weekend of wild-card action in memory, here are the five Super Bowl tussles I'm rooting for:
1) Baltimore Ravens vs. San Francisco 49ers
A rematch of Super Bowl XLVII, which saw Baltimore escape with a 34-31 victory after Colin Kaepernick's fourth-down lob to Michael Crabtree in the end zone fell to earth in the electricity-challenged Superdome. The buildup to that tilt was flooded with questions about which Harbaugh brother -- John or Jim -- was the better coach. Today, John's Ravens are a case-study in adaptive, versatile leadership, with Baltimore moving on from creaky Joe Flacco in favor of Lamar Jackson under center. The Ravens' second-year passer is the finest thing happening in football -- an MVP-worthy, one-man wrecking crew defenses can't solve despite the mountain of game tape he's produced. When that gridiron film glows over enemy projectors, it's nothing short of a slasher pic for soon-to-be fried coordinators attempting to slow down Jackson and Baltimore's historically romp-heavy ground game.
The Jimmy Garoppolo-led Niners would serve as ideal foils, fueled by Superman tight end George Kittle and a coach in Kyle Shanahan who might be the league's greatest play-caller. San Francisco's current roster shares minimal DNA with the one that fell to the Ravens way back when, but the city and its fans have not forgotten. And these two teams locked horns in a highly intriguing game earlier this season, with Baltimore eking out a 20-17 win at home. What's not to like about the two best squads tangling on the final Sunday of the 100th NFL season?
2) Kansas City Chiefs vs. Green Bay Packers
The last decade opened with Green Bay's quarterback authoring a Super Bowl triumph over the Steelers. Smart money had the Packers returning to the biggest stage another four to five times in the 20-teens. Instead, the team is responsible for a swath of stunning playoff meltdowns that left Green Bay on the outside looking in one winter after the next. Opening this decade with another Super Bowl bid for Aa-Rod feels apt, especially if it means dueling against the passer widely seen as the future of the NFL.
3) Baltimore Ravens vs. Minnesota Vikings
In this scenario, I foresee a troubled fate for Baltimore. In the same way Flacco dropped a nuclear bomb on his critics by guiding that old Ravens team to glory in 2012, this story would star Kirk Cousins. Minnesota's folksy passer isn't everyone's cup of tea, but the concept of Cousins slaying a pair of NFC heavies before toppling the uber-dangerous Ravens is the stuff of football legend.
4) Kansas City Chiefs vs. San Francisco 49ers
Apologies for not squeezing the Titans into my top five. They're a rugged, enjoyable squad, but I tractor beam back to Mahomes. Kansas City's weapons-rich attack would make life tough for San Francisco's defense, but Richard Sherman and friends would counter with tricks of their own. Reid vs. Shanahan is dream territory for nerd types with two offense-oriented magic-users going punch for punch in February.
This game easily winds up as a 40-37 classic that mines its way into overtime as Aunt Bertha gets quietly hammered on whiskey from the kitchen cabinet. Earth is amazing when it wants to be.
5) Houston Texans vs. Seattle Seahawks
This feels unlikely. Seattle's offense is mostly a stuck-in-the-mud operation, while the defense is spotty at best. Still, the idea of Russell Wilson battling Deshaun Watson is fully enjoyable to this typist. Super Bowl Week would be filled with Marshawn Lynch sound bites and Texans coach Bill O'Brien flipping an authoritative bird to all who doubted him in August.
Each team feels capable of laying an egg as soon as this weekend, but the theoretical ceilings for Seattle and Houston are undetermined. I'm all about a Beast Mode box score that sees Lynch rumbling for 7 yards off eight carries but ending the game with a 1-yard walk-off touchdown burst as the clock hits all zeroes. Dreamers only dream.