Indianapolis To say no NFL team is more dependent on its quarterback than the Indianapolis Colts sounds a bit presumptuous.
We don't really know, because the Colts have never been without Peyton Manning. So we've never seen what the other side of their universe looks like.
Since Indianapolis made him the first overall selection of the 1998 draft, Manning has started every game he has played for the Colts. Counting postseasons, that's 155 games and counting.
Manning will play the biggest game of his career today - again. This will be his second trip to the AFC championship game in search of his first trip to a Super Bowl. Each time he has played the New England Patriots.
Manning has played most of his 155 career games at a high level. He has thrown at least one touchdown pass in 134 of those games. He has thrown one interception or less in 113 of them.
Historically, Manning makes plays that win games and avoids making the mistakes that lose games. That's why he's 97-58 in his career as a starting quarterback. That's also why, at 30, Manning is Hall of Fame-bound with two NFL MVP awards, three passing titles and seven Pro Bowls.
But bad things do happen to the Colts when the wheels come off their quarterback. In the 21 games Manning has not thrown a touchdown pass, the Colts have lost 11 times. In the 42 games Manning has thrown more than one interception, the Colts have lost 29 times.
When Manning has a bad day, you can usually pencil in the Colts for a defeat. In the playoffs, his bad days have been season enders.
Manning failed to throw a touchdown pass in his playoff debut in 1999 at home against Tennessee. The Titans upset the Colts that day, 19-16. He again failed to throw a TD pass against the New York Jets in the opening round of the 2002 playoffs. Another early exit.
Manning threw four interceptions in the 2003 AFC title game at New England. Another loss. Then he failed to throw a touchdown pass in a 2004 AFC semifinal against the Patriots. Another loss.
If Manning doesn't do it for the Colts, it generally doesn't get done.
But something strange has happened this postseason. The Colts have won twice to reach the AFC Championship Game - and the NFL's best passer hasn't surfaced yet.
Manning threw three interceptions in a wild-card game against the Kansas City Chiefs, but the Colts prevailed, 23-8. It was the first time in 12 career games Manning has thrown three interceptions and the Colts still won.
Last week in Baltimore, Manning failed to a throw a touchdown pass and tossed two more interceptions - yet the Colts again prevailed, 15-6. It was only the fifth time in 14 career road games Manning has failed to throw a TD pass and the Colts still won.
And that's why this is Manning's best chance to reach a Super Bowl. A team built around a quarterback has suddenly discovered it can win without him.
If Manning brings his A game today, the Colts will be headed to their first Super Bowl since 1971. But for the first time in Manning's nine seasons, the Colts realize they can win without their quarterback at his best.