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PEYTON'S (OTHER) PLACE

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WHAT IF KELLY HOLCOMB'S NIGHTMARE GAME HADN'T SENT MANNING TO THE COLTS?

ON THE LIST of people I blame for the loss of my hometown football team, first comes Dean Spanos, the imbecilic owner who spent 15 years complaining about the Chargers' stadium without ever legitimately trying to build a new one. Kelly Holcomb comes in second.

On Dec. 21, 1997, the 3--12 Colts played their regular-season finale at Minnesota. Jim Harbaugh started at quarterback for Indianapolis, and midway through the second quarter the score was tied at 10. But Harbaugh sustained two injuries during the game, to his head and to his shoulder, twice forcing his backup into action.

On Holcomb's third snap he threw an interception. On his seventh snap he threw another. On his ninth he fumbled. The Colts went to halftime down 29--10—but Harbaugh returned in the third quarter and rallied them. Indy trailed by only eight with 5:17 left in the fourth when Holcomb trotted back onto the field again. He fumbled his first snap. He threw another interception on his fourth.

His totals for the day: 15 snaps, five turnovers and two cities forever changed. What if Harbaugh had stayed upright? What if Holcomb—a serviceable backup who topped 300 passing yards five times in 25 career starts—had simply held on to the ball and the Colts had won? They'd have finished 4--12, the same record as the Cardinals and the Chargers. And with tiebreakers, the 1998 draft order would have gone like this: Arizona, San Diego, Indianapolis.

The Cardinals already had their quarterback of the future, Jake Plummer, leaving the Chargers to choose between Peyton Manning and Ryan Leaf. Even Spanos couldn't bungle that. Instead of Indy, San Diego would have landed the Super Bowl trophy and the shiny downtown stadium.

Or not.

Seven years later, when the Chargers selected Peyton's younger brother with the first pick, the Manning family wisely leveraged Eli's trade to the Giants. What if Archie & Co. had protected Peyton from the Spanos family's incompetence the same way they did Eli? Peyton would have wound up right where he needed to be, in downtown Indianapolis, and Spanos where he wanted to be, on the outskirts of L.A.

On Holcomb's third snap he threw an INTERCEPTION. On his seventh snap he threw ANOTHER. On his ninth he FUMBLED.