Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts were in the Super Bowl just two short years ago, ball in the quarterback's hands, three minutes to go. Manning threw a pass intended for teammate Reggie Wayne that ended up in the hands of New Orleans Saints defensive back Tracy Porter, and that, in retrospect, was the end of the Indianapolis empire.
Last season, the Colts went 2-14. On Wednesday, they will release Manning. Where the Colts go from here is an obvious mystery, with or without the No. 1 pick in next month's annual draft.
Here in New England, the empire continues under the reign of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, though we are reminded of an inevitable truth in the modern NFL: the landscape changes quickly. Belichick and Brady are among the most elite coach and quarterback tandems ever to exist in professional football, arguably the most elite, but they will not be here forever. And as surely as Manning will soon be wearing the uniform of another team, Belichick someday will be spending late-summer Sundays on his boat, Brady spending them in Brazil, or Paris, or Milan.
For the Patriots and their fans, first and foremost, the Manning announcement today should reaffirm that every moment with Brady and Belichick needs to be maximized, now more than ever. Where Manning lands is now of utmost importance to the Patriots for obvious reasons, because Manning alone can change the entire structure of the league. The great quarterbacks always do. Manning played 15 career regular season and postseason games against Belichick's Patriots during his career in Indianapolis, and we will remember most all of them far more than we remember the one from this past season, when the Colts came into Foxboro behind the immortal Dan Orlovsky.
Manning was always the reason. More than Marvin Harrison or Reggie Wayne, Jim Caldwell or Tony Dungy. More than Dwight Freeney. More than Robert Mathis. More than Edgerrin James or Joseph Addai or Dallas Clark.
So what if Manning now ends up in Miami, or New York, even Baltimore or Kansas City? With Manning, each of those clubs immediately would become an enormous factor in the AFC, maybe even a Super Bowl favorite. The Dolphins and Jets are rivals of the Patriots in the AFC East. Purely for entertainment purposes, there would be no better story in New England than for Manning to land in Miami or New York, for him to face Brady and Belichick again at least twice more per season, for the ante to be upped as the two greatest quarterbacks of their era simultaneously approach the ends of their Hall of Fame careers.
So what do you think, Patriots fans? Do you want Manning in the division? Do you? Or would you rather he choose Arizona or Seattle, Washington or maybe even Chicago? Manning would change the landscape in the NFC as surely as he would in the AFC, leaving the road to the Super Bowl far less perilous for Brady and Belichick.
Think of it: If Manning goes to the NFC, that conference will feature Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Manning, and his two-time Super Bowl champion brother, Eli. To a lesser extent, Matt Ryan and Tony Romo would be factors in the conference, too. Michael Vick. Matthew Stafford. Maybe even Alex Smith.
In the AFC? You would have Brady and Ben Roethlisberger. Maybe Philip Rivers. Maybe Matt Schaub. But the balance of power will have further shifted in the direction of the NFC, which has already won the last three Super Bowls and four of the last five.
For Manning, the decision he faces now may be the most important of his career, a rather fitting development given his reputation behind center. He has always been among the most cerebral of quarterbacks. He has always been regarded as an excellent decision maker. And yet, at those most critical times of his career, in the biggest games, Manning has often made some of the worst throws and decisions of his football life, like the pass intended for Wayne in Super Bowl XLIV in a career that has thus far produced just one Super Bowl championship.
Against the Belichick Patriots, Manning is 6-9 overall, including 1-2 in the playoffs. In his postseason career, he is 9-10. Manning has won far too much during his regular-season career to be a 9-10 quarterback in the playoffs, the biggest difference between him and Brady remaining that ability to make the right throw and the right decision at the right time.
So what if Manning now chooses a relatively safe destination, a place where little will be expected and where he will be regarded only as a hero? What if he picks another place like Indianapolis? Manning will likely go down as one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time, like Dan Marino, one of the greatest passers. But he will never go down as a great winner, not in the postseason, unless he uses this opportunity to land with a team that is intent on a winning a Super Bowl now.
For as much as the Patriots accomplished last season - and it was considerable - New England still has obvious holes. The New England defense could not get off the field against the New York Giants, no matter the final point totals, and field position was an issue. The Patriots don't have a receiving threat outside the numbers, something that became an even bigger issue in the wake of Rob Gronkowski's injury. The running game is inconsistent. The road back to the Super Bowl isn't likely to ever be as easy as it was during the 2011 season, regardless of whether Manning ends up in AFC.
For the Patriots, now more than ever, the time is now. For Peyton Manning, the same is true. And so as Manning and the Colts formally cut ties today in what is absolutely the end of an era, the impact is being felt throughout the National Football League.
And in New England, perhaps, as much as anywhere outside of Indianapolis.
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