Fourteen teams remain intact on the thorny and winding pathway to Super Bowl LV.
Today, we have little concept of the storylines soon to be hatched upon the hive mind: on-field moments that change the way we feel about Quarterback X forevermore; and no-name, bottom-of-the-roster types soon to play hero on the national stage.
Everything is ahead! Mahomes whipping sidearm darts into 10-inch windows; trick plays devised on napkins in hushed kitchens of the North; and analytical nerdlings on Twitter furious with how Pete Carroll used the final 56 seconds of Seattle's first half.
The Football Gods are busy writing the script. While we wait, NFL.com's editors have asked me to pinpoint the Super Bowl showdowns I'd most like to see.
A whopping 49 potential matchups exist for The Big Game. We can't include everyone, so I hope Bears fans can understand why their beloved 8-8 operation didn't crack the top five below:
1) Kansas City Chiefs (AFC No. 1 seed, 14-2) vs. Green Bay Packers (NFC No. 1 seed, 13-3)
You're imagining what I'm imagining: Patrick Mahomes going mano a mano with Aaron Rodgers in a blistering downpour of yardage and points. I've written this column before, and I stand guilty of previously shoving Green Bay into the mix to please the masses over my own sensibilities.
Not this time. Rodgers and his 48 touchdown passes are deserving of MVP honors. While I grew tired of Green Bay during the latter stages of Mike McCarthy's run, Aa-Rod this season is a new creation. A man at ease on the badlands, armed with lasers for eyes and ready to torch any burgh or storefront that stands in his way.
Imagine four quarters of Rodgers flinging darts to Davante Adams betwixt repeated sightings of Mahomes unfurling 40-yard ropes to Tyreek Hill. Chiefs coach Andy Reid went 20 years without a Super Bowl ring, but he would sit four quarters away from back-to-back titles in his 22nd campaign. Twenty-one years his junior, Green Bay's Matt LaFleur would be crowned King of Wisconsin if he pulled off the feat.
Mahomes is nearly perfect, but Rodgers is a reminder that perfection doesn't guarantee a second ring. Something just feels wrong if Green Bay's legendary arm isn't given one more shot to etch pro football lore.
2) Buffalo Bills (AFC No. 2 seed, 13-3) vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (NFC No. 5 seed, 11-5)
This season represents a cleansing for the Bills. For eons, they were pushed around and giggled at by the New England Patriots. Those ghosts were slayed this season, as Buffalo morphed into an offensive juggernaut with New Age wonder Josh Allen at the controls. Name a more appropriate ending for Buffalo than a final showdown with Tom Brady. The Bills would hit the scene as lovable types from Western New York. The Bucs don't pull at my heartstrings, but watching their 43-year-old quarterback battle for one last Lombardi would do the trick.
Hopefully the broadcast would include home-cam footage of a super-grumpy Bill Belichick intermixed with cutaways to Robert Kraft gripping mint juleps and wondering what could have been. The sideswiped Patriots franchise would operate as a central character in the game itself, not unlike a sad Force ghost hanging around with no clear mission on a day entirely about New England's ex-quarterback and an AFC East forever changed.
3) Baltimore Ravens (AFC No. 5 seed, 11-5) vs. New Orleans Saints (NFC No. 2 seed, 12-4)
The Saints don't generate enough credit for returning to the playoffs after back-to-back-to-back soul-crushing defeats in January. Instead of knocking meekly on a shuttered Super Bowl window, New Orleans rolls into the party with a nasty defense that would welcome the challenge of slowing Baltimore's ground game.
Aerial magic is pleasant, but I'd rather see a team scatter a defense with punishing runs. The Ravens have shredded foes for 267 rushing yards per tilt during their five-game win streak (including 400-plus on the Bengals in Week 17, a feat accomplished just twice since 1956). Baltimore is the first team in NFL history with 3,000-plus rushing yards in consecutive seasons, but the bigger story is the current play of supercharged quarterback Lamar Jackson.
New Orleans would counter with the game's most interesting runner in Alvin Kamara, a human-shaped tornado who posted six Christmas Day touchdowns against the Vikings before catching Corona. With Drew Brees turning 42 before kickoff, we'd be treated to the classic ride-into-the-sunset game for a quarterback who was a freshman at Purdue when Lamar was brought to Earth by a mothership from The Pleiades.
4) Tennessee Titans (AFC No. 4 seed, 11-5) vs. Seattle Seahawks (NFC No. 3 seed, 12-4)
I enjoy the concept of Russ cooking against a phantom Titans pass rush inviting huge afternoons from wideouts DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett. I thrill at the idea of 2,000-yard terror Derrick Henry treating Seattle's front seven like a collection of Raggedy Ann offshoots. Mining this far would also justify the August trade that brought Jamal Adams to Seattle, setting the stage for a heroic one-man show from the do-everything safety.
The winner would dim painful memories, too, with Tennessee shoving aside the image of Kevin Dyson falling 1 yard short against the Rams in Super Bowl XXXIV. Pete Carroll would no longer be dogged with criticism for ignoring Marshawn Lynch at the goal line in favor of a wayward Wilson pass that floated into the breadbasket of Patriots cover man Malcolm Butler in Super Bowl XLIX. The loser, though, would exist in new worlds of hurt.
5) Cleveland Browns (AFC No. 6 seed, 11-5) vs. Green Bay Packers (NFC No. 1 seed, 13-3)
The Packers loom as pro football royalty. The Browns boast a proud heritage, but exist today as a team just escaping two-plus decades of disaster, embarrassment and mayhem.
The idea of Cleveland in the Super Bowl feels akin to a child's fable, a fantastical scenario detached from the world we exist in. The Browns winning it all would represent a psychic shift equal to the Cubs taking the World Series. It would send a message to fans everywhere: Literally anything is possible. If the Browns won a Super Bowl, you could walk down the street telling yourself this truism from now until the end of days: Our Earth plays by no rules anymore.
The likelihood of these two teams meeting on a Sunday in February remains remote. Still, something about it feels appropriately old-school. You can almost imagine Paul Brown and Vince Lombardi staring down on the All-22 from a distant and sunny Valhalla.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Our poor typist (and resident Browns fan) came up with this scenario prior to coach Kevin Stefanski, guard Joel Bitonio and others testing positive for COVID-19. Let's allow him to live in this fantasy world undisturbed, shall we?