ENGLEWOOD, Colo. --** You could re-write the history of pro football by changing decisions made at too many points to count.
What if the Steelers had not cut Johnny Unitas? Does their dynasty begin a decade earlier? Or what if the Phipps brothers had not bought the Broncos and prevented them from moving to Atlanta in the mid-1960s? Does Denver ever see pro football again, and does the city and region enjoy the same explosive growth as it has for the past 40-plus years? Or if the Colts had decided to pick Ryan Leaf instead of Peyton Manning in the 1998 NFL Draft? There are hundreds, if not thousands, more hypotheticals like these.
And then there's the one most germane to this week's matchup: What if Peyton Manning had chosen the Titans instead of the Broncos when he was a free agent 21 months ago? Who would be the Broncos' quarterback? Would the Titans be the team storming into this game leading the AFC, and the Broncos be the team fighting for survival in the wild-card race?
"Let me tell you something: Peyton Manning is going to make whatever team he plays for better," said head coach John Fox. "We're just really happy that he's here."
During the courtships, Manning worked out for the 49ers and Broncos at Duke University in Durham, N.C., but worked out for the Titans in Knoxville, Tenn., where he attended the University of Tennessee.
"I really enjoyed the time that I had with the Titans organization," said Manning.
The Titans were "first-class," Manning said, which helped make his decision between the 49ers, Broncos and Titans difficult. He had visited with the Cardinals early in the process, but did not work out for them as he did the others.
"I enjoyed the process. Similar to college," Manning said. "You kind of almost want to go to each team for a little bit: go play here for a year, go play here for a little bit. But you've got to make one decision."
"It's been a long time since I've been in a 'recruiting' battle," added Fox. "I spent 10 years as a college coach at a very high level where recruiting was kind of the name of the game. Obviously, regular free agency is a little bit of that, but it can be a lot about the money which was part of our game.
"In Peyton's (Manning) case, I think it was a matter of what was going to be the best fit for him and his family. I always felt relatively confident because I thought we were a good fit, but there were many others. During that final decision time, you get a little anxious for sure."
And while the Broncos waited, so did their offseason plans -- as well as those of the other suitors.
Each team was in a holding pattern, and while the potential prize was worth the wait, it meant watching other potential free agents sign elsewhere. That wasn't much of an issue for the 49ers, who were coming off an NFC Championship Game appearance, but for the Titans, who finished a modest 9-7 the year before and had an offense in flux, the wait torpedoed their contingency plans.
"It hurt us with free agency and what we wanted to do, because free agency started around the same time," said Munchak. "We lost out on other focuses at other positions that year.
"That definitely slowed us down when all of our intention was on working him out and having him come here and doing all the things we needed to do have a shot at getting him. It kept us from doing other things."
Manning was ruffled by it, too.
"I really didn't like having some teams kind of in limbo based on what I was doing," he said. "I did not enjoy that with the draft coming up and teams had made decisions. It was just so not private. It was very public and it was definitely kind of a load lifted off your shoulders once you could pick one place."
Fortunately for the Broncos, that ended up being Denver. But the Titans would like to show Manning that he missed out on something.
"Hopefully, after Sunday he'll wish he had been with us," said Munchak.