By Steve Silverman-
(CBS) — The bigger the game, the more simplistic the analysis.
There are only three games left in the season, and the matchups in the AFC and NFC championship games are delicious to all football fans.
In the NFC, the Seahawks got out of the blocks a little quicker than the 49ers this year, and that’s why they won the NFC West and commandeered the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs. The 49ers found their way by midseason and come into the NFC title game having won eight games in a row and playing their best football of the season.
There is little doubt that they are the two best teams in the NFC.
On the other side, the Denver Broncos were motivated by their loss in the divisional playoffs to the Baltimore Ravens last year, and they ruled the AFC. The Patriots were devastated by major injuries all year – Rob Gronkowski, Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo – but kept on winning thanks to their power running game and the mind of head coach Bill Belichick.
But if you listen to the majority of the talk about these games – especially the Broncos-Patriots game – most of the talk surrounds the quarterback matchups. Obviously, Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson will play key roles, but here are two players from each team that will have an impact on who ends up playing Super Bowl XLVIII.
New England Patriots
RB LeGarrette Blount – The Patriots used Blount and their power running game to bludgeon Indianapolis in the divisional playoffs. Blount had 166 rushing yards and four touchdowns in the win, and the Patriots will test the Broncos with Blount in this game. He is a load between the tackles, but he has surprising speed once he gets underway and into the second level. Since the Broncos won’t have linebacker Von Miller or cornerback Chris Harris, Blount could have a huge impact once again.
OLB Jamie Collins – This second-round draft choice had a decisive game in the divisional playoffs because of his versatility. Collins was effective in coverage, against the run and also rushed the passer as he filled up the stat book with six tackles, an interception, a sack and two passes defensed. Collins did little during the regular season, but Belichick unleashed him against the Colts. It seems unlikely that Manning will pay much attention to him and instead concentrate on cornerback Aqib Talib (13 passes defensed) and DE Chandler Jones (11.5 sacks). If that’s the case, it could turn this game in New England’s favor.
RB Knowshon Moreno – There’s no doubt that the Broncos are a QB-driven offense that thrives because Manning has an array of explosive weapons in Eric Decker, Demaryius Thomas, Wes Welker and Julius Thomas. However, the Broncos are not a one-dimensional offensive team. Moreno gained 1,038 yards and ran for 10 touchdowns this season. That production meant opponents had to respect the run and could not focus all of their attention on the pass. Moreno dominated the Patriots with 224 rushing yards on 37 carries in Week 12, and head coach John Fox will unleash him again.
CB Quentin Jammer – There’s a problem in the Denver secondary. Cornerback Chris Harris was one of the Broncos’ most valuable defensive players this year, but when he went down with an ACL injury in the second half of their playoff win over San Diego, the Broncos were vulnerable. They inserted Jammer into his spot in the lineup and the Chargers responded with 17 points in the fourth quarter. If they don’t give Jammer another chance this week, they will have to shift Champ Bailey from nickel back to corner or go with Tony Carter. None of the alternatives look promising, especially when Belichick is the coach on the other side of the field.
San Francisco 49ers
RB Frank Gore – They give no awards for honesty in the NFL, but if they did, Gore would get it. No, we’re not talking about truth-telling and owning up to faults. We’re talking about the honesty of leaving everything on the field on every play. Many players talk about it; few actually do it. Gore leads the pack since he is a punishing runner (1,128 yards, nine TDs) and blocker and a capable receiver. He takes everything personally and he will try to carry the 49ers to the Super Bowl on his strong shoulders.
LB Aldon Smith – The 49ers have the best crew of linebackers in the league and inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman may be the most consistent tackler in the league. He led the Niners with 145 stops during the year. However, Smith is likely to have the biggest influence when it comes to getting in Wilson’s face and causing havoc on passing plays. Smith and Ahmad Brooks tied for the team lead in sacks, but Smith is quicker and more likely to catch Wilson when he is on the move. Smith’s off-the-field problems were an issue this season, but he needs to be in top form for this game.
WR Doug Baldwin – The Seahawks are hoping that Percy Harvin can overcome hip labrum and concussion symptoms to have an impact in this game, but that’s a long shot. Baldwin is not a big-name player, but he knows how to get open and keep drives alive. He caught 50 passes for 778 yards and five touchdowns, and he led the Seahawks with 14 receptions of 20 yards or more. He often operates under the radar, but he can have a huge influence.
FS Earl Thomas – The Seahawks have a crew of lights-out hitters in the secondary, and Thomas may be the nastiest of the bunch. He is going to try to put big hits on Gore and wideout Anquan Boldin in an effort to limit their productivity. Thomas forced two fumbles and had five interceptions this season, and he can make a game-changing play at any point that turns the game in the Seahawks’ favor.
Steve Silverman is an award-winning writer, covering sports since 1980. Silverman was with Pro Football Weekly for 10 years and his byline has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Playboy, NFL.com and The Sporting News. He is the author of four books, including Who’s Better, Who’s Best in Football — The Top 60 Players of All-Time. Follow him on Twitter (@profootballboy) and read more of his CBS Chicago columns here.