The NFL is a week away from taking over the Bay Area from San Francisco to Santa Clara, and it looks like Super Bowl 50 is a no-lose proposition.
The volume of media will be at its saturation point, but the good news is the two teams that meet at Levi’s Stadium will provide ample intrigue in terms of storylines and matchups.
Rating the four possibilities on Feb. 7, with No. 4 looking nearly as good as No. 1:
1) Arizona vs. New England
Selfish pick here with the Cardinals at No. 1 and No. 2 because the coach is a dominant figure during game week.
Bruce Arians, come on down. The Cardinals coach is candid, blunt, has a terrific sense of humor and even perspective — something that’s rare in a profession where being driven and single-minded is a prerequisite.
The Patriots’ Bill Belichick is the NFL’s Greg Popovich, dry by choice but every once in awhile insightful and brilliant. Maybe Arians will make Belichick step his game up a time or two with the press.
And if Belichick refuses to cooperate, there’s always a week of Patriots wild child tight end Rob Gronkowski for comic relief.
2) Arizona vs. Denver
Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer has an easy, likeable manner and managed to extricate himself from hopeless situations in Cincinnati and Oakland without ever looking bitter or selfish.
Palmer came into the season having never won a playoff game, and would be matched against Peyton Manning, king of the regular-season but a winner in just 12 of 25 in the postseason.
Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, the smooth and classy slot receiver, is assembling a career postseason stat line surpassed only by Jerry Rice. Cornerback and return specialist Patrick Peterson appears made for the big stage.
Defensively, Denver outside linebacker Von Miller could have a Lawrence Taylor-like effect on the stationary Palmer.
3) Carolina vs. New England
Here comes the No Respect Bowl.
The Panthers will have plenty of pointed answers as to why so many media types predicted face-plants against both Seattle and Arizona despite a 15-1 regular-season record.
The Patriots, despite their four Super Bowl rings, bear the burden of such breaks as the Tuck Rule, Spygate and most recently, Deflategate. Either they’re lucky, they cheat, or both.
Having Cam Newton and Tom Brady square off is as about as good as it gets for a quarterback duel.
Newton is unparalleled in NFL history as a combination runner/passer and does it with an aplomb that the more stodgy elements of society consider showboating — probably the same fringe element that never warmed to Magic Johnson.
Brady is the ultimate precision player, who is every bit as responsible as Belichick for making the Patriots the closest thing to a dynasty that you’ll see in the ever-changing NFL.
4) Carolina vs. Denver
It almost always ends badly for Hall of Fame quarterbacks. Other than pre-Super Bowl NFL signal callers such as Otto Graham and Norm Van Brocklin, the only one to go out a winner is John Elway.
Elway, MVP of Super Bowl XXXIII against Atlanta, will sit in an executive box at Levi’s, watching Manning potentially do the same thing.
Manning is clearly slipping at age 39.
“It kind of reminds me of Kobe Bryant, right?,” Jets receiver Brandon Marshall said on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. “These last couple of years, you’ve really seen the guy hit a wall. These are legends, living legends, and all of a sudden, they can’t do it any more physically.”
Yet if Manning’s receivers hold on to the ball and the Denver defense comes through with a takeaway or three, he could still manage his way to a win against the Panthers and in theory go out on top.
If not, Carolina coach and former Cal linebacker Ron Rivera will explode into the national consciousness in a refreshingly understated way.
A closer look at the matchups:
New England (13-4) at Denver (13-4)
TV: CBS, 12:05 p.m. Line: New England by 3½.
Belichick and the Patriots thrive on taking away key aspects of an opposing offense. They’ll jam and crowd Denver receivers, accepting the occasional penalty, and dare Manning to beat them over the top. Not going to happen. Brady was extremely sharp against a Kansas City defense that is nearly the equal of the Broncos. No reason to think that won’t continue.
Prediction: New England 27, Denver 16
Arizona (13-4) at Carolina (15-1)
TV: Fox, 3:40 p.m. Line: Carolina by 3
The Cardinals offensive line was worked over by Green Bay, which isn’t a good sign against a Carolina front led by tackle Kawann Short, an interior rusher playing like a young Warren Sapp. That pressure, plus weather that may not be conducive to Palmer’s deep throwing, give the Panthers an edge. Carolina has won its last 12 home games. Put Newton down for at least three touchdowns either rushing or passing.
Prediction: Carolina 24, Arizona 17
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