INDIANAPOLIS (WFAN/AP) — Peyton Manning forever will be thought of in Indianapolis as No. 18, the quarterback who led the Colts to an NFL championship.

He’ll be remembered, too, for his record four MVP awards, his 50,000 yards passing and his 200 consecutive starts. Most of all, Manning will be the guy in the horseshoe helmet who turned around a franchise and transformed a basketball-loving city into a football hotbed that hosted Peyton’s younger brother, Eli, in this year’s Super Bowl.

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Despite all of that, the Colts will release the 35-year-old Manning rather than pay him a $28 million bonus. Owner Jim Irsay announced the move during a news conference Wednesday.

“He’s always part of the horseshoe,” Irsay said. “You know, I can’t thank him enough.”

Both men paused frequently, fighting tears and their voices shaking, when they appeared together at the Colts’ team complex.

“This has not been easy for Jim,” Manning said, “and this has certainly not been easy for me.”

While the Colts are widely expected to begin moving on by taking Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck with the No. 1 overall pick in April’s draft, Manning will become a free agent — and, if healthy, certainly will draw interest from other teams.

“Times change,” said an emotional Manning. “Circumstances change. And that’s the reality of playing in the NFL.”

Arizona, Miami, Tennessee, Washington and the Jets all have been rumored as possible destinations; Manning’s former offensive coordinator in Indianapolis, Tom Moore, worked for New York as a consultant last season.

“I haven’t thought yet about where I’ll play,” said Manning. “But I’ve thought about where I’ve been — and I’ve truly been blessed.”

There have been “serious internal discussions” about Manning within the Jets organization, the New York Daily News reported Wednesday. The New York Post said Gang Green will “definitely will explore the possibility” of signing the longtime Colts quarterback.

And interest, though reportedly mixed, seems to extend beyond the Jets’ front office. “I want him in New York,” one unnamed Jets player told the Daily News. “He needs to be a Jet.”

Manning said his goal was to play his entire career with the Colts, but a damaged nerve that forced him to have neck surgery kept him out of action for all of 2011, and not coincidentally, his team’s record plummeted to 2-14.

“To Colts fans everywhere, thank you very much from the bottom of my heart,” Manning said. “I truly have enjoyed being your quarterback.”

With the bonus payment due Thursday, the neck problems, and the fact that the Colts figure they can rebuild behind Luck, Irsay deemed it too risky to keep the franchise quarterback.

“In the end those circumstances were too difficult to overcome,” Irsay said.

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Wednesday’s announcement marked the end of a remarkably successful era.

He started every meaningful game for 13 seasons in Indianapolis — 227 in a row, including the playoffs — and took the Colts from perennial also-ran to one of the NFL’s model franchises and the 2006 Super Bowl title.

“The 18 jersey will never be worn again by a Colt on the field,” said Irsay.

In the two decades predating his arrival, the Colts won 116 games, one division title and made the playoffs three times. With Manning taking snaps, the Colts have won 150 games, eight division titles, two AFC championships and the franchise’s first league championship since moving from Baltimore in 1984.

Indianapolis broke the NFL record for most regular-season wins in a decade (115), and tied Dallas’ mark for most consecutive playoff appearances (nine).

Manning is one of four players with more than 50,000 yards passing, one of three with more than 350 TD tosses, and one of two quarterbacks with more than 200 starts in a row. He broke all of the franchise’s major career passing records, previously held by Hall of Fame quarterback John Unitas.

In 2009, Manning led the Colts to the cusp of NFL history with a 14-0 start, fueling talk of an unbeaten season.

But it’s been mostly bad news ever since.

The Colts pulled their starters against the Jets and lost the final two games that season. Indy then wound up losing to New Orleans in the Super Bowl. During the offseason, Manning had the first of his neck operations.

Then, after making an early playoff exit in the 2010 season, Manning underwent another neck surgery to repair a damaged nerve that was causing weakness in his throwing arm.

When the nerve did not heal as quickly as expected, Manning had two vertebrae fused in September, an operation that forced him to miss a game for the first time in his NFL career. There are still questions about the strength of Manning’s arm.

Still, he has insisted he intends to play football next season.

“It’ll always be Colt,” Manning said. “That’ll never change.”

Where do you think Manning will play next? Sound off in the comments below…

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