The four teams we wanted made it to NFL Championship Weekend. These are two games that we've been building to for years.
Silver: Clash of the NFC titans
Let's took a look at each title game, through the prism of what's different since the last time they faced:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.
- 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 Billsway back in Super Bowl XXV.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.