By the two quarterbacks, the two defenses and two players whose names we don't know yet.
Carolina's Cam Newton and San Francisco's Colin Kaepernick will be the acknowledged stars on Sunday, and much of their teams' fortunes will depend on how they do.
But it's not all about the quarterbacks. These are two of the three best defenses in the NFL (with Seattle being the other). The Panthers were No.1 in the NFL in sacks and No.2 in both scoring defense and total defense. The 49ers were No.3 in scoring defense. Not only do these defenses make you punt frequently, but they often cause the sort of turnover mayhem that decides a playoff game (you know what I'm talking about if you remember Jake Delhomme's six-turnover monstrosity in the Arizona game five years ago).
And then there's the X factor. Every big game has a couple of players emerge that you weren't sure could handle this big stage -- the guy who recovers the fumbled punt or comes in as the sixth defensive back and makes the big interception. A couple of those players will emerge Sunday and ultimately tilt the balance.
-- Do not miss The Observer's special Panthers section on Sunday while you are waiting for kickoff. It will be a stunning array of stories and photos that will include a complete regular-season review, all you want to know about the Panthers-49ers matchup, a column based on a revealing interview I had with Ron Rivera and much, much more. Check it out on newsstands or online.
-- I will be signing copies of my new Panthers book "100 Things Panthers Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die" at the Birkdale Village Barnes & Noble in Huntersville on Saturday from noon to 1:30 p.m. The book's first printing sold out and I am sorry for those who were frustrated around the holidays trying to find one, but the second printing is now hitting local stores and online retailers.
I will be joined during that time slot at Barnes and Noble by WBT radio host Keith Larson, who will be signing his excellent book, "That Season of Hope."
-- To say interest in the Panthers' first playoff game in five years is high would be quite an understatement. Not only were the single-game tickets gone in three minutes, but I have received calls I have never gotten before this week.
My colleagues at The Observer and myself do a fair amount of sports radio, but mostly for radio stations in the Carolinas. This time I went on what the producers assured me was the "No.1 sports radio show" in Dublin, Ireland, where the host (they called him a "presenter," and he had quite an accent) asked a number of knowledgeable questions about "Riverboat" Ron Rivera and Newton's development. I spoke Southern, he spoke Irish, and we got along just fine.
-- Let's move on to the prediction.
I don't think 10 points will be sufficient to win this game -- the Panthers can't get away with another 10-9 victory as they did two months ago, when DeAngelo Williams (above) scored the game's only TD. San Francisco has wide receiver Michael Crabtree back, and covering him will be a key for the Panthers' "Legion of Whom" secondary that has to prove itself one more time.
I think the Panthers' defense is ultimately just a bit better, but Newton will have to play as well as Kaepernick does. If he doesn't, the Panthers will lose. If he does and those two young stars cancel each other out, the Panthers should have just enough in front of what should be one of the loudest crowds in franchise history.