But there's game-changing, and then there's what is now known in football lexicon as the Colt McCoy doomsday scenario -- the possibility of an almost unthinkable, catastrophic injury unfolding just minutes into a championship game, casting a pall over everything and altering the game's entire outcome.
You know what we're thinking. The biggest "What If?'' of all. Not to jinx or wish ill will on anyone, but imagine the reverberations of the Colts losing Peyton Manning or the Saints losing Drew Brees to injury just five snaps into the Super Bowl, like the Texas Longhorns did their senior quarterback, McCoy, in last month's BCS National Championship Game against Alabama at the Rose Bowl.
Advantage who? We're talking about Manning and Brees, the top two vote-getters in this year's MVP balloting.
"Oh, it'd be over if Peyton went down early,'' Broncos' Pro Bowl cornerback Champ Bailey told me late Sunday night, after helping the AFC win the league's all-star game at Sun Life Stadium. "The Colts would be done. The only good thing about it for the Saints if Brees went down, at least they've got [Mark] Brunell, with his experience. But if Peyton goes down, my gosh. I don't care who's behind him. That's a big drop-off."
Jets fans and trivia experts know, of course, that rookie Curtis Painter is Manning's backup in the Super Bowl, what with Manning's longtime caddy, Jim Sorgi, out for the season with a shoulder injury. All in all, Painter is pretty much the NFL's version of Garrett Gilbert, the University of Texas freshman the Longhorns had to unexpectedly turn to once McCoy suffered his own shoulder injury on the first drive of the game against Alabama.
The thought of seeing this year's glamour Super Bowl matchup being turned into a duel between the untested Painter and Brees (or Manning vs. Brunell for that matter) seems almost cruel to even consider, let alone watch play out. But that's one natural outgrowth of having witnessed the disaster that befell Texas and McCoy early on against the Crimson Tide. Could it happen in the Super Bowl, on the game of football's grandest stage?
"You're always trying to stay the course, no matter what happens out there, because you can't get down when something like that happens,'' Bailey said. "There's a next-man-up mentality in this game. But if there's one team that it would take the wind out of to lose their quarterback, it's the Colts. There's going to be at least half the guys on that team that doubt they've got a chance to win at that point. They might not admit it, but they will.''
Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis is one of the few NFL defenders who actually faced both Manning and Painter in the same regular season game this year. It was the Colts' decision to pull Manning and other key starters against the Jets at home in Week 16 -- inserting Painter -- that led to Indy's first loss of the season and set off a firestorm of controversy. In his two games of relief action this season, Painter completed 8 of 28 passes, for 83 yards, with two interceptions, two fumbles lost, and a microscopic 9.8 passer rating. And no, those are not typos.
"Peyton Manning and Drew Brees are the heart and souls of their teams,'' Revis said after the Pro Bowl. "Just like Colt McCoy was a big part of that Texas offense and the heart of that team. It'd be a big, big, huge drop-off. When we played the Colts in the regular season and they pulled Peyton and put Painter in, you could just see the drop-off and where that team would be without Manning.
"No disrespect to Curtis Painter. It's just the honesty of the situation. It shows you how great Peyton Manning and Drew Brees are, and even how great Colt McCoy is, with him going out in that national championship game. They really had no offense for a while. The freshman came in and stepped up as much as he could, but that's just too much pressure on him in a game like that.''
The loss of Manning might set the bar for in-game catastrophe, but the Saints losing Brees wouldn't be pretty either. Brunell is 39, the second oldest quarterback in the NFL behind Brett Favre, and until he started a Week 17 loss at Carolina, losing 23-10, he hadn't opened a regular season game since 2006 with Washington. Brunell was 15 of 28 for 102 yards and an interception against the Panthers, and for the most part he's an immobile shell of the quarterback who helped lead the Jacksonville Jaguars to a pair of AFC title games in the second half of the 1990s.
Now in his 17th season, Brunell would clearly have a huge edge over Painter in terms of experience, but it's fairly rare to have a backup quarterback play for any length of time in the Super Bowl. The exceptions:
• Johnny Unitas relieving the turnover-prone Earl Morrall in the second half of Super Bowl III (the Colts lost to the Jets)• Morrall returning the favor two years later, replacing the injured Unitas in the second quarter against the Cowboys (the Colts beat Dallas)• Some significant minutes for Buffalo's Frank Reich in place of the injured Jim Kelly in the Bills' first blowout loss against Dallas in January 1993• Steve Grogan taking over for the ineffective Tony Eason in New England's 1986 loss to Chicago.
Former Bengals quarterback Boomer Esiason, himself a onetime Super Bowl starter and now an analyst for CBS, fairly well shudders at the thought of a XLIV matchup without Manning or Brees for any meaningful portion of the game.
"The only doomsday scenario for any team in this game would be to lose your quarterback early,'' Esiason said Sunday night, before calling the Pro Bowl for CBS radio. "Can you imagine if this game lost one of the two quarterbacks? What a downer that would be. It would ruin everyone's expectations for what we think is going to be a really great Super Bowl.
"If anybody else goes out early, the teams would pick up and move on with them. Even with the big thing for Indianapolis right now being whether Dwight Freeney will be 100 percent or not, it's not the same. The Saints chances would go way up without Freeney, because him and (fellow defensive end) Robert Mathis are so powerful. But I don't know what we'd do if Manning or Brees went down.''
I made sure to seek out one particular Pro Bowl player Sunday night who happened to be a very interested eyewitness on the University of Texas sidelines the night McCoy got knocked out of the national championship game almost before it even started. Former Longhorn and now Tennessee Titan quarterback Vince Young was in Pasadena that night, and saw the wind instantly leave UT's sails when college football's all-time winningest quarterback left with a pinched nerve in his throwing shoulder.
"I was excited being out there that night, but I was definitely hurt about (McCoy) getting hurt like that,'' Young said. "I was proud of him that he came back out to be with his team and support Gilbert after getting hurt. But I don't wish that kind of situation on anyone.
"You want to see guys out there doing what they do and leading their team to victory, like they've been doing all season. When you lose guys like that, that lead your team, that's big. It'd change your whole playbook around and make you do a lot of different things in the game compared to what you were planning to do.''
The odds are none of this pre-emptive hand-ringing leads to anything, of course. Manning is one of the NFL's all-time ironmen, having never missed a start in his 12-year career (209 games including playoffs). That's the league's second-longest streak ever for a quarterback (trailing only Favre), and the longest by anyone to begin a career. As for Brees, until sitting out in Week 17 for precautionary reasons, he had a 79-game consecutive starting streak, which was the fourth-longest active streak in the league by a quarterback.
But we know Manning and Brees will start the game. It's the surprise injury during the game that could always turn this dream Super Bowl pairing upside down in an instant. That's the lesson that lingers in memory from this year's national title game and the Colt McCoy doomsday scenario. With the freshman Gilbert in the game, Texas sputtered horribly, before actually making a game of it in the fourth quarter. But the Longhorns did lose 37-21, and somehow their fate seemed sealed the moment McCoy left the field.
Could history repeat itself in this year's Super Bowl?
"There's never been a guy getting hurt like McCoy in the first quarter of a Super Bowl, right off the bat,'' Esiason said. "That would be an awful scenario. Nobody, and I mean nobody, would know what to do with that. We would have just talked about both quarterbacks on CBS for six hours before the game even started. What would we do then?''