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Manning hopes to play in season-opener; Sanders, Freeney practice

INDIANAPOLIS -- Peyton Manning proved Tuesday he can stand, walk and talk.

Next question: Will the two-time league MVP start in the Colts' season opener?

Manning made it to his first practice of the season Tuesday, then ended his self-imposed silence by saying he wanted to play in Indianapolis' first regular-season game Sept. 7 against Chicago -- although he couldn't provide a guarantee.

"I've not really had a whole lot to say to tell you the truth," he said. "As to when I'll be back on the practice field, that's still to be determined. Obviously, the sooner, the better for me. My goal is to be back for the first game."

Indy's franchise quarterback had been kept out of public view since having surgery to remove an infected bursa sac from his left knee July 14. Team officials said he was staying away to reduce the risk of another infection.

Things began changing Monday night when the former Super Bowl MVP arrived at the PeyBack Foundation's charity bowling event, which was closed to the media.

Over the past couple of weeks, local radio talk shows have been filled with questions about whether Manning's knee was worse than originally diagnosed and whether he might miss the season opener -- or additional games -- and a local television station showed an apparent photo of Manning at the bowling tournament Monday with a brace over his right knee.

By Tuesday morning, Manning was back at practice in his familiar No. 18 jersey, minus a helmet or pads, and wearing a wrap around his left knee. He threw a few passes but spent most of the time chatting with team owner Jim Irsay and coach Tony Dungy at the new Lucas Oil Stadium.

Afterward, Manning took questions for the first time since a conference call July 24, the date his teammates reported to training camp, and he wasted no time in dismissing the growing speculation.

"This, maybe, will stop some of the whining going on," he said. "I just didn't want to get into these daily progress reports. I've done nothing but rehab, I guess we're sort of in the rumor mill now. I don't wear a knee brace, I wore this (wrap) today, really for the first time.

"If we're to the point of someone putting a cell phone picture on the news, that's a little disappointing. So I guess, I'll squash that right now, it's not true. I don't wear a knee brace."

Throughout Manning's absence, team officials have repeatedly said Manning's rehabilitation is on schedule. He was expected to miss four to six weeks, and Dungy believes Manning could be practicing by next week.

The time table remains uncertain, though, and Dungy could not assure fans that Manning would be ready to face the Bears.

"I don't think we can guarantee that," Dungy said. "I don't know if any of those (injured) guys will be out there on the 7th, but my guess is they will be."

Irsay doesn't want to take any chances with his prized player.

After drafting Manning with the No. 1 pick in 1998, Irsay has watched Manning start all 160 regular-season games and 14 straight playoff games, leading the Colts to eight playoff appearances and a Super Bowl title following the 2006 season.

If it means Manning would get healthier by taking the first week off and ending the NFL's second-longest streak for consecutive starts by a quarterback, Irsay implied Manning would sit out.

Getting Manning back wasn't the only pleasant sight for Dungy.

Bob Sanders, last year's defensive player of the year, and three-time Pro Bowl defensive end Dwight Freeney were in pads for the first time Tuesday.

Sanders had offseason shoulder surgery for the second straight year, and Freeney hadn't practiced since undergoing season-ending foot surgery in November. The return was a welcome respite for Indy's two defensive leaders, who were limited to personal workouts during the team's training camp in Terre Haute, Ind.

"I should definitely be ready in three weeks," Freeney said. "I think I'm close (to 100 percent). I'm definitely good enough to compete and play."

Freeney said he hadn't missed this much time on a football field since high school.

Sanders, however, has shown little negative impact from sitting out.

He has missed most of training camp in three of his five NFL seasons, and last year was regularly held out of the Colts' midweek practices. Sanders responded by starting a career-high 15 games and becoming the first Colts' player to win the league's top defensive award.

"It's great to be running around with my teammates instead of standing around wishing you were out there," he said. "Rehabbing is something I'll have to continue to do throughout my career. What's important is to continue to use that time to make sure you're mentally sharp."

Just like Manning, however long it is until he starts throwing touchdown passes.

"This has been a new process for me, and it's not been the most enjoyable process," Manning said. "I can throw. I have been able to keep my arm in shape. I can certainly lift weights with my upper body, and my lower body, so I feel I've been able to stay with my strength level. As far as when, and how much time I need, we'll just have to kind of wait and see."

Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press

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