INDIANAPOLIS - Peyton Manning will return to the Colts' sideline Sunday.
He still can't save Indianapolis' sinking season.
The four-time league MVP told reporters Thursday he is progressing well from his latest neck surgery, that his rehab regimen is increasing and that he is hopeful of returning to the practice field before this season ends.
"I think you have to have hope until the doctors rule you out," he said Thursday. "We're having a lot of injuries so if they (the Colts) come to me and say they have to make a move, I won't fight them on that.
"The good Lord is calling my plays and I'm not allowed to audible at this point, so I have to listen to the doctors," he added.
Bill Polian, the vice chairman, and Chris Polian, the general manager, want to keep Manning on the active roster as long as possible so he can at least return to practice this season. Team owner Jim Irsay believes Manning could be back to practice in December.
Indy's franchise quarterback has missed all four games since the Sept. 8 procedure, his third neck surgery in 19 months.
The anterior fusion procedure typically requires making an incision in the front of the neck, removing soft disk tissue between the vertebrae and fusing the bones together with a graft. The usual recovery time, according to doctors not handling Manning's case, is 2-3 months.
The Colts have desperately missed their leader. The offense has struggled to score touchdowns or dictate the tempo, and it's left the Colts in an 0-4 hole for the first time since 1998. They need a win Sunday against Kansas City (1-3) to avoid their first 0-5 start since 1997.
"You know I'm the only guy to be 0-4 on this team, and what a thrilling win that one over the Chargers was, right?" Manning recalled, referring to his first NFL victory. "Was that the fifth game? Yeah I thought so, so I'll be like all true Colts' fans, hoping for a win Sunday."
Manning's impromptu appearance marked his first in the locker room since the latest surgery. He was bubbly and upbeat, joking about eating hot dogs in the press box the last two weeks and drawing laughs when he called it a "bad vibe" to hear reporters second-guessing play-calls.
He turned serious when asked about the neck injury and a possible timetable for his return.
"I feel good, but that's a tough question to answer because if you're feeling good today that means you should be feeling great in two weeks, right?" he said.
Manning said the current plan is to take X-rays every four weeks so doctors can monitor how the fusion is healing. The first look brought promising news: He was cleared to stand on the sideline with his teammates for the first time since the preseason, before the latest operation.
Manning had been at the team complex the last few weeks, primarily walking laps around the practice field. Team officials have said he attends team meetings and advises Kerry Collins and Curtis Painter, the two replacements who have taken snaps in Manning's place.
He was at practice Thursday, too, dressed in team shorts and a Colts' baseball hat.
Bill Polian told radio listeners this week that Manning's activities had increased recently. Manning confirmed that he was doing more this week, though he declined to get into specifics.
"He's getting better," coach Jim Caldwell said. "He's working hard on his rehab and is doing everything the doctors are asking him to do."
Still, Indy's sour start has prompted talk about the Colts possibly joining the sweepstakes to draft Andrew Luck with the No. 1 overall pick next year. If that happened, Luck, who has attended and helped at Manning's annual summer quarterback camp, would become the eventual successor to the Colts' career passing leader.
Manning downplayed such talk, saying it's too early to talk about how the Colts will ultimately fare this season.
In the meantime, Collins is still trying to recover from a concussion he sustained when he was hit by Steelers' linebacker James Farrior.
"When I look back over my (NFL) career, I can probably remember having a half-dozen or more small ones," he said. "I've never had a lot of big ones and this one has hung around longer than any of them."
Collins did individual work at Wednesday's practice and was expected to do the same Thursday but still has not been cleared to play. Painter, who threw two TD passes against Tampa Bay on Monday night, is preparing to make his second straight start this weekend.
But in Indianapolis, all the questions are about Manning, who is still trying to get used to being out after making 227 consecutive starts, including postseason games the second-longest streak by an NFL quarterback behind only Brett Favre.
"It's a new experience for me," Manning said. "People ask, how are you handling it? I'm learning."
Note: Colts safety Melvin Bullitt was scheduled to have surgery Friday on his right shoulder. Bullitt has already been placed on injured reserve, ending his season. ... Defensive tackle Eric Foster, who dislocated his right ankle in a gruesome scene during Monday night's loss at Tampa, was scheduled to return to Indianapolis on Thursday afternoon, two days after undergoing season-ending surgery in Tampa.