The four teams we wanted made it to NFL Championship Weekend. These are two games that we've been building to for years.
The NFC has been ramping up to this moment since Jim Harbaugh joined his old pal Pete Carroll in the NFC West. Denver and New England felt fated to meet in the AFC Championship Game since Peyton Manning arrived in Denver.
As familiar as the four teams appear, the NFL never stays the same for long. The Patriots succeed by constantly changing their offense, often during a season. The Broncos are also different in many ways than the team that New England beat back in Week 12.
Let's took a look at each title game, through the prism of what's different since the last time they faced:
1. Patriots left tackle Nate Solder is one of the best pass protectors in football, but Von Miller owned him in Week 12. With Miller out of the lineup, the Broncos don't have a great one-on-one pass rusher. New England's run-heavy offense relies on quick throws from Brady, but it will uncork a few shot plays each week. With Miller out, the Broncos need to get their pass rush from the interior linemen.
3. LeGarrette Blount had just two carries the first time the two teams played, getting benched after an early fumble. Stevan Ridley was also benched in that game after a fumble, so Brandon Bolden carried the load. Blount and Ridley now form one of the best one-two backfields in the league, with Blount an offensive centerpiece. Brady has thrown just 75 passes over the last three weeks, the lowest number of his career. The Patriots like to keep their defense off the field.
4. The absence of Broncos cornerback Chris Harris because of a torn ACL could be crucial. He's the team's slot cornerback, and one of the best at the role in the entire league. All of New England's receiver talent plays between the hashmarks: Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola and running back Shane Vereen. Can cornerbacks like Champ Bailey and Quentin Jammer play well inside if necessary?
5. The Patriots stormed back from 24-0 down on Denver after the Broncos lost Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie to injury. DRC is enjoying an underrated season; he's easily the Broncos' best cornerback. It would be fascinating to see him check Edelman all game.
6. Wes Welker is only in his second game back from a serious concussion. As Chris Wesseling pointed out, Welker did not appear to have his usual quickness last week against San Diego. Welker hasn't topped 40 receiving yards in three of his last four games, including the first Patriots clash.
7. The Broncos showed off a newly vertical passing game down the stretch in the regular season. Manning threw the ball well deep, but wasn't able to hit big plays last week. New England's secondary is vulnerable if Manning is protected. And no one has been able to hit Manning lately.
That could change this week. In Chandler Jones and Jamie Collins, the Patriots have a nice duo of pass rushers. Collins also doubles as a great defender in pass coverage; he could take on tight end Julius Thomas at times. Rob Ninkovich is capable of a big game as well.
8. My biggest question this week: Will the Patriots ever come out of their two deep safety shell? They begged Manning to check to run plays all game in Week 12. Manning obliged, resulting in 224 rushing yards for Knowshon Moreno. He had 37 carries, the most in the NFL in the last four years. The Patriots will probably live with giving up huge rushing totals, not unlike Belichick's Super Bowl strategy as the New York Giants' defensive coordinator against the Buffalo Bills way back in Super Bowl XXV.
10. The final, biggest difference from Week 12: The weather. Conditions will be perfect for passing Sunday. Don't expect Moreno to have 37 carries again.
1. The 49ers' offense has ascended since the team beat the Seahawks 19-17 in Week 14. San Francisco has scored 23 points in five straight games, averaging 27 points. They have only one giveaway in the last four weeks.
2. The biggest difference in the 49ers' offense is obvious: Wide receiver Michael Crabtree has rounded fully into shape. He's a true No. 1 receiver. San Francisco was painfully thin on the outside before Crabtree returned, without competent backups. With Crabtree, Anquan Boldin and Vernon Davis, San Francisco has enough weapons now.
3. Colin Kaepernick is still missing a lot of throws. He hasn't faced much pressure in the postseason because of his excellent offensive line, which has allowed time to extend plays and improvise. He was picked off in the red zone by Seahawks cornerback Byron Maxwell in Week 14, but Kaepernick is exceptionally careful not to make the big mistake. He almost seems too careful at times, often not throwing to open receivers. But that's what coach Jim Harbaugh wants.
4. Maxwell is going to be a huge factor in this game. Kaepernick tried to pick on him last time around when Maxwell was a new starter. The Seahawks corner played well in that game, and kept up that level of play in the weeks since. The 49ers had a hard time getting open against Seattle in Candlestick.
5. NaVorro Bowman has taken his level of play from Pro Bowl-caliber to Hall of Fame-level. (Seriously: The guy has made three first-team All-Pro teams in three seasons as a starter. He's on his way.) There isn't a better defensive player in the league at any position, and he's ramped up his productivity down the stretch. His trademark quality: decisive, exceptionally fast pursuit of ball carriers.
7. The Seahawks' passing game went into a funk down the stretch. Russell Wilson's completion percentage since Week 14: 56.7, down dramatically from early in the season. Percy Harvin is not coming to save the Seahawks' offense soon.
8. Even in the Week 14 game, Wilson's timing was an issue. He was late on a few throws and occasionally hesitant. The culmination of a season-long lack of protection has piled up. Wilson sometimes leaves the pocket too soon because he expects pressure to come. The Seahawks started Michael Bowie at left guard for the first time last week, and he was not bad. Seattle's guards have a very difficult matchup against the 49ers' Glenn Dorsey, Ray McDonald and Justin Smith up front.
9. The 49ers' offensive line has been one of the best units of the league all season. It's peaking right now, and it's the biggest reason why I'm taking San Francisco to win.