Sunday night represents a definitive line in the sand as Fastlane, the last pay-per-view event before WrestleMania 34, showcases the stars of SmackDown on an evening when at least a few matches for the WWE's biggest show should become clearer.
But as the last brand-exclusive pay-per-view competition for at least the foreseeable future draws near, you'd be forgiven for thinking Fastlane doesn't look like the greatest pay-per-view card in recent memory.
SmackDown's recent stagnation has led to a night of matches that, at least on paper, feels more like a pit stop than a significant hurdle for most involved. Still, with all four titles on the line Sunday, and at least a glimmer of hope for some forward momentum in one lagging storyline in particular, there's enough evidence to suggest some memorable highlights no matter how the night turns out.
WWE championship: AJ Styles (c) vs. John Cena vs. Kevin Owens vs. Sami Zayn vs. Baron Corbin vs. Dolph Ziggler
For as many moving parts as there are in this WWE championship match, the outcome ironically seems to be the most straightforward of any match on the Fastlane card.
AJ Styles is almost certain to walk away with his title Sunday night at Fastlane, if only because his WrestleMania matchup against Shinsuke Nakamura for the WWE championship has been hyped up since before Nakamura even won the Royal Rumble. That match represents the counterbalance for fans not looking forward to Brock Lesnar vs. Roman Reigns, and between the history Styles and Nakamura have and the potential technical masterpiece they could put on in New Orleans, any deviation could be disastrous. Even including someone like Cena or Owens, who would be great against either champion or challenger-to-be, would lessen the effect greatly.
Still, that doesn't mean we won't see some twists and turns or a complete character shakeup by the time Fastlane fades to black.
It starts with the ever-changing Owens-Zayn dynamic. Are they boys, or is this a case, for Zayn anyway, of keeping your enemies even closer? If it's the latter, why reveal his master plan before he could execute it by nailing Owens with a Helluva kick to close out SmackDown on Tuesday? Was it subterfuge? The two have a turbulent past, but is it their destiny to square off yet again at WrestleMania?
To make things even more complicated, what role will SmackDown commissioner Shane McMahon and general manager Daniel Bryan play? Their ongoing nebulous relationship has to boil over at some point and pay off in some way, shape or form after so many months of passive aggressive battle, especially after each of them went to great lengths to alter the main event. Right?
And then there's the state of Cena. The once crestfallen 16-time time champ has found another path to WrestleMania and make history at the same time, if he can win his 17th on Sunday night. But if he loses, like it seems he will, what will become of his endless journey toward finding a match for WrestleMania 34? Could it still be The Undertaker? Maybe someone like Rey Mysterio or another outside-the-box possibility? Or could Cena, in some crazy twist, really sit out the biggest show of the year this time around? No matter his destiny, it seems as though his problem won't be solved on Sunday night.
What could surprise us? A frustrated Owens unleashes on Zayn, only to see Bryan make a beeline to the ring as an ostensible peacemaker. But instead, Bryan catches KO in a Yes Lock and WrestleMania's latest match is born. A long shot, I know -- but we can dream.
SmackDown women's championship: Charlotte Flair (c) vs. Ruby Riott
For the first time since she made her leap from NXT to the SmackDown roster, Riott got an opportunity to do something more than attack someone 3-on-1 or cut a 30-second backstage promo. She was able to walk out to the ring and proclaim her message -- that she believes Charlotte Flair's endless list of accomplishments have come largely because of her last name. Riott called her foe "a myth."
Flair, of course, quashed every one of Riott's claims, and in doing so, created some much-needed animosity between the two before their title match at Fastlane.
The result here seems like a no-brainer. Riott will put on a good show and prove whether or not she belongs at or near the top of the SmackDown women's division, and her cronies Liv Morgan and Sarah Logan will play their parts, as well. But Flair will prevail, and in doing so, she will have successfully finished off all of the Riott Squad members. So who will be left for The Queen at WrestleMania?
What could surprise us? If Flair wins on Sunday, who's left? Is there enough time for Becky Lynch, Natalya or Naomi to post a challenge? Maybe all of the above? Or perhaps Carmella will finally cash in her Money in the Bank briefcase to instantly insert herself into the WrestleMania picture. Then there's the possibility that Royal Rumble winner Asuka, who has still not yet chosen whom she will take on at WrestleMania, will upset the apple cart at some point between Sunday and Tuesday by picking a SmackDown women's championship match as her reward.
United States championship: Bobby Roode (c) vs. Randy Orton
This is an interesting matchup, because as a relative newcomer to the top-tier level of WWE, Roode is looked at as one of the next generation of stars while Orton -- who has been toiling in the business since he was a teenager -- appears to be past his moments of greatest successes. But the numbers don't lie: Orton is still three years younger than Roode and continues to put on some of the most energetic performances on a weekly basis.
So perhaps this won't be an easy Roode win, as some presume. Orton has looked focused in recent weeks, and a victory would give him the one title he has not yet captured in the WWE. Orton would join Roman Reigns as the second "Grand Slam" winner to join the club in the past five months.
But Roode really hasn't had much time establishing himself as a bona fide champion since winning the United States titles in mid-January. The three-way situation he has been involved in with Orton and Mahal has been disjointed, at best. The best-case scenario for Roode is a focused, long-term rivalry -- and this could be the start of something solid with Orton.
What could surprise us? Mahal interferes, causing a disqualification, and it leads to a postmatch scuffle. Orton's attacks on Mahal, and later Roode, take a step forward with hangman's DDTs, steel chairs and RKOs all around -- re-establishing Orton in his natural, more villainous state. Or perhaps, thanks to his win over Orton on Tuesday, Mahal is added to the match from the outset.
SmackDown tag team championships: The Usos (c) vs. The New Day
We're going to tell you something you already know: This could easily be the best match of the night.
The Usos and the New Day arguably had the rivalry of the year in 2017, so it only makes sense to carry it forward in 2018 during a lull in the SmackDown tag team division. Both teams have charisma and stellar mic skills, as they proved two weeks ago on SmackDown. But this matchup is going to be about risk-taking, aerial theatrics and getting people off their feet.
The outcome is as 50-50 as any match on the Fastlane card, as well. For the sixth time, these teams will battle it out for tag team gold at a pay-per-view event, and unless something dramatic happens, there will be a seventh, and eight and maybe more in the future, because it somehow seems as though every match along the way gets a little bit better.
What could surprise us? The Bludgeon Brothers, who teased getting involved a couple of weeks ago, will appear. It could happen during or after the match, and it could set up a triple threat or a one-on-one with either team. But they will almost certainly get involved Sunday (or next Tuesday on SmackDown, at the latest).
Sounds like @ShinsukeN is planning to turn #WWEFastlane into... #NakamuraDay!#SDLive @RusevBUL @WWEDramaKing pic.twitter.com/outk2etmmo
- WWE (@WWE) March 7, 2018
Shinsuke Nakamura vs. Rusev
Let's just chalk this up as the fun match of the night. The fans will be engaged, cheering wildly for Nakamura, but if the past couple of months are any indication, perhaps even more passionately for Rusev.
As importantly, this also has all the makings of an exciting encounter. Rusev and Nakamura are both athletic performers who are capable of telling a story, and their styles could mesh well.
Clearly, this match was put into place because of Rusev's newfound popularity -- it's just too bad he's in a spot where has very little chance of winning. Sure, maybe Aiden English will get involved and help Rusev to a win, but it's hard to imagine Nakamura will lose any momentum between now and his WWE championship opportunity at WrestleMania.
Becky Lynch & Naomi vs. Natalya & Carmella
Sadly, this has Kickoff Show written all over it, as there's really nothing at stake (at least on the surface). Sunday night would be a great time for Carmella, who has a Money in the Bank briefcase to cash in, to look strong heading into WrestleMania. Or maybe she pulls a Seth Rollins and interrupts someone else's party to walk away with a WrestleMania moment, the SmackDown women's championship and all the heat she has lost since the departure of James Ellsworth restored.
As for her partner and her opponents, Natalya, Lynch and Naomi each have aspirations of showing up in New Orleans with a shot at the title as well -- but with each passing week, those scenarios seem a little more farfetched.