Super Bowl LIV is three months from Monday at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami. Is it too soon to start making plans if you're a Patriots fan?
In a word: no. Barring a cataclysmic injury of sorts, the Patriots are going to the Super Bowl for the fourth season in a row, fifth time in six years and 10th time under Tom Brady and Bill Belichick.
The AFC, truly, is that bad. If Patrick Mahomes were fully healthy, the Chiefs would be a team to respect, if not fear, but that ship has sailed.
The NFC, meanwhile, is loaded. Are there any great teams on the opposite side of the field? Maybe not, but there are countless good teams, many of whom would make for an enticing Super Bowl matchup for the Patriots.
In outlining what the best possible matchup could be, the only ground rule was an avoidance of Brady-Belichick era rematches — with one exception. The Rams nostalgia angle got played out last year, the Eagles have already faced New England twice, and while they're currently 2-6, no Patriots fan ever truly falls asleep at night until the Giants have been mathematically eliminated from postseason contention.
Things could always change over the second half of the season, but as of now, here are the six most exciting Super Bowl matchups for the Patriots — one for each ring the team already has.
6. Detroit Lions (Current record: 3-3-1)
U.S. & World
This one is a bit of a longshot, but bear with me: how cool would it be to see Bill Belichick coaching against one of his former assistants in the Super Bowl?
After a rather disastrous first season in the Motor City, Matt Patricia appears to have at least steadied the ship.
In 40 playoff games with the Patriots, Belichick has coached against a former assistant twice: a 2006 wild-card game vs. the Jets, helmed by Eric Mangini, and a 2016 divisional game vs. the Texans and Bill O'Brien. New England is 2-0, of course, neither game very memorable based on what happened in the weeks that followed.
Former Patriots pass rusher Trey Flowers now plays for the Lions, and while that may not move the needle much, Detroit also employs Danny Amendola. He didn't leave New England on the best of terms, if you recall, noting that Belichick "hasn't been known to pay his players."
On the flip side, Kyle Van Noy's career began with the Lions before the Patriots acquired him in the middle of the 2016 season, a trade which might be the best in-season acquisition Belichick has ever made.
There's also the fact that the Lions are one of just four teams to never appear in a Super Bowl, along with the Browns, Jaguars and Texans. The Lions have been bad basically forever, winning just a single playoff game since capturing the 1957 NFL Championship. The misery has to end sometime, right?
5. Seattle Seahawks (Current record: 6-2)
Again, this list isn't huge on the rematch angle. But, in my opinion, Super Bowl XLIX isn't just the best Super Bowl involving the Patriots — it's the best Super Bowl ever played, period.
The Seahawks are too good to ignore completely. The potential matchup loses a few points, though, for how few of the principals remain on the Seattle side of things. True, Russell Wilson and Pete Carroll are still around, but the Seahawks have since moved on from Earl Thomas, Kam Chancellor, Doug Baldwin, Marshawn Lynch, Michael Bennett — who surely would have brought more value to this game if he were still in New England — and Richard Sherman (more on him later).
The stakes in the rematch wouldn't be anywhere near as high as the original, either, unless the Patriots enter the game 18-0. It's easy to forget now, but in 2014, New England hadn't won a Super Bowl in 10 years. Had Seattle simply handed the ball off to Marshawn Lynch at the 1, the Patriots would have been 3-3 in Super Bowls under Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. How might the last five years have been different if the Patriots actually lost Super Bowl XLIX?
4. Dallas Cowboys (Current record: 4-3)
If there's one fan base across the nation that's still more detested than Patriots fans, it's the Cowboys. Which is funny, because since winning Super Bowl XXX following the 1995 season, Dallas hasn't even been to an NFC Championship Game. Only Washington and Detroit have longer such droughts in the NFC.
Still, for whatever reason, the Cowboys simply sell. Jerry Jones is a great villain and an influential owner in the NFL to boot — much like Robert Kraft.
Jones and Kraft have a history of needling one another, too. Kraft sided with the league when the Cowboys (and Washington) were docked $46 million in cap space for overspending in an uncapped year, 2010, while Jones said Roger Goodell was doing "an outstanding job" during his handling of the #DeflateGate saga in 2015.
When Dallas was faced with its own unjust suspension of a star player in 2017, Jones told Goodell, "If you think Bob Kraft came after you hard, Bob Kraft is a p--- compared to what I'm going to do."
Michael Bennett would certainly have plenty to say about facing the Patriots less than four months after they unceremoniously traded him to the Cowboys.
It's too bad Tony Romo, the star-crossed former Dallas quarterback turned CBS commentator, wouldn't be commentating a potential Patriots-Cowboys Super Bowl this year, given that the game will be on Fox.
3. New Orleans Saints (Current record: 7-1)
A Super Bowl between the top two passers in terms of yardage in NFL history? Who just so happen to be the two oldest non-specialists in the game today? Sign me up!
It's a crime that Tom Brady and Drew Brees haven't squared off on the game's grandest of stages yet. When New Orleans won Super Bowl XLIV after the 2009 season, the Patriots were at their nadir (still winning the AFC East, of course). We almost got it last season, before the Saints were robbed by one of the most egregious officiating mistakes in the history of professional sports in the NFC Championship Game.
New Orleans had a pretty good team in 2017, too, before an agonizing defeat in the NFC divisional playoffs. So, is the third time the charm?
Let's not forget the common bond shared by the Patriots and Saints, either, in their "run-ins" with the NFL law. You don't need a refresher on SpyGate or DeflateGate, but New Orleans was railroaded itself by "BountyGate," in which head coach Sean Payton was suspended for the entirety of the 2012 season. Roger Goodell just might be less popular in Louisiana than he is in Massachusetts.
While Brady-Brees would be pretty sweet, so, too, wouldn't a matchup with another former MVP quarterback yet to face the Patriots at the Super Bowl...
2. Green Bay Packers (Current record: 7-1)
While it's a rematch of New England's second Super Bowl appearance in franchise history following the 1996 season, Brady was but a freshman at Michigan and Belichick was merely the defensive coordinator for Bill Parcells.
This one would feature completely fresh blood, featuring (arguably) the consensus top two quarterbacks in the game in Brady and Aaron Rodgers. Even though Rodgers has been in the league since 2005, he's only squared off against Brady once, a relatively underwhelming game in 2018 at Gillette Stadium which the Patriots won, 31-17.
New England, of course, is the best franchise of the 21st century. The case can be made that Green Bay was the top franchise of the 20th, when it won 12 total championships — including Super Bowl XXXI over the Patriots.
It's the NFL's 100th season, and the Packers have been around for the duration. The Bears ain't doing anything this year with Mitchell Trubisky at quarterback, so it's up to Green Bay if the league wants one of its founding franchises in the big game to celebrate its centennial.
1. San Francisco 49ers (Current record: 8-0)
It won't even matter if neither the Patriots nor Niners are each 18-0 entering this one. Tom Brady vs. Jimmy Garoppolo is the quarterback matchup the world needs.
The GOAT vs. his former understudy. The one who was supposed to take over for him. The one who was ultimately traded away because Brady was in the midst of winning an MVP and leading the Patriots to yet another Super Bowl appearance. The one who owns a better record through 15 games out of any quarterback in San Francisco history — Joe Montana and Steve Young included.
The one who got dealt to Tom Brady's hometown team.
Best of all, the intrigue doesn't end at the Brady-Garoppolo matchup. The 49ers are coached by Kyle Shanahan, who was the offensive coordinator for Atlanta in Super Bowl LI, in which the Falcons blew a 28-3 lead. Remember Richard Sherman from the Seahawks? He's now a shutdown corner for their NFC West rivals.
Sherman's reaction to Russell Wilson's interception in Super Bowl XLIX is timeless. He goes back a ways with Brady, to the 2012 season, in which Seattle overcame a 13-point deficit to stun New England, 24-23, prompting Sherman to ask: you mad bro?
Plenty can happen over the next several weeks and months leading up to the Super Bowl, almost all of which will be sure to benefit the Patriots because that's just the way things work around here.
Have we gotten so spoiled that we can now fantasize about Super Bowl matchups we haven't yet seen in nine trips this century? Yes, yes we have.