The last time Peyton Manning faced the Chicago Bears, he won MVP honors while leading his team to the Super Bowl XLI championship.
Despite undergoing offseason knee surgery, Manning is expected to be under center when the Indianapolis Colts host the Bears in their first game at the new Lucas Oil Stadium to open 2008 on Sunday night.
Manning underwent surgery on July 14 to remove an infected bursa sac from his left knee, then missed all of training camp and didn't practice until Aug. 26. Though he didn't throw a single pass in the preseason, Manning will be on the field Sunday making his 161st straight regular-season start - second only to Brett Favre's 253 in a row - while trying to lead the Colts to their sixth straight home-opening victory.
"I keep using the term unchartered territory, and that's what it's been like for me,'' said Manning, who has reeled off 21 consecutive victories in September and October. "I hope to just get in the flow of things and go.''
A year after winning his first Super Bowl with the Colts, Manning ranked seventh in the NFL with 4,040 passing yards last season, throwing for 31 touchdowns despite 14 interceptions - his most in five seasons. Indianapolis finished 12-4 to win the AFC South, but was upset 28-24 by San Diego at home in the divisional playoffs.
With the lingering sting of that loss, Chicago expects Manning to be his usual formidable self.
"I think when you're a veteran it doesn't hurt you as much as it might hurt some players,'' Bears coach Lovie Smith said. "But at the same time there is a reason you have training camp. So it has to hurt a little.''
While Manning is complemented by third-year running back Joseph Addai, who rushed for 1,072 yards and 12 TDs in 2007, and his customary talented receiving corps with Reggie Wayne (104 receptions, 1,510 yards, 10 TDs in 2007) and a healthy Marvin Harrison, there are some immediate issues on the offensive line.
Three-time Pro Bowl center Jeff Saturday is out with a right knee injury, while starting guard Ryan Lilja hasn't fully recovered from offseason knee surgery and will miss the first six weeks. Rookie Jamey Richard is expected to replace Saturday.
"The No. 1 thing on any play is getting the snap, so you put a little more emphasis on that,'' Manning said. "But I think we'll be OK in that regard.''
While that might normally be a major concern against a Chicago defense that has often been one of the league's top units in recent years, a rash of injuries contributed to the Bears finishing 28th in total defense last season with 354.7 yards per game. Chicago wasn't much better this preseason, yielding a league-high 376 yards per game.
"We haven't played well. That is all you can say about it," said Smith, whose Bears finishes 7-9 and last in the NFC North last season after consecutive division titles. "We have not made all the effort we need to play well. All the things that go into playing well, we haven't done. Once we get all our guys going, I feel we will have a very strong defense.''
Defensive backs Nathan Vasher and Mike Brown are healthy to start the season, but Pro Bowl defensive tackle Tommie Harris continues to be plagued by a sore knee.
On the offensive side of the ball, the Bears also have reason for concern.
Kyle Orton beat out former Super Bowl quarterback Rex Grossman for the starting job. He will lead a offense that ranked 27th in the NFL (293.2 ypg) in 2007, then lost top receiver Bernard Berrian to free agency. Further complicating matters, running back Cedric Benson was released following two offseason alcohol-related arrests.
Orton is 12-6 as a starter in three seasons with the Bears. He completed 43 of 80 passes for 478 yards with three touchdowns and two interceptions in three games last year.
"I've been in the system a lot longer. I've been in the NFL a lot longer. And I'm a better pro,'' Orton said.
Second-round draft pick Matt Forte will open the season as Chicago's starting running back, becoming the first Bears rookie to do so since Walter Payton in 1975.
"It means a lot and it's an honor for me to put that uniform on and go out there as a rookie and start a game,'' said Forte, who carried 27 times for 94 yards in the preseason.
Chicago is 4-1 in the regular season versus the Colts since that franchise moved to Indianapolis from Baltimore prior to the 1984 season.
Indianapolis is opening its new stadium after playing 24 years in the RCA Dome.