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WHAT IF? ... A JOURNEYMAN QB'S DESPERATE PASS HADN'T SHAPED THE 2004 NFL DRAFT?

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WHEN THE Vikings (9--6) visited the last-place Cardinals (3--12) in Week 17 of 2003, what seemed to matter most were Minnesota's playoff chances. A win would give the Vikes the NFC North title; a loss would end their season. But the effects of that game's conclusion—trailing 17--12 with four seconds left, Arizona QB Josh McCown found Nate Poole in the back corner of the end zone for a miraculous 28-yard game-winning TD—would in fact reverberate far beyond the North Star State. Had McCown's pass fallen incomplete ...

... THE CARDINALS, not the Chargers, would have finished with the worst record and thus earned the No. 1 pick (as opposed to No. 3) in the 2004 draft. And new coach Dennis Green most definitely would have replaced McCown with Mississippi's Eli Manning(right). In reality, Manning ended up going No. 1 to San Diego and then refusing to play for the Chargers, forcing a trade to the Giants. But had he found Arizona more suitable ...

... THE CHARGERS, at No. 2, could have still picked N.C. State QB Philip Rivers, whom they wound up receiving from the Giants in the Manning trade. But without that deal San Diego wouldn't have had the extra first-round pick in 2005 to nab Maryland linebacker Shawne Merriman, a key to its AFC West titles in '06 and '07. And without Manning pushing to escape San Diego ...

... THE GIANTS most likely would have settled for their second choice, Miami of Ohio quarterback Ben Roethlisberger(far right), whom they nearly did take instead of acquiring Manning. Which still would have left ...

... PITT WIDEOUT Larry Fitzgerald(right) on the board for the receiver-needy Browns (who took TE Kellen Winslow II), Redskins (safety Sean Taylor) or Lions (WR Roy Williams), also meaning that ...

... when the STEELERS were on the clock at No. 11, the top passing talent available would have been J.P. Losman (Tulane), Matt Schaub (Virginia) or Josh McCown's brother Luke (Louisiana Tech). That alternate universe—and really, how hard is it to imagine McCown, a career 59.1% passer, not hitting Poole, a guy with 34 career catches—reroutes at least five Pro Bowlers. The Giants build around Roethlisberger. The Cardinals get Eli but not Fitzgerald. Perhaps most devastating, the Steelers, the NFL's third-winningest team since 2004, miss out on Big Ben. And Big J.P. just doesn't have the same ring.