Peyton Manning might have played his final game with the Colts on Jan. 8, 2011 against the New York Jets. Since then he's undergone two surgeries on his neck and has watched from the bench as the Colts went from going 10-6 and winning the AFC South title a year ago to being the worst team in the NFL.
Indianapolis currently stands at 1-13 with only two games left. While they're still the front-runner for the No. 1 pick in this year's draft, they could still wind up picking second or even third. In that scenario it is likely that the Colts will address other needs to build a team around Peyton (assuming he's healthy and healed of course).
But if the status quo remains, the Colts will have the chance to draft quarterback Andrew Luck out of Stanford with the No. 1 pick, and will be looking to either trade Manning or possibly even release him.
Manning will likely have some control over where he goes no matter what the circumstances. He will also have plenty of likely suitors willing to take on his contract and accommodate him. Just about every team except New England, Green Bay, Chicago, Houston, San Diego, New York (Giants), Atlanta, New Orleans and Pittsburgh will likely be interested in his services.
I'll look at the 12 best spots for Manning in 2012 in order from least likely to most likely.
The Browns are in need of a quarterback after seeing the Colt McCoy era go up in smoke.
The only problem is precisely why the Colt McCoy era didn't go so well: lack of talent around him.
The Browns would have to improve their personnel around the quarterback for Manning to even think about landing in Cleveland. Peyton Hillis and Josh Cribbs alone would likely not be enough for Manning to consider going to Cleveland.
However, if Manning did go to the Browns and could lead them to the Super Bowl, he would likely become even more of a legend in Cleveland than he is in Indianapolis. He'd also be the biggest Browns star since Jim Brown.
The warm weather in Jacksonville as well as the chance to share a backfield with Maurice Jones-Drew might be enticing to Manning, but don't expect the Colts to deal him within the division.
However, don't discount the possibility of the Jaguars moving to Los Angeles. The move wouldn't take place until 2013 at the earliest (and that's if it happens), but for the Jaguars to come to L.A. with a star of Peyton Manning's magnitude already in tow would be a possibility the NFL would relish.
Manning would sell tickets quickly, and the move would likely be similar to Wayne Gretzky getting traded to the Los Angeles Kings in 1988.
But on the flip-side, Manning could also wind up saving football in Jacksonville in 2012 by leading the Jaguars to an AFC South championship. I doubt this is a risk new Jaguars owner Shad Khan and his glorious mustache would be willing to take (that is if he intends to move the team to L.A., which he says he's not, but I don't see why he wouldn't).
Either way, don't count on this to happen. Indianapolis won't trade Peyton within their own division.
Peyton Manning coming back to Tennessee, where he's still revered from his days as a Volunteer, would be a tremendous story.
Now add in the fact that he'd be paired with Chris Johnson and Kenny Britt, and you have a dangerous offense to go along with the Titans' already very good defense. Plus you could afford to either trade Jake Locker or have him learn under Manning for a good two or three more seasons.
On paper, once you take out the whole Titans-Colts divisional rivalry part, this makes too much sense to not work. Manning would take this team over the hump, and they could become AFC favorites coming into next season.
Now factor in that whole Titans-Colts divisional rivalry, and you'll see that this isn't going to happen.
Manning to Fitzgerald = one heck of a combination.
Peyton Manning would have quite a bit of fun in the desert.
When Kurt Warner came to Arizona the idea was for him to be a mentor to Matt Leinart as he came along. However, Warner found the Fountain of Youth, and in his final two seasons with the Cards he led them to two division championships and a Super Bowl appearance.
Since then the Cardinals have been looking for their next franchise quarterback. They committed a lot of money and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie for Kevin Kolb, who so far this season (a season where Arizona is 7-7) has been outplayed by John Skelton.
Will their investment in Kolb be enough to stop the Cardinals from taking a chance on Peyton Manning? It's quite likely that it would. But if I were Manning, Arizona would be a team atop my list.
How would the possibility of being in an offense with Adrian Petersen, Percy Harvin and Visanthe Shiancoe look to Peyton Manning?
Now add in Minnesota's dome factor.
That would be a pretty good fit. It would easily make the NFC North the best division in the NFL as well as the toughest, and the Vikings could give the Packers a run for their money.
The only issue is the fact that the Vikings believe in Christian Ponder long term. This would be fine for them to have Ponder sit on the bench for a couple of seasons and learn under Manning, but since Ponder started the majority of this season, it might shake his confidence a little bit.
Then you have Minnesota's defense, which is only getting older. The package the Vikings would have to give up to obtain Manning would likely prevent Minnesota from drafting players who could make an immediate impact on their defense. As a result, Manning would have to get into shootouts on a weekly basis.
That's not exactly something you'd want in a division with the Bears, Packers and Lions.
Here's a young team in Kansas City that already has a division title under their belts and nowhere to go but up—especially after this season.
Add to that a healthy Jamaal Charles next season as well as Dwayne Bowe (a free agent who would re-sign with Kansas City right away if Peyton is coming to town), and you have the makings of an offense that could challenge for the AFC West and likely dominate it.
However, there's the issue of how effective Manning would be outdoors in Kansas City, along with the lack of talent elsewhere on the team.
Before I get to the final five (and the teams most likely to trade for Peyton Manning), keep this in mind: It's not a guarantee that the Colts will get the No. 1 pick.
With a loss last week against the Titans, they would've all but clinched it. But thanks to the Colts picking up their first victory of the season, it's not a certainty anymore.
Minnesota has a tough schedule ahead, while St. Louis looks far worse than the Colts under Curtis Painter or Dan Orlovsky could ever imagine.
The Colts, meanwhile, have winnable games against a Texans team that has already clinched the AFC South and a Jaguars team that isn't what you would call "great."
Both games are winnable for Indianapolis, and both possible wins.
If they lose the No. 1 pick, Manning is staying unless he absolutely can't play. What made the Colts different from the Redskins, Dolphins, Browns and other teams in need of a quarterback is the fact that they were dead-set on Andrew Luck. As great as Robert Griffin III is (and I'm one of his fans), I doubt the Colts would be willing to push Manning out in order to draft him. If anything we'd know for sure that that pick would be traded to Miami or Washington.
You could still see Peyton in Indianapolis next year.
Now we'll get to the final teams.
The Seahawks have had a decent run of success since Pete Carroll took over, winning the NFC West last season and still being deep into the playoff race this season.
Seattle's defense is currently ranked eighth in the NFL in yards allowed and sixth in points allowed per game. By far, this would be a better defense than he's had in Indianapolis.
Manning will also have an offense with Marshawn Lynch (Do you really think he leaves if Manning is coming aboard?) and Sidney Rice. This would make one heck of an offensive combination.
Pete Carroll would also be a great coach for Manning at this stage of his career.
Seattle was likely planning on trading up for Matt Barkley, but with Barkley deciding to stay at USC for his senior year, you could very well see the Seahawks instead trading that package to the Colts for Manning. It would be a win-win for both sides, as Indianapolis would not only be trading Manning out of the AFC South, but into the NFC. Manning would have a good, young team with a very capable offensive line protecting him and a defense that would make his job a lot easier.
Now, I know the 49ers are primed to take the second seed in the NFC this year. I saw what they did to the Steelers.
I'd say based off their defense alone they could win the Super Bowl (keyword: could), but do you 49ers fans actually trust Alex Smith 100 percent? Or would you rather have 2-3 more years of Peyton Manning with Colin Kaepernick learning under both him and Jim Harbaugh?
Manning throwing it long to Ted Ginn Jr.—how does that sound? To see Ginn drop passes from the pedestrian QBs (and Chad Pennington) the Dolphins had to offer earlier in his career is one thing, but I don't think he'd drop a Manning long-bomb (he was always great at that).
It would also help that the 49ers could use draft picks to acquire Manning since they would already have their replacement in Kaepernick, plus a very young team on both sides of the ball. The Colts would also be more than happy to send Manning outside of the AFC.
Mark Sanchez is having the best season (numbers-wise) of his career, but despite appearances in two straight AFC Championship Games, I'm starting to get the feeling that New York wasn't exactly the best situation for him.
This is simply because it's Super Bowl or bust. By no means has Sanchez hurt their chances the last two seasons, but he hasn't really helped them. Quarterbacks need time to develop, and maybe going to a team that has the mentality of Super Bowl or bust every season in a big market isn't the best situation for that.
But for a quarterback who's late in his career and has proven to be one of the best of all time when healthy, the Jets would be a great fit.
This is why Peyton Manning might want to consider the Jets.
The other reason: His longtime offensive coordinator in Indianapolis, Tom Moore, is currently an offensive consultant with the Jets.
If the Jets go after Manning then it would be smart to see if Moore would be interested in becoming the Jets' offensive coordinator (Brian Schottenheimer is terrible, according to some Jets fans I know.).
Now, me suggesting that the Jets go after Manning isn't a knock on Sanchez. He's still young, and at 25, he would likely net the Jets one of the second-round picks they'd have to give up in order to obtain Manning from the Colts. (The Sanchize would be a great fit for his former USC coach Pete Carroll in Seattle and vice versa.)
But, here's where the Jets would be a bit leery: There are other holes that must be addressed.
Sanchez is the least of their problems, and I'm sure if you asked GM Mike Tannenbaum and head coach Rex Ryan, they would tell you the same thing. Their defense isn't as deep as they have been in the past, and their running game isn't the productive ground-and-pound running game they had the last two seasons.
While the thought of Manning completing passes to Santonio Holmes sounds great on paper and having Dustin Keller would help out as well, who else is there to throw to? Plax? Will he even be with the Jets next season?
It seems logical to think that the Jets acquiring Manning would work. The NFL would love having both Mannings playing in New York, and remember how excited the networks got for Manning vs. Brady? Add Rex Ryan and the possibility of three games per year to that, and you have ratings gold.
But the Jets have far too many holes to fix—holes that won't be fixed with the amount of picks they'll need to pony up in order to acquire him. Remember, the Colts will have plenty of suitors for Manning, so each team will have to step up.
Here's a very promising situation for Peyton Manning to enter into.
On top of that, this would be a good situation for Reggie Wayne to go to since Wayne played his college ball at Miami, and Miami would have the cap room to accommodate both.
This would help Manning as far as continuity goes and would also set up what would likely be the best wide receiving corps in the AFC with Marshall, Wayne, Brian Hartline and Davone Bess (plus Reggie Bush catching some passes out of the backfield). Manning would likely also remove the need for Miami to acquire a different tight end, as he will make Anthony Fasano and Charles Clay look great.
Add in Miami's defense, which has been great the last seven games of the season and is still very young, and you have a team that—with a healthy Manning—could contend with the Jets and Patriots for supremacy in the AFC East. The Dolphins' defense is currently ranked a pedestrian 15th in yards allowed, but is also fifth in points allowed.
However, there's also the issue of Miami's offensive line, mainly its right side. While Jake Long and Mike Pouncey are two of the best at their positions (left tackle and center, respectively), the Dolphins will have to spend a first or second-round pick on a right guard and/or right tackle.
The problem with that is those are exactly the draft picks Indianapolis would want from Miami in exchange for Manning.
And before you say, "Well that's too high, no one would pay that for Manning, the Colts will just cut him," then take a look at the next few teams on this list.
The only way the Colts would likely cut down on their draft pick demands would be if the Dolphins threw in Cameron Wake or Vontae Davis—and that's not going to happen.
Oh, and Jeff Ireland is the general manager in Miami. Do you really think Manning would want to play for a Jeff Ireland-run team?
Ireland is also in love with former Dallas Cowboys players, which Manning is not.
*Spoiler Alert*: This will make sense on the final slide.
Cowboys vs. Giants is always guaranteed at least one national television spot per year, whether it's on Sunday Night Football or Monday Night Football.
Add Peyton Manning to the mix and make it Manning vs. Manning? Twice a year? Whoa!
If any team can get a Manning deal done, it's Dallas. You have the stadium, Jerry Jones, an offense that includes a healthy DeMarco Murray, Miles Austin and Dez Bryant next season. A decent (not great by any means, but decent) offensive line, and a defense that has shown some flashes of looking good.
It won't just be Manning vs. Manning twice a year either. You'll also get Manning vs. Vick once a year (yes, that's a joke).
Then there's Manning adding his name to the list of Cowboy greats: Don Meridith, Roger Staubach, Troy Aikman—Peyton Manning.
Oh, and don't you think Jones would love to see Manning breaking records with that star on his helmet? Yeah, I thought so.
Dallas' defense and offensive line do need more talent and depth, but that's not something that would hinder Jones. If he wants Manning, he's grabbing Manning.
Wait, what's that? What about Tony Romo? That's easy.
The Cowboys have to trade Romo before they pick up Manning. That much is clear. Cutting him would cost Dallas a lot of money and would likely see the embarrassment of him signing with Washington, another team in need of a quarterback.
(If you're wondering why I didn't include them on the list, it's because Daniel Snyder can kill anyone's career, and I don't want to see that happen.)
So where would Romo go? Miami.
Manning to Dallas is a chance that Jones would take. He would trade Romo to Miami because of the familiarity with Dolphins GM Jeff Ireland, who scouted Romo. The Dolphins would likely trade a second and a third-round pick in 2012 and 2013 to acquire Romo, so they'd still have picks to upgrade their needs on the offensive line and at safety.
But back to Manning and the Cowboys. This is a situation that would make the NFL, fans and TV networks extremely happy. The Cowboys will still have their holes, and they would be tougher to fill, but it would make too much sense to not be explored at all.