Damaged quadriceps or no, it was not difficult to imagine Peyton Manning fading in the playoff spotlight.
Nor was it hard to predict Andrew Luck would shine in it.
And that’s what happened.
Peyton fizzled, Luck sizzled, and the Colts are one win from the Super Bowl.
But here’s where you really have to use — or rather, stretch — your imagination: the Colts in the Super Bowl.
That’s a much tougher picture.
Peyton, after all, has a history of fading in the postseason. Tom Brady does not. Nor does his team.
New England is not Denver. Brady and the Pats win championships. Peyton and the Broncs don’t. The AFC Championship Game will be nothing like the divisional playoff.
As if the Brady factor alone weren’t enough, there’s the Bill Belichick evil genius factor. And the Patriots’ mystique factor. And the Foxborough factor.
With so many ominous factors, all genuine, it’s difficult to imagine the Colts going any farther. Not impossible, but difficult.
Luck has the tools to get there. But do the Colts have enough additional tools to reach the destination?
A month ago, the answer was a resounding “no.” The Colts were, to put it kindly, not playing well, and Luck was having his own issues with turnovers. It was an especially lethal mix, especially against playoff-caliber teams.
Indy beat only two during the regular season.
But along came the postseason, and much has changed.
Suddenly, the Colts have a defense. Heck, they even have a pass rush. Not only that, they can run a little bit and can beat good teams — on the road — in convincing fashion.
Where did it come from? Much like 2006-07, it’s come out of nowhere.
No NFL team had a worse defense. The Colts were dead last. Right up to the final game, they were wretched.
Consequently, they entered the playoffs — which they secured by winning the sorry AFC South — having lost four of their final seven games.
A first-round exit never seemed a surer thing until, well, this year.
But something inexplicable happened. A switch was flipped. The Colts kept on playing. And playing. And playing.
By the time it was over, the Colts had arguably the best defense in the NFL and were its undisputed champions.
In hindsight, it’s easy to forget how unlikely it seemed the Colts would survive the wild-card game against Kansas City — let alone topple New England in a classic AFC Championship Game, then vanquish Chicago during a Super Bowl monsoon in Miami.
Wasn’t supposed to happen, but it did.
At hand is a chance, in a sense, to repeat history.
Although Luck’s talent-challenged team of today is not Manning’s Pro Bowl-laced team of 2007, it has navigated its path to the AFC title game in similar fashion.
Inexplicably, a switch has flipped, and the postseason Colts don’t resemble the regular-season Colts. A month ago, they would have had no chance in Denver. Three weeks into the postseason, they’ve demonstrated they are one of the top four teams in the NFL — with a chance, still, to be the best.
They were not supposed to beat Manning. They are not supposed to beat Brady. In some circles they weren’t supposed to beat Cincinnati.
But in these playoffs, they’ve executed better than imagined and have, despite regular-season struggle after regular-season struggle, positioned themselves to do the unimaginable — beat Manning and Brady on successive weeks.
And, of course, go to the Super Bowl.
A wild stretch of the imagination, no doubt. But with Luck on their side, even the impossible is possible.
Just ask the Broncos.
Better yet, ask Peyton.