Let's address the elephant in the room: Peyton Manning has played his last game as an Indianapolis Colt.
Go ahead, say it out loud a few times, you'll be surprised how easy it sounds.
The Colts have a two-game lead on their closest competitor in the race for the No. 1 draft pick. Peyton Manning said this week he was OK with Indianapolis drafting a "quarterback of the future." So far, it's been a slow and careful dance between Manning and the Colts -- no one wants to insult anyone until Indy is officially on the clock. But this is happening.
For all those who can see a 2012 season in which Manning -- and his $28 million option and $30 million guaranteed -- tutors, say, Andrew Luck, you are living in Fantasyland. Forget about restructuring contracts, the passing of torches and the respect both sides have for one another. Manning is going to want to go somewhere else for the next 3-4 years, provided he's healthy.
I think the only real question is how Manning exits Indy: Do the Colts release him, or do they work out a trade to recoup what would likely be a first-round draft pick and a little more? Worried about the money aspect? He'll get a new contract if he gets let go or a re-structured one in a trade, which means teams who want to make this move need not concern themselves with the bottom line. Either way, get ready for Manning in a new uniform on the cover of Madden '13. So which one will it be?
Glad you asked. We'll list the potential landing spots and rank them in terms of likelihood. There are teams who are in desperate need of a signal-caller, or those who would dump their current one in a second for Manning. A ranking of one Manning Brother means it's the least likely, while three Mannings means you can at least put in a jersey pre-order at NFL.com.
It would be a great story to see him return to the state where he became famous. He can reunite with Smokey and sing "Rocky Top" on Saturdays. His head can be in the white spots in the Volunteers' checkerboard end zone. Have a nice daydream with that? Forget it. Bill Polian isn't letting Manning go to a division rival where he can come back and haunt the Colts twice a year. He'll trade him to the Patriots before he does that. One Manning brother.
This would let him finish his career on one of the most storied franchises in NFL history and make them relevant again, just like he did with the Colts. But Manning's going to want to go to a team that at least looks like it has a chance to win, with a strong head coach and a front office he trusts. So that crosses out Cleveland. One Manning brother.
Another instance of a lack of organizational strength. "OK, Peyton, when I was at USC this is how we would attack the 4-3 … ." One Manning Brother.
John Elway and John Fox would be pretty nice recruiters, wouldn't they? Returning a team to glory they haven't seen since No. 7 was on the field is enticing. Ah, and therein lies the rub. Manning already made himself a legend. He's not going to step in for one and listen to Denver sports talk radio hosts say, "OK callers, who's the better quarterback: Elway or Manning?" One and a half Manning brothers.
The Redskins name alone commands respect. Mike Shanahan playing roulette with his running backs and deciding the Beck/Grossman combination would equal wins? Not so much. Playing for the Redskins is like going back to the bar you loved in your early 20s. When you returned years later, however, you saw how much disrepair it was in. You visit with the owner, who remembers you and asks if you wanted to invest. What do you do? Yeah, I thought so. One and a half Manning brothers.
San Francisco 49ers
Alex Smith's success notwithstanding, Colin Kaepernick is not the future in San Francisco. Jim Harbaugh is firmly entrenched as the leader, but is he OK with sharing the spotlight with Manning? I don't have San Francisco higher on this list strictly because of that. New coaches want to win with their own guys. Manning would come in, engulf the team and the town, and Harbaugh would be riding shotgun on the Manning Express. Call it a gut feeling, but I just don't see this as a potential good fit. I can't see Manning shaking Harbaugh's hand at the end of games. Harbaugh can take credit for the Smith resurrection, but he would get none for Manning. One and a half Manning brothers.
Kansas City Chiefs
The Midwest. America's heartland. A lifestyle he's grown accustomed to. Some pretty nice weapons to throw to in Dwayne Bowe, Jonathan Baldwin and Steve Breaston, and potentially a healthy Jamaal Charles. A solid front office. Hey, Joe Montana did it, and if Joe can do it, anyone can. Manning would be a really nice fit in K.C. -- he'd be comfortable there. The Chiefs are the first of the potential suitors on this list that I really think could make a run for Manning. The AFC West is up for grabs every year, and he immediately makes them a contender. Two Manning brothers.
This was a tough one to handicap. The Cardinals are a fashionable bunch with Larry Fitzgerald, plus Kurt Warner made it cool to go to the desert and have a great career after age 35. Part of me thinks following Warner would work against a Manning bid, as will the Cardinals' attempt to get out from under the Kevin Kolb mistake. There's a lot going in Arizona's favor, however. Ken Whisenhunt has shown he has no problem putting his eggs in a veteran quarterback's basket. He's an extremely strong offensive head coach for whom Manning would love to play. Just like with the Chiefs in the AFC West, a Manning-led Cardinals team would become a yearly favorite to win the division. Two Manning brothers.
What works against the Dolphins is a total lack of direction. Miami flew cross-country to woo Jim Harbaugh and then gave Tony Sparano an extension. Owner Stephen Ross said mid-season that he wants a franchise QB for next year, while Chad Henne was still healthy. I would hide Ross on any potential visit and just trot out J-Lo and Gloria Estefan for all the PR stuff. "Hey Bernice, why does my schedule have me in Nova Scotia when Manning is here?" Miami remains a huge selling point. Brandon Marshall has become a star again, and Reggie Bush has become one for the first time in the NFL. A new regime will be in place, and there's no way it's not one of the most respected coach-GM combinations in football. If you're the Dolphins, you have to do this to compete in the AFC East for the next few seasons. Ross clearly wants to make a splash. Miami is like Los Angeles Lite, where the lights might be bright enough without being too bright for Manning. And if he doesn't win, everyone can always blame LeBron. Two and a half Manning brothers.
New York Jets
I know what you're thinking, "Oh, the Jets fan picks the Jets." Just do me a favor and play out this season. After the Patriots' loss, we know Rex Ryan is frustrated completely with Mark Sanchez, as he hasn't made the strides in Year Three that Ryan expected. The offensive players don't trust him, witnessed by captain Santonio Holmes' outburst after the Ravens loss. And you can't win a Super Bowl without an elite QB. New York is built to win now. Ryan will hold a telethon or some other such nonsense if he thought the Jets could get him. "It's Day 46 of Rex Up A Tree for Peyton, let's go there live!" He's brash, wants to make bold moves, and this would be the boldest thing he could do. The Jets have a recent history of making these kinds of moves and have convinced plenty of players to come to the greater New York area. I can see the Jets jumping the gun and offering a big package for him, with the Colts thinking, "Well, at the very least they'll make life more difficult for Tom Brady. So, why not?" This is who the Jets are. They don't do anything quietly. And best of all, the Jets are the most ready-made Super Bowl team Manning could join. If Brett Favre can trade in the Midwest for Manhattan and do OK, so can Manning. And personally if that happened, I would forgive Manning for staying in school and not coming out in 1997 when the Jets had the No. 1 pick. Three Manning brothers.
See Jason Smith on "NFL Fantasy Live," airing Sundays at 11:30 a.m. ET on the NFL RedZone channel, and Tuesday-Friday on NFL Network at 2 p.m. ET and 12 a.m. ET/9 p.m. PT. He writes Fantasy and other NFL pith on NFL.com daily. Talk to him on Twitter @howaboutafresca. He only asks you never bring up when the Jets play poorly.