Greg Cote

As NFL pares from eight to four, two Super matchups remain

New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady walks past a reporter with a microphone, right, as he approaches the podium to take questions from members of the media before a scheduled NFL football practice, Thurs., Jan. 5, 2017, in Foxborough, Mass.
New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady walks past a reporter with a microphone, right, as he approaches the podium to take questions from members of the media before a scheduled NFL football practice, Thurs., Jan. 5, 2017, in Foxborough, Mass. AP

What are NFL fans without a rooting (or rooting-against) interest hoping for in a Feb. 5 Super Bowl matchup as the league winnows from eight surviving teams to four with this weekend’s Divisional Round?

A very solid, acceptable second choice would be Packers vs. Steelers, which would be a historic duel of the playoff teams with the most (Green Bay, 13) and second-most (Pittsburgh’s 6) all-time championships.

Clearly, though, the SB to root for is Cowboys vs. Patriots. I’d bet Fox executives are. I think Dallas-New England might break the Super Bowl’s long-standing TV ratings record of 49.1 set for the 1981-season game. I also think interest in that matchup would mean extraordinary business for those in the business of accepting wagers, legal and otherwise.

On one side you’d have King Sport’s reigning dynasty in Bill Belichick’s New England. You’d have Tom Brady going for fifth SB ring, a record for a quarterback — the very season that began with him angrily suspended four games for a Deflategate role he still insists was wrongful prosecution.

The idea of commissioner Roger Goodell handing the Vince Lombardi Trophy to Robert Kraft — or better yet, to Brady — is too good to not at least imagine.

And on the other side, you’d have once-mighty Dallas in its first Super Bowl in 21 years, its coast-to-coast fans arising to reclaim the Cowboys’ “America’s Team” title. You’d have Jerry Jones’ phoenix rise led by a pair of super-rookies while a backup quarterback named Tony Romo played the media darling in the buildup.

The Cowboys and Patriots both reaching Feb. 5 would require an NFL rarity — but one less rare lately. Since the 1990 advent of the current playoff format, the AFC and NFC No. 1 seeds both have reached the SB only six times in 26 years — but that includes the past three seasons in a row.

Chances are good at least one will reach the finale. Only twice in 26 years have neither No. 1 seed reached the Super Bowl.

There is a broad perception I’m not sure I agree with: that this has been a bad or at least a sort of “down” season for the NFL. Popular Peyton Manning retired. There might not be a super team. The Cleveland Browns were epic-bad. There have been officiating blunders, continuing off-field issues. TV ratings are down. And all of this against a backdrop of increasing attention to concussion and the dangers of the sport, and whether that has led to a decline in overall quality of play.

There is no panacea for all of this. But there is a chance a truly memorable Super Bowl could arise from this final eight and gallop in to the rescue.

Sorry, Kansas City, Seattle, Atlanta and Houston, but our plan does not involve you. We’d take Green Bay-Pittsburgh and not complain.

It’s Dallas-New England, though, that would lift this entire season and sport with a needed finishing flourish.

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