- Associated Press - Monday, September 5, 2011

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) - The unthinkable suddenly seems possible in Indianapolis _ opening the season without Peyton Manning.

The four-time league-MVP who has never missed a start in his NFL career is doubtful for Sunday’s game at Houston because of lingering soreness in his back following offseason neck surgery. If Manning sits, it would be the first time the NFL’s active iron man missed a meaningful game after 227 consecutive starts including the playoffs.

“I hate it for Peyton,” said Pro Bowl center Jeff Saturday, one of Manning’s closest friends. “You want him to be healthy, you want him to be back, but you want him to take care of it, too. It’s sad when players face tough times, but I know he’s strong enough to get through it.”

The question is whether the Colts can survive without their franchise quarterback, whose streak stands second in NFL history to Brett Favre’s among all QBs.

Team officials have not said how much longer it could take Manning to recover, leaving that decision to Manning and his doctors.

Over the years, life without Manning has been pretty dismal.

The only time he missed a regular-season snap because of injury, against Miami in 2001, backup Mark Rypien fumbled. The Dolphins recovered, then drove 59 yards for the winning score. Manning returned on the next series with a bloody mouth. He was later diagnosed with a hairline fracture in his jaw.

On the rare occasions when Manning has played sparingly, in the preseason and meaningless late-season games, the Colts have not fared much better.

The goal now is to change that trend.

“If anything, we want to go out there and step it up,” Pro Bowl safety Antoine Bethea said. “Of course it will be different (without Manning), but it’s one of those things that if it happens, everybody else has to step up. It’s next man up.”

That’s been true at every position but one over the past 13 years in Indy. And now the Colts’ longtime mantra will be put to its most challenging test.

Manning had surgery to repair a nerve May 23, but the recovery has taken longer than the expected six to eight weeks that would have put back on the field for the start of training camp. Instead, Manning started camp on the physically unable to perform list and wasn’t activated till last Monday.

He did limited work at practice last week, which led to complaints about back pain. The team issued a statement Monday saying that team doctors re-evaluated Manning over the weekend and instructed him to stop practicing while he undergoes more tests.

No additional surgery has been scheduled.

“At the conclusion of the diagnostic process, if there are any new developments in the prognosis which we outlined for Peyton at the start of training camp we will report them,” the statement said. “As of now, Peyton continues to deal with a complicated neurological recovery, the end date of which is unpredictable.”

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