Tom Brady and Peyton Manning are the two best quarterbacks the NFL has seen in the past 20 years. Imagine if they spent the majority of their respective careers playing in the same division.

Had Bill Parcells approached the 1997 NFL Draft differently, that might have been the case.

As Dom Consentino explained in a piece for Deadspin on Friday, Parcells’ New York Jets owned the No. 1 pick in 1997 after going a miserable 1-15 the previous season. At the time, Manning was a college superstar mulling whether he wanted to return to Tennessee for his senior season. Had Manning chosen to enter the draft, the Jets surely would have nabbed him first overall.

Or would they have?

Quoting several news stories from the past two decades, Consentino illustrated how Parcells never gave Manning’s camp confirmation that the QB would be their pick — and how that lack of certainty might have prompted Manning to stay in school.

“As obvious as it seems now, in hindsight, that Parcells was going to take Manning and place the Jets on a path to prosperity, Parcells never articulated his intentions to Manning’s camp — and that reticence may have influenced Manning into staying,” Consentino wrote.

Twenty years later, the Jets still are searching both for a franchise quarterback and for an extended run of success. They’ve reached the AFC Championship Game three times since 1997 — once with Vinny Testaverde in 1998 and twice with Mark Sanchez in 2009 and 2010 — but lost all three. In 13 of those 20 seasons, including each of the last six, they missed the playoffs altogether.

It’s fascinating to imagine how the Jets drafting Manning would have altered NFL history. With Manning under center for him, maybe Parcells lasts more than three seasons as Jets coach before stepping down. Maybe his top assistant in New York, a guy named Bill Belichick, isn’t promoted to head coach in 1999 — a job Belichick held for about five minutes before famously resigning as “HC of the NYJ.”

Maybe Belichick chooses to stay on Parcells’ staff for another season rather than jumping ship to New England, where, in his first draft as Patriots head coach, he selected Brady in the sixth round.

And even if Belichick and Brady did arrive in Foxboro when they did, would they have enjoyed the same reign of dominance if they had to face Manning twice each season? Would they have won 14 AFC East titles since 2001 to the Jets’ one?

At the very least, Jets fans wouldn’t have had to spend the last 20 years watching Chad Pennington get injured and Sanchez toss interceptions. New York’s unfortunate trend of shoddy QB play is likely to continue this season, too, as its current depth chart consists of Josh McCown, Bryce Petty and Christian Hackenberg.

Thumbnail photo via Brad Penner/USA TODAY Sports Images