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Peyton Manning still has a Colt following, for now

From Indianapolis — The most-discussed NFL quarterback at the Super Bowl week is the one who isn’t here.

And might never be again.

Even as Tom Brady and Eli Manning prepare for Sunday’s showdown between the New England Patriots and New York Giants, the specter of Peyton Manning looms over this city, as do the questions about his future both with the Indianapolis Colts and in the NFL.

Manning, the league’s only four-time most valuable player, sat out this season after multiple neck surgeries, and speculation is rampant that his Hall of Fame career might be over. Already, his absence has sent shock waves through one of the most successful organizations in sports, leading to the stunning dismissal of celebrated personnel man Bill Polian and of coach Jim Caldwell.

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Now, with the top pick in the 2012 draft in hand and their focus almost surely on Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck, the Colts are faced with the gut-wrenching decision — a fait accompli by all appearances — of saying goodbye to the player who has defined them for the last 14 seasons.

Manning didn’t just lead the Colts to two Super Bowls, one of which they won, but he’s as much responsible for getting Lucas Oil Stadium built, and for the city winning the right to play host to Super Bowl XLVI.

Peyton Manning doesn’t just play for the Colts, in many ways he is the Colts.

“What he’s meant to the franchise and the things he’s done, the greatness of the success we’ve had for more than a decade, he played a huge role in that,” Colts owner Jim Irsay said.

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If the Colts were to keep Manning, they would have to pay him $28 million by March 8, which almost surely would make the Manning-Luck situation an either/or proposition.

Manning has kept largely out of sight during Super Bowl week so far, but in an interview Tuesday with ESPN, he said his doctors are confident he will be able to return.

“Everything they’re saying is, ‘Everything’s right on point, everything looks good,’ that I’ll be cleared and ready to go,” Manning said. “So that’s encouraging to me.”

That was in stark contrast to a report by Yahoo Sports earlier in the day that had unnamed sources saying Manning’s career is probably over. Citing “two league-affiliated doctors with experience in spinal fusion surgery,” the website said experts consider it too risky for Manning to play again and that it could take as long as a year for the quarterback to know whether a return was possible.

Still other reports have almost one-third of the league’s teams at least entertaining the possibility of signing Manning as a free agent. It’s a notion that rekindles the memory of Hall of Fame quarterbacks Joe Montana, Joe Namath and Johnny Unitas finishing their careers with franchises other than the ones where they achieved stardom.

The most recent example of a Canton-bound quarterback leaving to finish his career elsewhere is Brett Favre, who “retired” with the Green Bay Packers, only to tack on three extra years with the New York Jets and Minnesota Vikings.

“It’s a unique situation,” said Hall of Fame receiver Michael Irvin, now an NFL Network analyst. “People say it’s like what Brett went through in Green Bay, but this is different. They had such tradition before Brett got there.

“This is the sad part of the game. There’s no way that I have any desire to see Peyton Manning in any other uniform. I just don’t have any desire to see him orchestrate any other team besides the Colts.”

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That’s a sentiment shared by countless fans of the Colts, who with Manning at quarterback had a record seven seasons in a row with at least 12 victories. The team went 2-14 this season without him.

Even more, Manning and the success he brought helped transform Indianapolis from a place focused on basketball to as much of a football town as any in the NFL.

“We used to have blacked-out Sundays pretty regularly before Peyton arrived,” said Craig Huse, owner of the St. Elmo Steak House, a landmark restaurant in downtown Indianapolis. “That becomes this death spiral because you’re not building this fan base of kids watching it at home.

“Then when he came and turned it around, people follow winners. Everybody’s wearing jerseys. Before Peyton arrived, there would be maybe one in 20 people wearing Colts jerseys. Now you’re in the minority if you’re not wearing a jersey there. It’s unbelievable.”

Coming soon is a distinct possibility that many Colts fans will find even more unbelievable: Either Manning’s illustrious career is done — just like that — or it will continue somewhere else.

“At a young age you learn that it’s a business,” said former Patriots linebacker Willie McGinest, also an NFL Network analyst. “He has been with the Indianapolis Colts for 14 years. Any time you build a franchise around a player, the identity of that franchise — especially when he’s productive and as smart, the great leader and role model he’s been — it’s hard to identify anything but with that franchise…

“Until the next young gun comes in.”

sam.farmer@latimes.com

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