It's hard to overstate how much the NFL has riding on Super Bowl 50 in Santa Clara in a couple of weeks. Aside from being the most watched television event every year, this upcoming installment has been mercilessly hyped since Week 1 in early September, including (but not limited to) that garish golden hue that has adorned the 50-yard line in every single game this season. And the big game is being held at Levi's Stadium, a $1.3-billion technological marvel that somehow can't host either a functioning field or a football team. In short, the NFL really needs this game to go off well, and a matchup of two top-notch teams would go a long way in that direction.
Fortunately for Roger Goodell – not a phrase one is particularly used to uttering – the four best teams in football remain eligible to make the trek to the Bay Area, so a meeting of elite squads should be no problem whatsoever. You want the No. 1-ranked offense? Hell yeah, you do. They're led by a quarterback who's finally getting his first taste of NFL playoff success, and seeing him in his first career Super Bowl would be the culmination of years of discussion. And with a sneaky-good defense, the NFC would be proud to have them as its representative.
Wait, this gets better! We can pair them up with the AFC champion, the team with the No. 1-ranked defense in the league. They barely allowed 200 passing yards per game, so something would have to give. And on offense, they boast one of the game's all-time great quarterbacks, gunning for yet another Super Bowl title. Can he win one last ring before time and opportunity get the better of him? Who wouldn't tune in to see that?
Of course, as you've probably figured by now, the gag is that we're not talking about Carolina vs. New England, the game for which the great majority of NFL-rooting neutrals are likely clamoring. That matchup would be insanely compelling, with Tom Brady, in his seventh Super Bowl, going up against Cam Newton, the presumptive league MVP who went 15-1 in the regular season before putting up a 31-spot last week on the two-time-defending conference champs in the first half. Rob Gronkowski vs. Luke Kuechly. Josh Norman vs. Julian Edelman. Malcolm Butler vs. Greg Olsen. Goodell vs. Brady at the Lombardi Trophy presentation, as the world stands agape at the weirdo circumstances that have brought us here? Or the inbox at the Charlotte Observer starts filling up with letters to the editor incensed about some innocuous thing Cam said or did? It's all too perfect. It could never happen this way.
Here's the alternative: The Denver Broncos vs. the Arizona Cardinals in Super Bowl 50. The best defense vs. the best offense. Carson Palmer finally within tantalizing reach of a title, while Peyton Manning tries to go out with one more ring. (Is there a soul who thinks he wouldn't retire if he won?) Arizona has gone largely unnoticed all season beneath the shadow of the juggernaut Panthers, while Denver has had a tumultuous route to the AFC's No. 1 seed, including a stretch of play where Manning basically was incapable of throwing a football with any accuracy. It's easy to bemoan this matchup from a popularity standpoint – two aging quarterbacks, neither team plays in a top-10 media market, the Manning/HGH controversy is still somewhat fresh – but watching these teams compete would be a refreshing thing. Just imagine no talk of "Deflategate" or the pressure on Newton to complete a 18-1 season, which then would come back to New England, which endured a rather disappointing 18-1 campaign just a few years back. Instead, we'd get to focus on the Cardinals' quest for their first Super Bowl title and the Broncos' unlikely completion of one of the weirdest seasons any champion has ever accomplished. The probable end of Manning's career vs. the pinnacle of Larry Fitzgerald's.
This was a rather difficult NFL season for anyone to endure. An agonizing offseason filled with protracted legal fights gave way to some of the most underwhelming league-wide play we've seen in some time. But somehow we've got the undisputed four best teams remaining as we head into the penultimate weekend. The good news is the NFL really can't go wrong no matter who advances. And the one combination that perhaps seems the least attractive at first glance may end up giving America a game it never forgets.