Keeping Score

NFL Kickoff: What The World Was Like Without Peyton Manning

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Joe Robbins / Getty Images

Peyton Manning of the Indianapolis Colts looks on during the first half of an NFL preseason game against the Green Bay Packers at Lucas Oil Stadium on August 26, 2011

Peyton Manning will not be playing quarterback for the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday. Say it again: Peyton Manning will not be playing quarterback for the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday. Weird, right?

In fact, Manning might not be playing quarterback for the Indianapolis Colts on many future Sundays. He may even miss the entire season. On Thursday, Manning underwent further surgery for his injured neck, his third in 19 months. Colts owner Jim Irsay said Manning will be out for “awhile.”

Still, even without the game’s marquee QB, there’s plenty to look forward to this NFL season. First of all, there’s a season! During the tortuous 136-day work stoppage this spring and summer, missed games seemed like a possibility.

And take the Philadelphia Eagles, for example. When new Philadelphia backup quarterback Vince Young noted that the Eagles looked like a “Dream Team,” the media had itself a headline. But Young wasn’t bragging. What football fans wouldn’t dream that their team mimic Philly in the free agency.  The Eagles signed one of the best defensive backs in football (Nnamdi Asomugha), beefed up their defensive line (by grabbing Cullen Jenkins and Jason Babin), and added a reliable receiver (Steve Smith). On top of that, Philadelphia traded for another talented defensive back, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. On paper, the Eagles look like the team to beat. But can quarterback Michael Vick, who looked shaky at the end of last season, return to his top form?

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Don’t hand Philly the NFC crown. After all, Green Bay won last year’s Super Bowl, and has most of its team intact. In a condensed off-season, that familiarity could prove advantageous – the short training time may drag down a free agent-heavy team like the Eagles. Plus, Aaron Rodgers is a modern-day Joe Montana.

Over in the AFC, Bill Belichick is playing mad-scientist again. He acquired two players, defensive lineman Albert Haynesworth and wide receiver Chad Ochocinco, who have had trouble controlling their egos. And New England’s system requires that all baggage be checked.

With Peyton gone, what AFC South team will seize its chance to win the division, something the Colts have done seven of the last nine years? The Houston Texas are always a preseason darling, oh-so-close to breaking through. Then they wind up stinking. Can this year be different? The Pittsburgh Steelers, much like their Super Bowl XLV opponent, are returning most of their starters. So they’re a threat. The San Diego Chargers, with prolific passer Philip Rivers, are always a juicy bet. But they have this irritating habit of starting the season slow, and trying to play catch up.

Will Heisman trophy winner Cam Newton be the real deal in Carolina? The New Orleans Saints, the Super Bowl champs two years ago, still have Drew Brees. Last season, Michael Vick took a job away from Kevin Kolb in Philadelphia. Now, Kolb gets his chance in Arizona, which plays in a division, the NFC West, that anybody can win. Even a losing team – the Seattle Seahawks, at 7-9, were last year’s champs.

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Look, the NFL always has compelling story lines. There’s a reason why television viewership is at an all-time high. But on this opening weekend, it’s all about Peyton. His streak of games started – 227, including the playoffs, trails only Brett Favre’s for the longest in NFL history, 321 (and no, Favre is not playing this season, at least not yet). We should appreciate it, especially since a lot of beefy men receive beefy paychecks in order to put him out of commission. Jim Harbaugh, coach of the San Francisco 49ers, was the last quarterback not named Peyton Manning to start a regular season game for the Indianapolis Colts. That as on December 21, 1997. Or, to put it differently:

  1. Mark Zuckerberg just had his bar mitzvah.
  2. Barack Obama, a constitutional law lecturer at the University of Chicago, was serving his first term in the Illinois State Senate.
  3. After 12 years away, Steve Jobs was just named CEO of Apple.
  4. For the year, the Dow was up 23% (this year, it’s down 2.5%).
  5. The unemployment rate was 4.7% (now, it’s 9.1%).
  6. A website called the Drudge Report launched. A few weeks after that Colts game, it broke the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
  7. Time Digital named its “Machine of the Year” – the Toshiba Libretto.
  8. Time Digital also offered its readers a bit of advice, entitling one article “How To Send a Video Email.” The quaint introduction reads: “A text only e-mail can seem so cold, so terse, so impersonal. Why not put a face with a name? There are several ways to ship video clips through cyberspace, and you don’t have to be a hard-core techie to do it” Step 2: “You’ll need a way to capture video and put it on your PC. The least expensive route is to buy one of the all-in-one Internet video camera kits.” Those sound like a blast to shop for.

Get well soon, Peyton. This weirdness is a bit tough to take.

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Sean Gregory is a staff writer at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @seanmgregory. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.