Jim HarbaughHalfway through the frenzied Peyton Manning free agency saga, Manning stopped in Raleigh, NC to work out with David Cutcliffe—his mentor and former offensive coordinator at Tennessee. Discretion was critical because Manning’s travel itinerary was more scrutinized then Santa’s on Christmas Eve. No wonder Jim Harbaugh and Greg Roman—San Francisco’s head coach and offensive coordinator—crept onto Duke’s practice field like cat burglars in hoodies trying to steal the greatest treasure in free agent history.

The ploy didn’t work…but what if it had?

Without Manning, San Francisco earned the No. 2 seed and a first round bye in the playoffs behind an 11-4-1 record. The offense ranked 11th overall, outdueling superior offenses like Green Bay (30-22, Week 1), New Orleans (31-21, Week 12) and New England (41-34, Week 15).

But the 49ers passing game only ranked 23rd in yards and 16th in scoring. Alex Smith and Colin Kaepernick were both stifled against tougher defenses like the Giants (3-26, Week 6), Seattle (13-6, Week 7, 13-42, Week 16) and St. Louis (13-16, Week 13).

With Manning, the 2012 49ers would have overshadowed the franchise’s greatest Joe Montana and Steve Young-led teams. With a better defense, running attack and a comparable offensive line, this team could have smashed the notion that the age of championship dynasties is in the rear view mirror.

With Matt Flynn already signed in Seattle, Denver’s Plan B would have been trading ahead of Cleveland in the first round of the 2012 draft to take Brandon Weeden. Owner Pat Bowlen’s private jet was already in Stillwater, OK, when it was scrambled to scoop up Manning in Miami after Indianapolis released him.

With an established running game and an improving defense under John Fox and Jack Del Rio, Weeden and the Broncos probably would have matched 2011’s 8-8 effort. As Kansas City (2-14), Oakland (4-12) and San Diego (7-9) demonstrated: average is enough to win the destitute AFC West for the second straight season.

Oh, and what about Tim Tebow? What about Tim Tebow. Denver GM John Elway never committed to him even in the midst of the fortune-turning six-game winning streak because he knew the read-option offense was not a recipe for success outside of college. After a two year run Off-Broadway to mixed reviews, the Tebow follies would have been shipped off to New York regardless.

It’s debatable whether a head coach as arrogant as Jim Harbaugh would have clashed with Manning who has essentially been his own offensive coordinator since he entered the league. Barring this possible setback, the 49ers would have been the biggest threat to the “unforgotten” 1972 Miami Dolphins since the 2007 New England Patriots.