AFC South Time Machine: Indianapolis Colts 'What If?'

Nate Dunlevy@NateDunlevyContributor IFebruary 14, 2017

CLEVELAND- SEPTEMBER 7:  Tight end Dallas Clark #44 of the Indianapolis Colts runs the ball for yardage during a game against the Cleveland Browns on September 7, 2003 at Cleveland Browns Stadium in Cleveland, Ohio. The Colts defeated the Browns 9-6. (Photo by Tom Pidgeon/Getty Images)
Tom Pidgeon/Getty Images

What if Aaron Bailey had held on to the ball?

What if Terrance Wilkins hadn't nicked the sideline?

What Mike Vanderjagt could hit a pressure kick?

No team in football has had more "what if" moments over the past 20 years than the Indianapolis Colts. For a team with as much success as Indianapolis has had, they've had more than their share of disappointments and near misses.

There are probably five legitimate "what if" moments surrounding the 2009 Super Bowl alone. What if Dwight Freeney doesn't sprain his ankle? What if Reggie Wayne doesn't get hurt the day before the game? What if Pierre Garcon catches that third-down pass? What if Hank Baskett just stays down? What if Jim Caldwell had let Manning pass at the end of the first half?

Ultimately, those are boring questions because the answer is fairly straight forward: the Colts would have won the Super Bowl.

Instead, let's flash back to 2003 and revisit a single game, a single series that changed the narrative of a decade in the NFL.

In week 13 of the season, the 9-2 Patriots visited the 9-2 Colts. At the time, no one knew it would be the first great meeting between two teams that would dominate the foreseeable future of the NFL.

In the first half against the Pats, rookie Dallas Clark broke his leg and was lost for the season.

What if that had never happened?

The Colts ultimately lost that day as the Patriots stopped Indianapolis on four plays at the goal-line with time about to expire. It was later revealed that the Colts' normal goal-line package was thrown off by the absence of Clark.

Had he been healthy, the Colts may well have come up with the one yard they needed. A win over the Patriots that day would have meant the 2003 AFC Championship Game would have been played in Indianapolis and not in Foxborough.

That 2003 championship game was a watershed moment for the NFL. The physical play of the Patriots against the Indianapolis wideouts was so egregious that the NFL issued a "point of emphasis" to officials the following offseason, reminding them to call illegal contact as it was written.

A new era of unbridled passing was ushered in.

If Clark had stayed healthy, that may never had happened. Would the same officiating crew have allowed so much contact if the game had been played in Indianapolis? Would the Colts have gone to the Super Bowl instead of the Patriots?

That loss to the Patriots in New England was by far the worst performance of Peyton Manning's career. How would his legacy have been rewritten without that fateful day in the cold and snow?

Obviously, we don't know that the Colts would have won in November 2003 had they not lost Clark, but considering the ripple effect Clark's injury had on the future of the entire NFL, it's certainly fun to speculate.