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What If Peyton Manning Stayed Healthy?

The 2011 season was a disaster which turned into the biggest blessing for the Colts. We know the story, Peyton Manning didn't play due to injury, the Colts stunk, but ended up drafting Andrew Luck. But what if Manning had been able to play as normal?

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

As NFL Free Agency is starting to wind back down as the draft approaches, my initial plan was to focus on one of the most franchise defining moments in Colts (off-season) history. The release of Peyton Manning.

However, that would yield quite a bit of speculation (of course, these articles normally do) and get into some nasty salary-cap numbers, which I rather wouldn't explore.

Instead, I'm going to jump back one off-season earlier, and pose the following scenario.

What if Manning didn't get hurt?

The initial reaction is that we wouldn't have had to gouge our eyes out watching the three-headed monster of Kerry Collins, Curtis Painter, and Dan Orlovsky attempt to play quarterback.

But let's dig into the Colts' schedule and how the team could have looked that season.

At first glance, with Manning at the helm, I only see four games that I don't think the Colts win. The opener at Houston, and then road games in New Orleans, New England, and Baltimore. Assuming the Colts season would go as one expects, either they would have randomly lost another one, or Jim Caldwell would have botched some time management to lose a game as well.

So we'll say the Colts finish 11-5. Remember, the Texans limped to the finish and ended the season 10-6, so in this scenario the Colts are AFC South Division Champions again.

Before diving into the playoff picture (which would look vastly different) let's talk about the Colts actual team.

The offense in 2011, despite being completely inept, was actually a very healthy unit. Pierre Garcon, Dallas Clark, Reggie Wayne, Joseph Addai, Donald Brown, and even Austin Collie played the entire season.

Obviously, the key to the offense would have been a healthy Collie, as we had seen the year prior. Even though I'm not sure it happens, for the sake of the article, we'll say that he remains healthy for all of 2011.

So the offense should have been quite good, potentially resembling its 2009 and 2010 self.

The defense, though, would still have been poor. Manning doesn't play defense, and couldn't have accounted for the unit giving up a 71.2% completion percentage. Would the numbers have been slightly better with a real offense on the field? Sure. It still would have been a bad unit, though.

Now that we have that out of the way, let's jump into the playoff picture.

The Patriots and Ravens still would have been the top two seeds in the AFC, that doesn't change.

However, the Colts jump to the third seed in this case, with the Tim Tebow led Broncos still hanging on to the four.

The Wild Card is where things get very different. Having lost to the Colts in the regular season, the Steelers would have dipped to 11-5, but still claimed the fifth seed in the AFC. So don't worry, we still get to live through Tebow's miracle overtime win.

The big change comes at the six seed. Instead of the Bengals, it would have been the Texans. This means that we would have had a rubber match between the Colts and Texans on Wild Card weekend.

Let's be honest, this game would have terrified me as a fan.

Still, let's go on the assumption that the Texans, for whatever reason, still can't win in Indianapolis and the Colts advance.

This would have sent the Colts to Baltimore to face the Ravens. With Manning under center, the Colts had an extremely good track record against the Ravens. In fact, Manning (as Colts quarterback) only ever lost twice against Baltimore. A third time would have been the 2011 regular season if this article had been true.

For whatever reason, Manning could get the best of Baltimore, and I think he does so here again.

Of course, this sets up a rematch, yet again, with Tom Brady and the Patriots. And much like I said that for, whatever reason, the Texans can't win in Indy, and the Ravens couldn't topple Manning, the Colts can't win in Foxboro in the playoffs.

Unfortunately, I foresee more heartbreak at the hands of the Patriots in store for the Colts. So, let's not dwell on this.

In the off-season, for starters Bill Polian and Jim Caldwell stay in place. This we know for sure. Some players, probably Gary Brackett, Melvin Bullitt, Clark, and maybe Addai are probably still cut because the cap situation was a disaster.

But the draft is wildly different. Instead of picking at number one, the Colts would be picking at 29 (I think). In the actual draft, the Ravens held the 29th pick, and moved back into the early second round where they selected Courtney Upshaw. At 29, the Vikings took Harrison Smith.

If this situation had played out, I would have been more than happy for the Colts to take Smith. A safety (from Notre Dame no less) would have been a great addition to the team.

If we're honest about it, moving forward it would have been much of the same for the Colts. Double digit winning seasons, and a few more AFC South titles. However, due to Manning's contract, the Colts would have been more and more reliant on the NFL Draft. Given the Polian's recent track record, I wouldn't have felt too confident in that.

It's likely that everything would have come crashing down the minute Manning retired (in other words, next season). And the crash would have been much more dramatic than what we witnessed for one 2011 season. And the pay-off? Probably not as good as getting Andrew Luck.

So, after another trip through the Colts' twilight zone, I would still rather have the team end up the way it did, than what I cooked up here.