Do you realize that if the Niners beat the Falcons today, it’ll mark the seventh straight season in which the Bills lost to the NFC’s representative in the Super Bowl?
In fact, if Matt Bryant had missed that late field goal against Seattle last weekend, the streak would have been assured. The Bills lost to both the Niners and Seahawks this year — by a combined score of 95-20, if you care to recall.
That’s pretty amazing. The Bills have a 25 percent chance of playing the NFC rep in a given year, since they meet teams from the four NFC divisions only once every four seasons on a rotating basis.
The odds of a 50-50 coin flip coming up heads seven times in a row is 1-in-128. I’m no math whiz. I gave up trying to figure the odds. Is it simply ¼ to the seventh power, or do the odds change when you’re factoring four teams out of 16?
Anyway, it can give suffering Bills fans a faint sense of accomplishment. But the Buffalo factor is a minor consideration in determining the most compelling Super Bowl pairing. Here’s how I rank the four potential matchups for Feb. 3 in New Orleans:
1. Patriots-Niners: A lot of people are rooting for the Harbaugh coaching brothers (Niners’ Jim, Ravens’ John) to meet. It would make a great story line for Super Bowl week. But it would reach the saturation point halfway through Tuesday media day. Ultimately, it’s about the players, in this case, the quarterbacks.
How could you top a game pitting Tom Brady, still searching for his fourth Super Bowl title at 35, against Colin Kaepernick, who has burst upon the scene at 25? It would be a collision of the past and future, a clash of the classic pocket quarterback against the dynamic option QB that has come into sudden vogue in the NFL.
But it’s simplistic to paint Brady as old school. Bill Belichick represents the cutting edge of offenses. Taking a page from Chip Kelly, the Pats ran a fast-paced attack this year and ran 16 percent more plays than any other team in the league.
So a Niners-Pats game could be a fast-paced, high-scoring show. They combined for more than 900 yards of offense in San Fran’s 41-34 win on Dec. 16 (the Pats’ only loss in three months). Brady, who hasn’t won a Super Bowl in eight years, could stake his claim to best-ever with a fourth title, equaling Terry Bradshaw and Joe Montana.
Don’t discount the coaching matchup, either. Belichick would be looking to cement his legacy with a fourth Super Bowl crown. Jim Harbaugh, who had the guts to change quarterbacks when his team was riding high, would be looking to assert himself as a great NFL coach.
2. Patriots-Falcons: Sorry, I can’t put a Harbaugh brothers Super Bowl above Brady and Belichick. This would be the best offensive show imaginable, pitting the 25th and 24th-rated defenses against one another. Who said defense wins championships?
Matt Ryan hasn’t won the big one, but he’s had a sensational year. Atlanta has the NFL’s best wideout tandem in Roddy White and Julio Jones, who both went over 1,000 yards. In Tony Gonzalez, who had 93 catches at age 38, it has one of the best tight ends ever to play.
The running game is an issue for Atlanta. It was 29th in rushing, and 29th in opposing yards per carry. That’s why the Falcons will struggle with the Niners, who are far tougher in the trenches and have the pass rush to take Ryan out of his rhythm.
I imagine Belichick would rather play the Falcons, because he relies on his running game to keep defenses off balance. The Niners have one of those relentless defenses — like the Giants, Ravens and Jets in years past — that tend to get Brady off his game.
3. Ravens-Niners: The Harbaughs meet at last. We’ll hear stories of their childhood, and how their father, Jack, a career college coach, groomed them for the profession. We’ll be reminded that their sister, Joani, is married to Indiana basketball coach Tom Crean.
I wouldn’t mind covering Jim Harbaugh in a Super Bowl. You never know what he’ll do next. He won big with Alex Smith at quarterback, then had the guts to switch to Kaepernick. Harbaugh won’t settle for very good. He wants great. That’s why I wanted the Bills to hire him before they took Chan Gailey.
This would be a triumph for Joe Flacco, the maligned Ravens QB. Flacco, the 18th pick in 2008, has made the playoffs every year as a pro and won five road playoff games — more than Brady, Montana, Bradshaw or Peyton Manning. Flacco will be a free agent after the season. If he wins today at Foxborough, he’ll be looking to be paid like one of the league’s top QBs.
4. Ravens-Falcons: The TV folks can’t like this matchup. The prospect of Ray Lewis going out with a second Super Bowl title will be intriguing. Lewis might be the best middle linebacker ever to play. But I could do without a full week of his self-aggrandizing behavior.
Ryan vs. Flacco wouldn’t be bad. Both are products of the ’08 draft. Both are 27 and looking to take their place among the elite. Something tells me Ravens tailback Ray Rice, who had 1,621 yards from scrimmage (82 fewer than C.J. Spiller) would be MVP.
Buffalo’s Corey Graham, who was a senior in the final class at Turner-Carroll, would be a nice local story. Graham, who played five years with Chicago, mainly on special teams, signed with the Ravens because he wanted a chance at cornerback. He got one because of injuries. Last week in Denver, he picked off Peyton Manning twice.
Predictably, I’ve forgotten Ravens coach John Harbaugh, who has spent much of his life in the shadow of his younger brother. But he’s won a playoff game in all five of his seasons. Harbaugh made a bold move late in the year, as Jim did. John fired his offensive coordinator, Cam Cameron. Two weeks from now, people might be agreeing with Jim Harbaugh, who says John is twice the coach he is.
The Falcons feel they get no respect. Today, Atlanta is the biggest home underdog of any No. 1 seed since the playoffs expanded to 10 teams in 1978. They’ll crow if they win today. But they’re the weakest of the four teams left. They might be a year away. After all, next year the AFC East crossover is with the NFC South.
That means the Falcons play the Bills.