By MICHAEL MAROT
AP Sports Writer
INDIANAPOLIS -- The Indianapolis Colts have relied on Peyton Manning's talented right arm for a decade.
This year's Super Bowl hopes may now rest on Manning's repaired left knee.
It's an unusual start to the 2008 season for the 32-year-old quarterback who has never missed a regular-season or playoff game. And for the only NFL team with six straight playoff appearances.
Manning had surgery to remove an infected bursa sac from his knee July 14 and was kept out of public view until mid-August, leaving many to wonder whether he would be ready to open the season against Chicago on Sept. 7. So far, there's been no definitive answer.
"It's really been a challenge for me, something totally different than I've ever had to experience," Manning said. "It has not been a pain-free process. I'd be lying if I said that. But that is my goal, to be ready for that first game."
Playing without Manning for a week or two might not seem too bad.
But in the AFC, one or two losses could be the difference between staying home in the playoffs or going on the road. The conference is loaded with Super Bowl contenders like New England, Pittsburgh and San Diego, and Jacksonville is trying to break the Colts' stranglehold in the AFC South.
Since arriving in 1998, Manning has led the Colts to the playoffs eight times and produced league records with five straight 12-win seasons and three straight 7-0 starts. The Colts also have won five straight division crowns, and, oh yeah, one Super Bowl title.
So what happens if the two-time league MVP and one-time Super Bowl MVP isn't ready to start the season? Manning's longtime backup, Jim Sorgi, would likely get the call.
While the public perception is that the Colts would struggle, Sorgi's teammates and coaches believe they can survive.
"We're very confident in his ability," middle linebacker Gary Brackett said of Sorgi. "If Peyton's not out there, Jim has to step up. In this game, you're going to have injuries and you have to deal with them."
The Colts at least are experienced in overcoming similar obstacles.
When former league sacks champion Dwight Freeney and record-setting receiver Marvin Harrison missed the final seven games last season, the Colts responded by winning six straight. In 2006, when Indy lost both projected starting defensive tackles for the season, it wound up winning its first Super Bowl title since moving to town in 1984.
This time could be different.
Manning has started all 174 games, including playoffs, during his first 10 NFL seasons, and team owner Jim Irsay said he doesn't want to rush Manning back before he's ready. Irsay also acknowledged it may be difficult for Manning to be completely healthy for the opener.
"I think it will be close," Irsay said. "I just told him, 'I want to make sure you feel 100 percent and you're ready to go because it's a long season.' With the human body, you just don't know for sure. But we're hopeful that he'll be able to go."
Manning is the biggest question heading into the season, but not the only one.
Freeney and Bob Sanders sat out the team's three-week stay in Terre Haute, Ind., before returning to practice. Freeney had season-ending foot surgery in November, and Sanders, last year's NFL defensive player of the year, had offseason shoulder surgery.
Harrison, who missed most of last year with a left knee injury and had offseason surgery on his right knee, has looked like himself as he nears his 36th birthday.
But coach Tony Dungy also has 10 of 11 defensive starters back from a unit that allowed the NFL's fewest points (262). Only outside linebacker Tyjuan Hagler, who tore a pectoral muscle while lifting weights in the offseason, is not expected to start on opening day. He could be out until October.
The continuity, coupled with Manning's injury, has raised the stakes for the defense.
"We had some success last season and our goal is to get even better," Brackett said. "When you look at the tape, there are a lot of things we could have cleaned up last year."
Whoever starts at quarterback against the Bears will still have an array of options.
Reggie Wayne wants to improve on his career-high 104 receptions and league-high 1,510 yards from last season, and Harrison hopes to return to the record-setting form that sent him to eight consecutive Pro Bowls. Also back are tight end Dallas Clark and four of last year's starting linemen, although left guard Ryan Lilja remains on the physically unable to perform list.
Joseph Addai played in his first Pro Bowl in February. The Colts also added depth at running back, bringing back Dominic Rhodes, who teamed with Addai for the Super Bowl run.
So Dungy believes the offense should be just as efficient -- with or without Manning.
"Everybody can say, 'Oh, if Peyton Manning isn't playing, the Colts are going to be a .500 team,"' Dungy said. "I don't think anybody here believes that. Is it easier to win without Peyton? No. It's going to be tougher."
Meaning the questions surrounding Manning loom even larger if the Colts plan on returning to the Super Bowl.
"Certainly, all along, that has been our goal, to try and get back onto the field in order to play the first game," Manning said. "It just depends on how everything goes from here on out. Obviously, the sooner, the better for me."