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NFL conference championship picks

Photo: Winslow Townson/SI

It should be another classic Brady-Manning matchup, but it's starting to feel like No. 18's year.

Way back in early October, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, I declared the suspense of the NFL's 2013 season over after just four weeks and instructed everyone to prepare for a Seattle-Denver Super Bowl in early February. Well whaddya know? We're one step away from the rare occurrence of the favorites prevailing and the chalk picks making it all the way to the game's biggest stage. That's not the way the NFL has rolled in recent years.

But they're sizable last steps, aren't they now? In the AFC, the top-seeded Broncos (14-3) have to get past a Patriots team they couldn't even protect a 24-0 halftime lead against in Week 12, and in the NFC, the No. 1 Seahawks (14-3) will renew their grudge match with a 49ers club that beat them as recently as Week 14. But the different venues in these rematches could make all the difference this time, with New England (13-4) having to play before an energized Denver crowd eager to celebrate the franchise's first Super Bowl trip in 15 years, and San Francisco (14-4) venturing back into the frenzied environs of Seattle's CenturyLink Field, where the 49ers have been met with humiliation the past two years.

My gut tells me that the road underdogs from New England and San Francisco are playing the best ball right now, but my head says the home teams will find a way to make the most of their familiar settings and prevail. Whatever the outcome, we'll be watching the four best teams in the NFL this weekend, and four playoff-tested rosters. The 49ers and Patriots are playing in their third consecutive conference championship, while the Broncos and Seahawks both lost in the divisional round last year. Three of the four clubs have made the playoffs the past three years, and the fourth, Seattle, has been to the postseason in three of the past four seasons. Form has held. This is the best of the best.

Last week: 4-0; Postseason: 6-2; Season 169-86
 
Sunday, Jan. 19
 
3:00 p.m. ET (CBS) No. 2 New England Patriots (13-4) at No. 1 Denver Broncos (14-3)
It still sounds quite strange, but I think Tony Dungy had it right when he told me on Monday that this meeting of Hall of Fame-bound quarterbacks will likely come down to the running games, and the run defenses. The Patriots' passing game weapons just can't match the multifaceted Broncos', so the devastating power running of LeGarrette Blount is New England's best chance to dictate the tempo of the game, and in the process limit the number of Peyton Manning possessions as much as possible. In the Patriots' past three games, they have scored 10 rushing touchdowns and just two through the air, and are succeeding at almost 70 percent (9-of-13) in terms of their red zone touchdown percentage. The Denver run defense is going to have to hold up against a New England offensive line that's blowing people off the ball, and Manning is going to have to make the most of almost every scoring opportunity the Broncos get. In their seven losses the past two seasons, the Broncos are giving up almost 148 yards rushing per game. Denver can run it a little bit too (remember Knowshon Moreno gouging the Pats for 224 yards in late November?) but the Broncos will also take their share of shots downfield as well, especially with tight end Julius Thomas healthy for this game after he missed playing at New England in Week 12. It should be yet another classic in the Manning-Brady rivalry, but in the end, it just feels like it's going to be No. 18's year. If not now, when?
 
6:30 p.m. ET (FOX) No. 5 San Francisco 49ers (14-4) at No. 1 Seattle Seahawks (14-3)
With Michael Crabtree, Vernon Davis and Anquan Boldin all in the lineup and clicking at the same time, the 49ers offense will not remotely resemble the grasping and limited unit that got dominated and pushed around in San Francisco's 29-3 loss in Seattle in Week 2. 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick is playing with more confidence than at any point since the season-opening win against visiting Green Bay, and winning three consecutive games on the road (including a tough Week 17 trip to red-hot Arizona) has steeled San Francisco with the necessary mental toughness and resolve needed to face the pressure-cooker that awaits at CenturyLink Field. Kaepernick has thrown just one interception in his past 146 pass attempts, but Seattle's secondary is always near the ball and presents the game's ultimate challenge when it comes to squeezing passes into tight windows. The Seahawks made one of the NFL's most accurate throwers, the Saints' Drew Brees, look like he was a scout-teamer for the first three quarters of last week's divisional-round game. The Seahawks are going to aim Marshawn Lynch at the heart of the 49ers defense and hope he can move the pile all game long. But Seattle needs more than last week's 103 yards passing and nine completions from quarterback Russell Wilson, and at some point in Sunday's fourth quarter he's going to have to produce the same kind of difference-making pass he completed to receiver Doug Baldwin to seal the win against New Orleans. When the moment arises, Wilson and Seattle will find a way to get it done.
 
MORE:
BANKS: Pats shouldn't be in title game, but here they are
FARRAR: Keys to victory for every title game team
BENOIT: Could Kaepernick's strength be 49ers' undoing?
GLENNON: What it's like to play in the noise at CenturyLink Field
Playoff schedule, results and analysis
 
SI Now: What role will defenses play in championship weekend?
On Wednesday's SI Now, NFL writer Chris Burke discusses how defenses will impact both the AFC and NFC championship games, if home-field advantage will help the Broncos, and if Russell Wilson's recent struggles will hurt the Seahawks this weekend.

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