INDIANAPOLIS — Peyton Manning has always been there to bail out the Indianapolis Colts.
Not this time.
Indy's franchise quarterback is shut down for at least two months and possibly the entire season after another neck surgery, and that means his teammates will have to find a way to rebound from the embarrassing 34-7 loss to Houston that opened the season on Sunday.
"It's too early to say, 'Let's pack up and go home,'" middle linebacker Gary Brackett said. "This team has a lot of fight in it, and I think we still fought even though the score was lopsided. Guys didn't necessarily give up yesterday, so I think that's what you've got to do. Despite the circumstances, we've still got to fight through it."
Many wonder if this is what Colts football will look like in 2011 without the four-time league MVP who started 227 consecutive games before Sunday.
Without Manning, Indianapolis looked lost.
Kerry Collins, Manning's replacement, gave away two fumbles deep inside Indy territory in the first quarter. Houston converted both miscues into quick touchdowns in taking a 17-0 lead.
Indy spent much of the game calling plays in the huddle, something they rarely did with Manning in charge. And the offensive line, revamped in the offseason, allowed two sacks of Collins in 11 minutes after allowing 16 or fewer sacks in each of the three previous seasons.
The prevailing opinion in the Colts locker room was that it wasn't Collins' fault. The veteran quarterback has had about three weeks to learn the Colts' offense, after all.
"None of us played well. It had nothing to do with Kerry," Pro Bowl center Jeff Saturday said. "As an offense we just didn't play well, and we didn't execute when we needed to. We had fumbles, sacks, penalties, any way you could shoot yourself in the foot, we did it."
When Manning had his third neck surgery in 19 months last Thursday, odds makers immediately made Houston a favorite to win, and others predicted Indy's long hold on the AFC South title was already over.
Players and coaches bristled at such suggestions, but until Indy (0-1) proves it can win without Manning, the quarterback debate will rage on.
Since late last week, fans have filled local sports radio talk shows with questions about signing former Jaguars starter David Garrard or trading for the retired Carson Palmer, who still remains a Cincinnati Bengal.
It doesn't even look like the Colts are contemplating a change.
Coach Jim Caldwell said Monday he never considered using third-stringer Curtis Painter on Sunday. Receiver Austin Collie also threw his support behind Collins despite acknowledging the Colts, and likely Collins, were nervous early.
Could the Colts be taking a longer-term view?
Perhaps. Team vice chairman Bill Polian spent Saturday watching the Stanford-Duke game, where he got a chance to scout quarterback Andrew Luck and mingle with his son, Brian, a Stanford assistant, near the family's North Carolina home.
Team owner Jim Irsay also used Twitter to deliver a cryptic message Monday.
"There will b some shocking,dramatic,inspiring,unimaginable things happening n Coltsland the next 18 months...buckle up,stay faithful,BELIEVE," he wrote, without elaborating on the comment.
Of course, the Colts have other issues, too.
One year after Houston's Arian Foster burned the Colts for 231 yards in a season-opening 34-24 victory that wasn't even that close, the Texans ran for 167 yards and held the ball for nearly 37 minutes on Sunday -- without Foster. Houston's Danieal Manning returned the opening kickoff 46 yards, and Jacoby Jones took a punt back 79 yards for TD in the final minute of the first half.
The dismal performance prompted questions about how motivated the Colts actually were, something Caldwell dismissed.
"We've never had an effort (issue). Never around here, and we never will," he said.
The bad news doesn't end with the loss.
Brackett, the defensive captain, could join Manning, the offensive captain, on the sideline this week. Brackett injured his left shoulder on an interception return late in the fourth quarter and did not return. Free-agent acquisition Ernie Sims, a backup at outside linebacker, sprained his left knee and did not return.
Caldwell did not provide updates on either of the injuries Monday, with Cleveland coming to town on Sunday.Comment on this story
During last year's opening loss to Houston, Manning called his teammates into a fourth-quarter huddle on the sideline. The Colts responded by winning their seventh AFC South title in eight years.
On Sunday, five-time Pro Bowl receiver Reggie Wayne called his teammates into another sideline huddle late in the game.
Only this time, they'll have to rebound without the Manning magic.
"Obviously, he's not here. But to be truthful, I don't think if Peyton was back there it would have been much better yesterday," Saturday said. "We didn't play well and we weren't efficient in our offense. We just didn't produce the way we need to, and we didn't get it done."