DENVER — After nearly five months of NFL games, it has come down to this:
Four teams. Four possible matchups for Super Bowl XLVIII.
For Denver, New England, Seattle and San Francisco, looking that far ahead could spell doom. But the options have been so whittled down, the permutations are simple. The big game will be Seahawks-Broncos, Seahawks-Patriots, 49ers-Patriots or 49ers-Broncos.
No matter what happens, this much is guaranteed: It will be a new-age quarterback from the NFC, either Seattle's Russell Wilson or San Francisco's Colin Kaepernick, against a future first-ballot Hall of Famer from the AFC, Denver's Peyton Manning or New England's Tom Brady.
Wilson is the only quarterback of the four who hasn't played in the Super Bowl, and, if he gets that far, Kaepernick will be the only one who had to play three postseason games to get there (all on the road).
A look at the matchups we might see at MetLife Stadium on Feb. 2:
Seattle versus Denver — Seattle over Denver was my preseason Super Bowl prediction (although last week I picked the Broncos to stumble in the divisional round), and it would be the first time since the 2009 season that the two No. 1 seeds in their conferences met on the mountaintop.
Only twice since realignment in 2002 has a top-seeded team hoisted the Lombardi Trophy, so this would guarantee a third.
These teams have faced each other only three times since Seattle was a member of the AFC West — in 2002, 2006 and 2010, long before Manning and Wilson stepped into their current roles.
Before they drafted Wilson, the Seahawks tried to court Manning. Seattle Coach Pete Carroll and General Manager John Schneider flew to Colorado in one of Paul Allen's planes before the quarterback signed with the Broncos and cold-called Manning to hop aboard for a talk.
Manning declined, and the Seahawks brass flew home empty-handed.
Seattle vs. New England — U mad bro?
That's what All-Pro Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman tweeted as a caption to a photo of him doing some garbage gabbing in Brady's face after the Patriots lost at Seattle, 24-23, last season.
If Sherman gets to New York, look out. He'll be the Mouth of Manhattan, and it will be Grand Central Station surrounding his podium.
Carroll was head coach of the Patriots from 1997-99, before Bill Belichick, and had a record of 27-21 and 1-2 in the postseason.
“This is a business of accountability, and two years ago we won the division. Last year we barely made the playoffs and this year we're 8-8,” Patriots owner Robert Kraft said upon firing Carroll in January 2000. “We need a momentum change.”
Lamented Carroll at the time: “I'll forever be disappointed we didn't win more.”
In the years that followed, he made up for that.
San Francisco vs. New England — The play that launched the 49ers' dynasty in the 1980s was “The Catch,” Dwight Clark's leaping touchdown grab of a pass from Joe Montana to beat Dallas in the 1981 NFC championship game.
Sitting in the stands that day was a 4-year-old Brady, who recalls crying because his dad wouldn't buy him a foam finger.
This matchup would give Brady another chance to match Montana, his boyhood idol, with four Super Bowl rings. Brady went 3-0 in that department before consecutive Super Bowl losses.
The 49ers and Patriots faced each other in a wild showdown in Week 15 of the 2012 season on a cold, rainy night at Gillette Stadium. San Francisco blew a 31-3 third-quarter lead in that one, and the Patriots forged a 31-31 tie midway through the fourth.
But the 49ers surged again and won, 41-34, ending New England's 20-game home December winning streak.
San Francisco vs. Denver — This is a rematch of Super Bowl XXIV, and it would pit two dynamic quarterbacks with starkly different styles, Manning and Kaepernick.
That's not the only quarterback matchup this game would feature, though. It would also be Manning vs. Jim Harbaugh, the 49ers coach who was the last quarterback in Indianapolis before Peyton arrived as the No. 1 overall pick in 1998.
There would be a bit of synchronicity to this game, as the Broncos played at San Francisco in an exhibition opener. Denver won that meaningless, sloppy game, 10-6, with Broncos linebacker Shaun Phillips scoring the only touchdown on a fumble return. Manning and Kaepernick played one series each.
If these teams do meet, the NFL surely would hope for a more interesting matchup than the first 49ers-Broncos Super Bowl. San Francisco won that, 55-10, the most lopsided outcome in Super Bowl history.
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