By Jason Keidel
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Of the eight teams still in the playoffs, you could argue that at least six are tethered to surefire, future Hall of Fame quarterbacks.

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Quarterback, the most important player in any sport, was presumed to be one of the most secure pieces on the Denver Broncos chessboard. But during the season it became clear that Peyton Manning could no longer summon those familiar, laser throws from his divine right arm, which has made Denver’s decision to start him against the Steelers this Sunday more complex then anyone has considered.

And after four wretched picks in one half against the Chiefs, Manning was replaced by Brock Osweiler, who seems to have suitable upside, but has yet to show the competence to win John Elway’s confidence.

So while it looks like Manning has just hit a chronological wall, the Broncos cloaked him in diagnoses, most notably a torn plantar fascia in his left foot. Was it a coincidence that he had this newfound malady moments after his fourth interception? Manning still led the NFL in interceptions a month after he was benched back in Week 10. And, after several neck surgeries and his perilous proximity to 40, it just looked like he was washed up.

Still, starting Peyton was the prudent move. It’s safe. If you lose with Osweiler, then Manning’s iconic profile hovers over the franchise. While the brass may think Osweiler can win a big game, they know Manning has won them.

You can say you went down with a legend. Like a decaying John Unitas trying to eek out one more win in Super Bowl III, against Joe Namath and the Jets, playing Peyton speaks to our inner sucker. Objecting to Manning under center on Sunday is to turn your back on Americana. No, it’s Peyton’s season to lose.

You have the AFC’s best remaining defense and the No. 1 seed. Two quick home wins and you’re booking fllights to Santa Cruz. Even if you’re not sure who will have the higher QB Rating, we know who has the higher Q Rating.

Conversely, the Steelers know who their quarterback is. They just don’t know how he’s doing. Ben Roethlisberger was one of several all-world players who left Cincinnati on the injury report.

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Despite head coach Mike Tomlin slapping a gag order on his battered players, Big Ben was quite verbose to a Pittsburgh radio station, saying he sprained his AC Joint and tore a few ligaments in his right shoulder.

If that weren’t bad enough, the Steelers still have no idea if either of the lethal, Big Ben-Antonio Brown tandem will suit up on Sunday. Brown, of course, was knocked out by Vontaze Burfict while stretching for a pass over his head. Despite Adam “Pacman” Jones’s assertion that Brown somehow acted himself to sleep, the NFL felt it was quite authentic, and has placed the league’s most explosive wideout in concussion protocol.

While you could argue that all three members of the 2004 draft class — Roethlisberger, Eli Manning, and Philip Rivers — are in their relative prime, the clock is twisting down for Eli’s big brother. Not only is this game seen as a referendum on the Broncos, who are at home and favored by a touchdown, it’s also an audition for Manning, who has given no sense he wants to quit, despite the epic drop in his production.

And despite his sprawling bio, there’s still a sense of unfinished business with No. 18. He came to Denver right after Tebowmania and instantly took an eraser to the record books.

But unlike Roethlisberger, who’s seen more as a scrappy QB whose reckless style lends itself to swaths of lost time, Peyton is a prisoner of his perfection. He’s been too good, won too many MVP awards, to leave the league with just one Lombardi Trophy. Forget that Brett Favre won one and Dan Marino won none. The perception of Peyton overrides and has historical imperatives.

Big Ben may have several more runs to the top rung, but this could literally be it for Peyton, who will have to concede his age and wage to the football gods at some point.

He’s so ensconced in our culture, broadcast on endless screens across the nation, that he’s now donned the one-word handle, Peyton. And it’s hard to reconcile his past with his present. We just don’t know how to process the aging icon in repose.

If Sunday is indeed Peyton’s swan song, he’d already written more than enough music for our football ears. He doesn’t need to make it to the Super Bowl in California to make it to Canton, the resting place of perfection.

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Follow Jason on Twitter at @JasonKeidel