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NFL conference title games carry four possible Super Bowl matchups and several levels of intrigue

The NFL playoffs are down to four teams — New England, Denver, Arizona and Carolina — meaning there are four potential combinations for Super Bowl 50 in Santa Clara, three of which we've never seen on the game's biggest stage.

Yes, there could be a rematch of Super Bowl XXXVIII between the Patriots and Panthers, a game best remembered for Janet Jackson's "wardrobe malfunction" during the halftime show, but the football world could be exposed to a wide array of other possibilities.

The permutations for the battle in the Bay Area:

Denver-Arizona — This game would reunite a terrific triumvirate of NFL personalities: Denver quarterback Peyton Manning and Arizona coaches Bruce Arians and Tom Moore. They all worked together in Indianapolis from 1998 through 2000 — Manning's first three seasons in the league — with Arians as the Colts' quarterbacks coach and Moore as offensive coordinator. Arians is now Arizona's head coach, and Moore, in his 36th NFL season, has the title of assistant head coach/offense.

Manning set a rookie record in 1998 with 28 interceptions, and Arians didn't baby him.

"Bruce was always real," Manning said in 2014, according to the Cardinals website. "He just kept coaching me, was positive with me and he and I had a lot of tough Mondays. . . . But he would coach me hard and I would learn what I did wrong and I really used that experience."

Moore and Manning were together in Indianapolis through 2010, the final season the quarterback played for that franchise, before a neck injury sidelined him for all of 2011.

The Broncos and Cardinals have played only 10 times in their history, with Denver winning eight of those and tying one. The last time they met was 2014, when Arizona finished the game with third-string quarterback Logan Thomas, after No. 2 Drew Stanton left with a concussion in the third quarter. Denver won, 41-20, but that game was far more competitive than the score indicates. The Broncos led by only four points after three quarters but pulled away with a 17-0 run in the fourth.

For Arians, the most memorable part of that game was a Denver chop block on Calais Campbell that sidelined the defensive end for two weeks. The Broncos were flagged for the low block and a fuming Arians later called it "the dirtiest play I've seen in 37 years of football."

"It was a nasty chop block," Arians said. "That's all I can say about it."

Denver-Carolina — These franchises, both of which lost in Super Bowls with John Fox as head coach, have played each other only four times, in 1997, 2004, '08, and '12, with Denver winning three of those. The only one of those matchups that's relevant for these purposes was the game three years ago, when the Broncos posted a 36-14 victory at Carolina and sacked Cam Newton seven times, once for a safety. Denver linebacker Von Miller had a sack, a forced fumble and four tackles for loss.

"We want to be feared and respected for a relentless pursuit for the ball," Miller said afterward. And on that day, they were.

Winning for Fox was a big motivation for the Broncos. The Panthers fired Fox at the end of the 2010 season, ending his nine-year run with the franchise.

That 2012 game was also a milestone for Manning, who threw the 420th touchdown pass of his career, tying him with his boyhood idol, Dan Marino, for second place on the all-time list. In the last two seasons, Manning eclipsed Brett Favre to move into first place for passing touchdowns (currently 539) and yards passing (71,940).

New England-Arizona — There aren't a lot of significant ties between these organizations, although two of the most memorable moments in Patriots Super Bowl history occurred on the Cardinals' home field: New England lost its bid for a perfect season in Glendale, Ariz., falling to the New York Giants in February 2008, and got redemption there last year with Malcolm Butler picking off Seattle's Russell Wilson near the goal line.

Arians has some rich postseason history with the Patriots, mostly from his days as a Pittsburgh Steelers wide receivers coach (2004-06) and offensive coordinator (2007-11).

The Patriots and Cardinals have played 13 times in their history, and Arizona has a 7-6 edge, although that's deceptive. The Cardinals were 4-1 against New England when they called St. Louis home, and are 1-5 against the Patriots since 1993.

The last time these teams played each other was 2012, when the Cardinals pulled off a 20-18 upset at Foxborough. New England's Stephen Gostkowski was wide left on a 42-yard field goal try at the end, and lay face down in frustration as the Cardinals celebrated.

But that Arizona team was completely different than today's. Ken Whisenhunt was coach and Kevin Kolb was the quarterback.

One Arizona player who is quite familiar with chasing Tom Brady — and relishes tracking down Manning too — is whirling-dervish pass rusher Dwight Freeney, a former three-time All-Pro for the Colts.

New England-Carolina — Counting their Super Bowl, these franchises have met six times in their history, with each winning times. Their most recent matchup came two years ago at Carolina, and featured a controversial ending to a 24-20 victory by the Panthers.

On the game's final play, Panthers safety Robert Lester intercepted a Brady pass, but an official in the back of the end zone threw a pass-interference flag on linebacker Luke Kuechly, who had his arms wrapped around Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski.

It looked as if the Patriots would have first and goal at the one. But after a quick conference, the officials picked up the flag, and referee Clete Blakeman announced there was no foul on the play and the game was over.

Brady was livid and chased down the officials to argue the call. The quarterback later said, however, that he hadn't gotten a good look at whether Gronkowski was impeded.

"I don't make the calls or the rules," Brady said at the time. "I wish it wouldn't have come down to that."

There are other random ties connecting these teams — Kuechly is a former Boston College star, Panthers Coach Ron Rivera played for Chicago when the Bears won a ring by beating New England — but the strongest link is their Super Bowl in February 2004, a 32-29 victory by the Patriots.

For many people, the most memorable part of that game was the halftime show and Jackson's "wardrobe malfunction."

Now, with the AFC and NFC championship games on tap, along with four Super Bowl possibilities, we will have to wait until late Sunday afternoon for the naked truth.

Follow Sam Farmer on Twitter @LATimesfarmer

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on January 24, 2016, in the Sports section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Who will be exposed today? - NFL final four is likely to produce a first-time Super Bowl matchup, barring a `wardrobe malfunction' revival." — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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