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Nover: Manning Stumbles to Title Game

One of the saddest things in sports is watching an all-time great hang on too long. I'm old enough to have seen Mickey Mantle bat .237 in his final year, bringing his lifetime batting average under .300, and to have viewed Willie Mays stumble after flyballs as a member of the New York Mets.

Those cringeworthy moments reappear now seeing Peyton Manning.

No qualifying quarterback had a lower passer rating than Manning this season. That includes Colin Kaepernick and Nick Foles. Manning ranked 34th and last in the passer ratings at 67.9. His touchdown-to-interception ratio was 9-to-17. Denver went 2-4 against the spread during Manning's last six regular season starts.

Patriots Road Favorites Against Broncos

Yet Manning is just a victory away from reaching the Super Bowl. But because Tom Brady still is in his prime while Manning is in his football dotage, New England is a field goal favorite on the road against the Broncos.

If the Broncos win it will be the first time in NFL history a team won a conference championship with a quarterback who finished last statistically.

Neck surgeries and a foot injury this season have robbed Manning of his physical skills. Manning has a losing lifetime record in the postseason and rarely has been at his finest in cold weather although the forecast is for the temperature to be around 40 degrees.

Broncos Going With Experience of Manning

Few will argue, though, that Manning isn't one of the smartest quarterbacks ever. Broncos coach Gary Kubiak would rather go with Manning's experience than trust Brock Osweiler, who has more mobility and a stronger arm, against defensive chess master Bill Belichick. That's understandable especially since Osweiler isn't 100 percent healthy either.

Manning does have four things in his favor for this matchup: The Broncos are home, they have the superior defense, the Patriots have injuries to key defenders and Ed Hochuli's officiating crew has been assigned to the game.

Two-time Pro Bowl linebacker Jerod Mayo is out for New England. Jamie Collins and Chandler Jones are considered questionable. Dont'a Hightower is battling a sore knee. The Broncos are 6-0 since 2008 when Hochuli has been the referee. The Patriots are 3-4 in games Hochuli has been the referee since 2010.