The road to the Vince Lombardi Trophy is on.
Fourteen NFL teams have secured a spot in the 2022-23 playoffs, and it’s win or go home from here on out.
But, in a regular season continuously filled with parity, the majority of the 14 teams haven’t resembled a true contender (looks at the Minnesota Vikings).
There’s probably around five to six legitimate contenders, so let’s see if such teams can mount a run to American football’s ultimate prize.
These five matchups would be the best in Super Bowl LVII:
Kansas City Chiefs vs. Philadelphia Eagles
Pitting two No. 1 seeds in the finale can usually be cliché for the purpose of this exercise, but this year would provide some real intrigue if the top teams of the AFC and NFC squared off.
New England Patriots
Every team has displayed real weaknesses this season (Kansas City’s secondary; Philly’s offense without Jalen Hurts, rush defense), but there’s no doubt that Patrick Mahomes vs. Jalen Hurts would be must-see television.
They haven’t met this season, but Mahomes has proven the Chiefs don’t need Tyreek Hill to top the AFC while Hurts’ rapid ascension playing with A.J. Brown and DeVonta Smith has been a pleasant surprise for the Eagles.
Mahomes against a lethal Eagles’ pass rush. Hurts against Chris Jones, Nick Bolton and L’Jarius Sneed. Andy Reid against his former team. It’d be a matchup galore for football fanatics.
San Francisco 49ers vs. Buffalo Bills
It’s a good sign for the league when the two No. 2 seeds have the quality of being No. 1.
Whereas several teams lack one NFL-caliber quarterback, the 49ers have somehow fielded three this season: Trey Lance, Jimmy Garoppolo and Brock Purdy. Lance’s season-ending injury brought Garoppolo back to the spotlight, until he suffered a foot injury that could see him back in the postseason. However, Purdy, the last pick in the 2022 NFL Draft, has shown immense poise to keep San Francisco’s offense flourishing.
The 49ers ended the regular season winning 10 in a row, with Purdy starting in the last six.
Buffalo endured a wobbly start, but rallied with seven straight wins to end the season. Josh Allen’s interception woes remain, but his chemistry with Stefon Diggs is among the best in the game, not to mention how Allen’s mobility could cause the 49ers’ defense all sorts of issues despite them having the best unit in the business.
The 49ers’ continuous quest for six vs. the Bills’ 0-4 record in the Super Bowl. Purdy potentially starting, or maybe Garoppolo has one last say. Buffalo fighting for Damar Hamlin. It’s another matchup that could turn into a classic.
Cincinnati Bengals vs. San Francisco 49ers
The Chiefs and Bills continue to finish atop the AFC, but don’t forget about Joe Burrow and the Bengals. They made sure to leave their mark last postseason before falling short in the Super Bowl, but they responded well to grab the conference’s No. 3 seed.
Burrow has taken another leap while Ja’Marr Chase and Tee Higgins each had 1,000-yard seasons through the air. Tyler Boyd (762 yards) is an elite third option.
Matching them up against the elite San Francisco defense would definitely be a mesmerizing watch, though the 49ers secondary has shown some signs of weaknesses in recent weeks. But if Nick Bosa and Co. hinder Burrow before he can throw, look out.
These two teams also delivered an entertaining overtime thriller last season, where the 49ers prevailed on the road. They could’ve met in the Super Bowl had the 49ers not lost in the NFC Championship Game. Does destiny make it happen in 2023?
Philadelphia Eagles vs. Buffalo Bills
Bringing back two aforementioned teams sees the Eagles and Bills face off.
Just like Mahomes vs. Hurts would make for incredible marketing, Allen vs. Hurts is on the same tier. Both signal callers have similar playstyles, particularly with their mobility running down the field.
Diggs lining up against either Darius Slay or C.J. Gardner-Johnson. Tremaine Edmunds and Matt Milano on one side with T.J. Edwards and Kyzir White on the other. The matchups here would be just as enticing.
They last met in 2019, but Hurts was not part of the equation. Now, more than ever, would be a perfect time to see the heavyweights face off.
Los Angeles Chargers vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Let’s spice it up here. It’s not uncommon for a lower seed to make a surprise run to the Super Bowl. Cincinnati recently did so as the No. 4 seed last season.
Looking at the playoff picture this time, it’s hard to see the No. 4 Jacksonville Jaguars, No. 6 Baltimore Ravens (potentially no Lamar Jackson) or the No. 7 Miami Dolphins making any real noise in the AFC. The No. 5 Dallas Cowboys, No. 6 New York Giants and No. 7 Seattle Seahawks don’t offer much hope from the NFC, either.
That leaves us with the No. 4 Tampa Bay Buccaneers and No. 5 Los Angeles Chargers, two heavily flawed teams, but you never know what can happen in a one-game scenario.
The 24-year-old Justin Herbert gets to meet the 45-year-old Tom Brady in what could be a passing-of-the-baton moment, and a sequel from their 2020 showdown when Brady and Co. emerged victorious in a 38-31 thriller.
Both teams have plenty of starpower on paper, they’ve just failed to optimize it for various reasons this season. It’s an unlikely finale, but it surely would be a riveting one.