Peyton Manning's legacy clearly on the line in 2014 NFL Playoffs

Eight teams remain in the 2014 NFL playoffs, and each has a celebrated quarterback at the helm.

Each gunslinger would significantly elevate his place in history by hoisting the Lombardi Trophy next month.

I've argued that Tony Romo is a great quarterback for a long time. If he wins a title, I won't feel the need to defend him ever again. The ring will speak for itself. His critics will be forced to silently slink away.

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Tom Brady is an all-time great quarterback and winner. Some emphasize that Brady and Bill Belichick haven't won a Super Bowl since "Spygate." I think that's nonsense. If you have half a brain, you understand how incredible Brady is.

Aaron Rodgers is the best quarterback in the NFL today. A second championship takes him to a special historical place.

Can you imagine if Andrew Luck, in just his third NFL season, carries the flawed Indianapolis Colts on his back to the promised land? What if Russell Wilson goes back-to-back? Nobody will scoff at Joe Flacco's contract again if he gets a second ring. And Cam Newton -- if he somehow were to guide these Carolina Panthers on an improbable run to the top ... wow! Talk about a perception-altering run.

Yes, winning Super Bowl XLIX would be a game changer for all of the above. But no quarterback stands to gain more by snagging this season's Lombardi Trophy -- or lose more by going home empty-handed -- than Peyton Manning.

As we get ready for the best weekend in all of sports, the Divisional Round of the NFL playoffs, Peyton Manning has personally assumed a role very foreign to the five-time MVP: the underdog.

Manning's numbers were down in the second half of the season. In his last four games, he logged three touchdown passes ... and six interceptions. His four-pick performance in the Week 16 loss at Cincinnati was his sixth multi-interception game of the season. The zip on his fastball clearly isn't what it used to be.

Meanwhile, Tom Brady and the Patriots undoubtedly looked like the AFC's best team over the past few months. Baltimore is the flavor of the moment; before the playoffs even began, many (myself included) said the only threat to New England in the AFC would be Flacco and the Ravens. The Seahawks, Packers and even the Cowboys are capturing imaginations as teams from the NFC that can crunch the AFC winner in Arizona.

Yup, nobody's really talking about the Broncos. Peyton Manning fatigue? That shouldn't be the case. This is one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history. But of course, the last time we saw him in the playoffs, he was getting spooked and smacked by Seattle's defense. On the heels of the single greatest and most eye-popping regular season Manning's ever had -- and that speaks volumes, considering his legendary career -- the future Hall of Famer failed in the biggest possible spot against a historically great defense.

And once again, a familiar chorus rang out: "Peyton Manning cannot be considered the greatest quarterback of all time with his playoff résumé."

Thus, nobody has more to gain this postseason.

Peyton Manning is a living legend. He is a top five quarterback in NFL history. You could make an intelligent case that he's No. 1, based upon his unparralleled regular-season success and the fact that (and let's not lose sight of it) he does have a championship ring.

No, this isn't an all-time great chasing that elusive first title. But the fact that he only has one does indeed hurt his case as the greatest of all time.

And what compounds the argument against Manning as the G.O.A.T. is his 11-12 playoff record. That sub-.500 mark sticks out, fair or unfair. Sure, there were some tough games against better teams in Foxborough when his Colts lost to the Patriots. But there are various examples of Manning's teams coming up short as heavy favorites, like the RCA Dome loss to the Steelers in the 2005 Divisional Round and the Mile High defeat to Flacco's Ravens in Denver's playoff opener two years back.

Manning needs another title run to smooth over his legacy's biggest blemish.

Yes, this is a guy who already has defied the odds by coming back from multiple neck surgeries. We need to cherish him as he enters another postseason. Who knows how many opportunities we have left? While he's not playing at a legendary clip right now, he's still great.

But where would you rank him on a trust level of the remaining quarterbacks? Is he behind Flacco and Wilson? Does his old team have the quarterback edge this weekend?

Is it a knock on Manning that you can argue against him in all of these questions? Or is the 38-year-old simply at the end of his career?

I picked the Broncos to make the Super Bowl in the preseason, and actually had them winning it all at midseason. Now, even though I still believe Manning and Co. should carve up the overmatched Colts on Sunday, I have my doubts.

Maybe it's that the Patriots just seem that much better. Maybe I keep thinking about last February's 43-8 smackdown. Or maybe I simply can't get that 11-12 playoff mark out of my head.

What would make that go away? A title run.

Another Super Bowl win for No. 18, and you can pound your fist on the table declaring that Peyton is the best ever. On the other hand, another playoff loss, and that familiar chorus rings out even louder.

Follow Adam Schein on Twitter @AdamSchein.

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