As March Madness has shrunk from 68 teams to 16, the Peyton Manning derby has been reduced from five teams to the final three. All three -- the San Francisco 49ers, Tennessee Titans and Denver Broncos -- are cautiously optimistic. Only one man knows what the choice will be, however, and his name is Peyton Manning. So let the guessing begin.
What can the winning team expect to get when it signs Manning? The obvious answer is a Hall of Fame talent, someone who can make an offense instantly productive. Yet in reality, a team gets much more than a great player. It gets the ultimate competitor who is never satisfied, a person who will drive everyone in the organization to be better. I realize Manning is not the head coach, but signing him raises the performance level of every employee in the building. His drive -- his unrelenting will to win -- will permeate the organization. He won't allow anyone to lag. Manning will set the daily tempo for everyone -- not just the players but the coaches, too.
Manning's leadership stems from his work habits, his constant preparation, his commitment to being the best. Like all great leaders, Manning is unafraid of confrontation. He will be the driving force in any organization he joins. Combine this with his enormous talent, and Manning instantly makes any team he plays on a legitimate Super Bowl contender.
So which of these three teams needs Manning on and off the field? They all do. Who couldn't use this type of commitment? When the 49ers hired Jim Harbaugh, his will and unique competitive sensibility became second nature in San Francisco. Harbaugh immediately lifted the 49ers to a high level of play, but Manning would add another level of competitiveness to the organization. He could feed off Harbaugh, finding comfort in knowing he doesn't always have to be the hard edge. Are Harbaugh and Manning similar? Of course, but why can't similarly competitive people get along?
Many think Manning is looking for a place where he can run the offense, but I don't think he wants to be offensive coordinator as well as quarterback. He wants to have input, but he still needs help. The 49ers' offense has to be appealing for that reason, as it already features a physical running attack that would complement Manning's ability in the passing game. Manning would be the perfect piece for the 49ers. And unlike last season's Eagles, who thought games were won in the offseason, Harbaugh and Manning simply wouldn't allow the 49ers to underachieve.
The Broncos, who benefited from their run-first offense under the direction of Tim Tebow, would be able to better utilize their skill players under Manning, and they have an offensive line that could protect him. Their defense will need some fine tuning, but with Manning directing a more potent offense, Elvis Dumervil and Von Miller would be able to constantly rush the passer while playing with a lead, better showcasing their talents.
Returning to Tennessee might sound appealing, but I am hearing that the Titans are now the long shot. They might be too close to home, and might not have the right structure on offense to handle what Manning desires -- even though Manning is exactly what this team needs to take the next step. Titans coach Mike Munchak, who spent the bulk of his career working for Jeff Fisher, would benefit from the change of prospective that Manning would provide. Manning would certainly drive the Titans, which is what they need. Whether Manning actually wants to be the driver in Nashville remains to be seen.
I'm guessing Denver is in the lead, but that's only a gut feeling. I'm in the same boat as all of you: just waiting for The Decision and greatly looking forward to seeing No. 18 take the field again.
Follow Michael Lombardi on Twitter @michaelombardi.