Key takeaways from the NFL Conference Championship clashes

Russell Wilson Seattle Seahawks

The Seahawks will face the Broncos in the Superbowl, with the Patriots and 49ers falling at the penultimate hurdle.

The Seattle Seahawks and Denver Broncos reached the Super Bowl thanks to their ability to stop the run defensively and manufacture big plays on offense.

Here are the main takeaways from the NFL's conference Championship Games.

AFC Championship Game - New England Patriots 16-26 Denver Broncos

Stout run defense could make Broncos Super Bowl Champions

The Broncos have been very generous against the pass all season, but they have remained stingy against the run. Their stacked defensive alignment and size up front shut down the power-running game of the New England Patriots.

Rotund behemoth Terrance Knighton destroyed the line of scrimmage all game. The defensive tackle is generously estimated to weigh 335 pounds, routinely pushed Patriots blockers into the backfield.

His efforts rendered bruising running back LeGarrette Blount a non-entity. One week after thundering his way to 166 yards and four touchdowns against the Indianapolis Colts, Blount managed just six yards on five carries.

Knighton set the tone on Blount's first carry. He powered through the center-guard gap and bulldozed pulling lineman Marcus Cannon back into Blount.

In all, the Patriots, owners of the ninth-ranked rushing offense this season, were held to a mere 64 yards on the ground.

Because of the way Denver defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio usually stacks five on the line in base situations, the Broncos can stifle Seattle's prolific rushing attack led by Marshawn Lynch.

Julius Thomas is the X factor on the Denver offense

Quarterback Peyton Manning has a host of weapons, but "move" tight end Julius Thomas is the real key to his offense. The roving "joker" is the X factor defenses struggle to account for.

The Patriots found that out to their cost. With New England head coach Bill Belichick using press man coverage to stymie outside receivers, Thomas consistently got free in open areas.

He caught eight passes for 85 yards. Just as he did against the San Diego Chargers in the previous round, Thomas made some clutch grabs that helped the Broncos seal the game.

The 6'5", 250-pound former Basketball ace is a mismatch in single coverage. He is also used creatively by offensive coordinator Adam Gase, who moves him all over the field.

Given how the Seahawks also love to lock up outside receivers in man coverage, Thomas could be a key difference-maker in the Super Bowl. Of course, that is provided he can escape the attentions of safeties Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas.

The pair helped Seattle hold New Orleans Saints star tight end Jimmy Graham to just one catch for eight yards. They were even more stingy in the Championship Game, keeping San Francisco 49ers ace Vernon Davis to one reception for two yards.

Thomas against the Seattle safeties will be one of the best matchups of Super Bowl XLVIII.

NFC Championship - San Francisco 49ers 17-23 Seattle Seahawks

Powerful front is the real key to the Seahawks dominant defense

The self-styled "Legion of Boom" secondary gets all the press in Seattle. But a marauding front line is the real key to the Seahawks smothering defense.

Against the 49ers, the Seattle front toyed with one of the most accomplished offensive lines in the NFL. Big Red Bryant, the so-called "Elephant" in head coach Pete Carroll's hybrid schemes, destroyed the powerful San Francisco running game.

Frank Gore was held to 14 yards on 11 carries. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick was only able to scamper for 130 yards, because all the man coverage prevented defenders from spying the dual-threat ace. But even with Kaepernick's efforts, the 49ers weren't going to win without a big game from Gore.

The Seahawks can bottle up dangerous Broncos running backs Knowhson Moreno and Montee Ball and force Manning to test that star-studded secondary.

But it's not just against the run that the Seattle front thrives. The additions of Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett have given the Seahawks a deadly pass rush.

Both notched a sack and forced a fumble against the 49ers. They have been a constant threat in this postseason.

Carroll will need them to shrink the pocket and hit Manning often.

Russell Wilson's demise was greatly exaggerated

Some late-season struggles and an offense that is a shadow of the 2012 version, led many to contend Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson had been found out.

All week long in the build-up to the NFC Championship, there was no shortage of people confidently predicting Wilson wouldn't be able to get it done against the mighty 49ers defense.

But lost in all the talk of Wilson's lack of height and poor accuracy in the fourth quarter, was the one thing that makes him so good.

The pint-sized passer simply has a knack for making plays when it counts. He is a natural winner who does a passable impression of Houdini to escape pressure and magic big plays out of nothing.

Wilson was savaged by the San Francisco pass rush, but his resolve never broke. He escaped rushers more than once to fire key passes downfield, most of them going to secret weapon Doug Baldwin. Many would argue that Wilson is made to look good by the talent around him. But the truth is Wilson is the catalyst that makes a solid Seattle team great.

A Super Bowl berth in just his second season is ample proof of that.

image: © Neal D