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NFL Conference Championships: The future is now

I make a bet with a friend every season. We draft the teams we think will win the Super Bowl. We each get four picks. The higher the pick, the more mythical money we win. I still have my top two picks, San Francisco and Seattle. He still has his top two, Denver and New England.

My third pick, Atlanta, apparently will not play today.

Last week: 2-2

Season: 172-92.

DENVER 36, New England 30

Carolina’s Ron Rivera could be the NFL coach of the year. But New England’s Bill Belichick also is a contender. His defense has sustained so many injuries it’s as if he collects them. The Patriots will play for the AFC championship anyway.

The lack of defensive depth could cost them in Denver’s thin mountain air.

Or it won’t. Does any head coach adjust as quickly or as efficiently? The offense New England will offer is not typical of Tom Brady. Favorite target Wes Welker plays for Denver and tight end Rob Gronkowski is injured.

Brady handed off 46 times last week against Indianapolis. LeGarrette Blount rushed for 166 yards and four touchdowns. Since Week 16 he has averaged 6.7 yards a carry.

The Broncos also are hurting. They lost pass rusher Von Miller in week 16, and last week against San Diego lost cornerback Chris Harris. So coach John Fox also will have to adjust.

Brady leads Manning 10-4 in head-to-head competition. Brady has been the better playoff quarterback, Manning the better regular-season quarterback.

That changes Sunday. I think Manning attains the excellence he has sustained all season and throughout his (non-playoff) career. The Patriots beat the Broncos in a thriller in New England, their fourth straight victory in the series. But Denver tight end Julius Thomas, a favored third-down target, did not play.

The game will be close, the game will exciting and Fox, formerly of the Carolina Panthers, will return to the Super Bowl.

SEATTLE 23, San Francisco 21

Seattle has outscored the 49ers 71-16 in their past two games in Seattle. But neither team will be blown out Sunday.

I respect the 49ers. But I like the Seahawks. I like the Pete Carroll pseudo-Zen stuff. Get comfortable, chant and hand the ball to Marshawn Lynch.

The 49ers slowed Lynch in the two games they split this season. Lynch averaged 3.5 yards a carry in the first and 3.6 in the second.

As good as the 49ers defense is – and you saw it in Charlotte last week – the Seahawks have given up an average of only 11.2 points in their last six games.

With excellent defenses and superb wear-you-down runners, the game could come down to the quarterbacks. Seattle’s Russell Wilson has of late been better at handing off than passing.

San Francisco’s Colin Kaepernick is 4-1 in the playoffs and has helped his team to eight straight victories. I can see him running for a touchdown and celebrating by mimicking Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson’s signature touchdown celebration.

In other words, Kaepernick will flip the ball to an official.

I think Wilson has more opportunities to celebrate. I see him making the play – a scramble and short pass or deep pass or screen pass or a run into the end zone.

If so, Wilson and his teammates advance to New York, an inane place for a Super Bowl, to play Denver.

Sorensen: 704-358-5119; Twitter: @tomsorensen
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