NFL conference championship Gridiron Guide

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Peyton Manning warms up before the AFC divisional

Peyton Manning warms up before the AFC divisional playoff game against the San Diego Chargers at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. (Jan. 12, 2014) Photo Credit: Getty Images

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John Boell Newsday sports writer John Boell

Boell has worked in the Newsday sports department in various capacities since 1999. In 2010, he became Newsday's

It's easy to talk about Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. Or, how about two coaches -- Jim Harbaugh and Pete Carroll -- that you'll never see in a postgame embrace (maybe a headlock?).

But conference championship weekend is so much more than QBs and coaches. It's the long snapper, the backup tight end, the seldom-used rookie wide receiver, or the age-old veteran cornerback. One doesn't know who is going to be the hero, or the goat, when it comes to the AFC and NFC title games.

So, sit back, relax, and enjoy Championship Sunday!

AFC: PATRIOTS at BRONCOS, 3 p.m.

Broncos by 4 1/2; O/U: 55 1/2: TV: Ch. 2. Radio: WFAN (660, 101.9)

Although there have been great quarterback matchups in past conference championship games and Super Bowls, I'm hard-pressed to think of two better QBs playing this late in a season than Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. The two have totaled four Vince Lombardi trophies (Brady has three), six NFL Most Valuable Player honors (Manning has four, with a fifth most likely on the way), and too many other honors and accolades to fit in this space.

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That's why I am DVR-ing this game for posterity's sake. This might be one of the last times these two first-ballot Hall of Famers go head-to-head (Brady leads the series 10-4).

When the Pats' passing offense took a hit because of various injuries, New England started relying on its solid offensive line and a running-back-by-committee approach. Lately, no back has been better than LeGarrette Blount, who rushed 24 times for 166 yards and four TDs in the divisional win vs. the Colts.

The host Broncos opened as a 61/2-point favorite, but that number has dropped to its current 41/2 (though other places have it as Denver -51/2). Interesting but-not-so-useful stat: The Pats are 0-4 against the spread (ATS) in their last four AFC title games. Bill Belichick's boys are 1-5 ATS in their last six road games overall. Denver is 7-3 ATS in their last 10 games overall. I just feel like this is Manning's year to get to another Super Bowl. I picked Denver to reach the Super Bowl in the preseason, and I'm not changing my mind now in what should be a classic.

The pick: Broncos, 37-31

NFC: 49ERS at SEAHAWKS, 6:30 p.m.

Seahawks by 3 1/2; O/U: 39 1/2; TV: Ch. 5. Radio: WFAN (660, 101.9)

Are there two coaches who dislike each more than the 49ers' Jim Harbaugh and the Seahawks' Pete Carroll? If you remember, these two go back to their days at Stanford (Harbaugh) and USC (Carroll). Things got interesting in 2009, when Harbaugh's Stanford squad went for a two-point conversion late in a 55-21 win over USC.

At the midfield, postgame handshake, a miffed Carroll asked Harbaugh, "What's your deal?" Harbaugh repeated the same question back, and the two weren't smiling as they parted ways. Fast forward a few seasons later, and there's not much love lost between these two, or their teams. The NFC West foes split their 2013 regular-season meetings, each winning at home, although Seattle has four straight covers vs. San Fran.

There's no hotter team in the NFL than the Niners, who have won eight straight overall. Harbaugh (owner of $8 khakis; true story) is the NFL's first coach to take his team to three straight conference championship games in his first three seasons. After a loss to the Giants in the 2012 NFC title game, San Fran and Harbaugh reached the Super Bowl last season, only to lose to brother John and the Ravens. The natural progression would be a victory on Feb. 2 in East Rutherford, N.J.

But I'm not so sure.

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I don't think there's a better secondary -- or defense -- in football than Seattle's No. 1-ranked unit. Although the Seahawks were just 5-4 ATS at home this season, they went 8-1 overall, and have won 16 of 17 home games since 2012, which happens to be QB Russell Wilson's first season. This one should be reminiscent of old-time, smash-mouth football. Hallelujah!

The pick: Seahawks, 24-19

STAFF PICKS

JOHN BOELL (119-137-8, 5-2-1): Broncos, Seahawks

BOB GLAUBER (136-120-8, 3-4-1): Patriots, 49ers

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KIMBERLEY A. MARTIN (135-121-8, 5-2-1): Patriots, Seahawks

TOM ROCK (122-134-8, 6-1-1): Broncos, Seahawks

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