Though they probably would have liked the test, the revamped Houston Texans won't mind the four-time league MVP staying on the sidelines considering they could be without last year's leading rusher.
Hoping to begin a march towards an NFL-record 10th straight playoff appearances, the Colts open up their season at Reliant Stadium for the second straight year on Sunday, but will be without their biggest offensive weapon.
Manning has been under center for Indianapolis for every game since the franchise selected him with the first pick of the 1998 draft. His 208 straight starts in the regular season is the longest by any player to begin a career in NFL history.
The 10-time Pro Bowl selection and former Super Bowl MVP will be unable to go in the opener though as he continues to slowly recover from offseason neck surgery. Manning did not play at all in the preseason, but was activated from the physically unable to perform list on Aug. 29. The Colts said he experienced soreness in his back last weekend, and he was forced to miss practice after the soreness persisted.
A disappointed Manning said in a statement released by the team that "I am simply not healthy enough to play, and I am doing everything I can to get my health back."
Manning has not played since Indianapolis' 17-16 setback to the Jets on Jan. 9 in the opening round of the playoffs and will be replaced by 16-year veteran Kerry Collins, who retired on July 7 after playing in 195 career games, but was coaxed back by the Colts in late August to serve as insurance for Manning.
"I feel comfortable with the offense," Collins said. "I feel like I've come a long way in the short time since I've been here. I've really buckled down and grinded on it. Certainly I've got a lot to learn, but as far as my comfort level it's pretty high."
The 38-year-old Collins will be trying to get the Colts off to one of their customary fast starts as they have opened the season with at least seven straight victories four times since 2005. That does not include last year, however, when the Texans road a club record-setting performance from running back Arian Foster to post a 34-24 win at home.
That victory only fueled more thoughts of Houston making the playoffs for the first time in franchise history given it was coming off a club-record nine-win season, but the Texans lost eight of their final 10 games and finished just 6-10 on the season.
The NFL's reigning rushing champion, Foster is also dealing with an injury as he is day-to-day with a left hamstring injury that was aggravated in a preseason game on Aug. 20.
"Well, if Arian's full speed, he can play," said head coach Gary Kubiak. "We want him to play. We need to be at our best to win a football game, but at the same time, we've got to listen to what's going on."
With quarterback Matt Schaub and wide receiver Andre Johnson in the mix, the offense should be able to overcome a limited Foster. The defense could also catch a break on Sunday if Manning can't play as it makes its regular-season debut in the 3-4 scheme brought in by new defensive coordinator Wade Phillips.
Where the players line up isn't the only new thing on defense. Last year's embattled secondary features two big free agent acquisitions in cornerback Johnathan Joseph and free safety Danieal Manning, while sack machine Mario Williams will shift from end to outside linebacker in the new look.
The Texans are 4-5 all-time in season openers and haven't won back-to-back Week 1 games since 2002-03, while the Colts have captured 10 of their last 15 season openers.
Indianapolis has dominated the all-time series with Houston, having emerged victorious in 16 of the 18 games played between the divisional foes since the Texas entered the NFL as an expansion franchise in 2002. In addition to its previously noted win in last year's season-opener, Houston defeated the Colts by a 27-24 count at Reliant Stadium in 2006.
Kubiak is 2-8 against the Colts in his career during his tenure as the Texans' head coach, while Indianapolis' Jim Caldwell is 3-1 against both Kubiak and Houston as a head man.
WHEN THE COLTS HAVE THE BALL
Prolific offenses are nothing new to Indianapolis, but things could get off to a different pace this year with Manning (4700 passing yards, 33 TD, 17 INT) unable to go. Collins (1823 passing yards, 14 TD, 8 INT with Titans) certainly brings experience to the role, but will need to quickly mesh with the Colts' receivers. One of those is tight end Dallas Clark (37 receptions, 3 TD), who missed the final 10 games of the regular season and also the playoffs because of a wrist injury. The Colts still finished with the top passing offense last year despite missing Clark and was fourth in points scored. A plethora of healthy wide receivers contributed to that, including No. 1 Reggie Wayne, who set career highs with 111 receptions and 1,355 yards. Concussion problems for Austin Collie (58 receptions, 8 TD) led to more playing time for Pierre Garcon (67 receptions, 6 TD). Indianapolis' high-powered passing game and injuries led to a down season for Joseph Addai (495 rushing). Though talented veteran center Jeff Saturday remains the offensive line's anchor, the Texans could challenge starting left tackle Anthony Castonzo, a rookie out of Boston College.
Kubiak and Phillips are overhauling a defense that ranked 30th overall in the league a season ago, including dead-last when defending the pass. The additions of Joseph (42 tackles, 3 INT with Bengals) and Danieal Manning (72 tackles, 1 INT) should help, especially by adding some experience to the young secondary. Joseph's fellow starter at corner is second-year man Kareem Jackson (71 tackles, 2 INT), while 25-year-old Glover Quinn (85 tackles, 3 INT) begins his third NFL season by making the shift from corner to safety. Phillips' defense will also have the advantage of beginning the season with both DeMeco Ryans and Brian Cushing together on the field. Cushing (76 tackles, 1.5 sacks) missed the first four games a year ago due to a suspension. Ryans (54 tackles, 1 sack), meanwhile, missed the final 10 games of the season after the former Defensive Rookie of the Year suffered an Achilles injury. Williams (28 tackles, 8.5 sacks) will now be chasing down quarterbacks from the weak side next to Ryans, while 2011 first-round pick J.J. Watt draws a start on the line.
WHEN THE TEXANS HAVE THE BALL
The Texans return most of their core from last year's explosive offensive team that finished third overall in 2011. Foster (1,616 rushing yards, 66 receptions, 18 total TD) was the biggest surprise as his league-leading rushing yard total was the most ever by an undrafted player. The Pro Bowler will be without his starting full back from last year in Vonta Leach, who left via free agency, with converted tight end James Casey expected to get the start. Houston also has one of the top passing duos in Schaub (4370 passing yards, 24 TD, 12 INT) and Johnson (86 receptions, 1216 yards, 8 TD). With the Colts likely to focus a lot of energy on the Texas' top receiver, wideout Kevin Walter (51 receptions, 5 TD) and tight end Owen Daniels could find room on the field. Daniels (38 receptions, 2 TD) had a breakout year in 2008, but a knee injury has slowed him the past two seasons.
Injuries also ravaged the Colts' defense a year ago and the club parted way with oft-hurt safety Bob Sanders while also losing linebacker Clint Session and safeties Aaron Francisco and Ken Hamlin go. They still have a terrorizing duo to get in the face of Schaub, with defensive ends Dwight Freeney (25 tackles) and Robert Mathis (60 tackles) combining for 21 sacks a season ago. Still, Indianapolis ranked 20th overall on defense and 23rd in scoring, so some changes were made. Linebackers Ernie Sims (55 tackles, 2 sacks) and defensive end Jamaal Anderson (21 tackles, 2 sacks) were brought in for depth, while but it is steady vet Gary Brackett (74 tackles) who remains in the middle at the linebacker position. Safety Melvin Bullitt (13 tackles, 1 INT) returns after missing all but four games last year due to a shoulder injury, while Jacob Lacey (64 tackles, 1 INT) and Jerraud Powers (53 tackles, 2 INT) will be tasked with keeping an eye on Johnson.
KEYS TO THE GAME
Can the Colts shut down Foster this season? The Houston back rushed for a team-record 231 yards in last season's opener to get his incredible campaign off and running and added another 167 total yards and a score in the Week 8 loss at Indy. Foster's hamstring could make that past success moot however.
Expectations won't taper off even without Manning, so Collins will need to quickly step his game up. The veteran has been through the trenches and has played in a Super Bowl, but hasn't had a lot of time to prepare for this start. Mix in a Williams-led attack and it could be a long day for Collins if he doesn't get help from his blockers.
Even against Collins, who is familiar with Houston having spent time with the Titans, the Texans will have no chance at their first playoff berth if the secondary doesn't improve. That starts in Week 1 and the likes of Joseph and Danieal Manning will be counted on early and often. A healthy Ryans will help the defense all around, but so will solid coverage.
The Colts appear to be heading into unfamiliar territory without Manning and that is bad news against a Texans club that is ready to show the NFL it is a playoff-ready team. Houston's biggest disadvantage was its secondary and it was still able to win a shootout at home over Indianapolis a season ago. The Colts have long been a thorn in the Texans' side, but no Manning will leave them on their heels a bit in this one.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Texans 28, Colts 17