Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck celebrates after an NFL football game against the Atlanta Falcons, Sunday, Nov. 22, 2015, in Atlanta. Indianapolis Colts won 24-21. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
David Goldman
December 16, 2015

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) Andrew Luck went back to work Wednesday but still isn't ready to play.

Matt Hasselbeck missed practice Wednesday, yet Colts coach Chuck Pagano remains optimistic the 40-year-old backup will start Sunday's crucial game against Houston.

In Indianapolis, everything seems to be upside down and the only certainty is this: Luck will miss his fifth straight game, his seventh this season and his second in a row against his hometown team as he recovers from a lacerated kidney and partially torn abdominal muscle.

''I'm not going to sit here and try to play that whole game with the kid or the Texans or anything like that,'' Pagano said. ''He's not playing.''

Meaning a game that will split a tie atop the AFC South will come down to a battle of backups.

Houston coach Bill O'Brien said Wednesday that his starter, Brian Hoyer, will miss the game after being diagnosed with his second concussion in less than a month. So the Texans (6-7) will go with backup T.J. Yates.

The Colts (6-7) will go with either Hasselbeck, who is still trying to recover from rib and neck injuries, or third-string quarterback Charlie Whitehurst, who has only been with the team for five weeks.

The good news for Indy is that for the first time since he was injured Nov. 8, Luck wore a helmet and threw passes during the 30-minute portion of practice open to the media.

Officially, Pagano listed Luck as a limited participant before ruling him out. The Colts have said all along that they will not play Luck until the kidney is completely healthy - a risk they weren't willing to take since he hasn't been cleared for team drills.

''There's obviously disappointment. Every game you don't play is a disappointment,'' Luck said after acknowledging it felt good to be working with his teammates again. ''My kidney is not fully healed, so that does not allow me to get in a position with contact that could further injure myself worse.''

Hasselbeck continues to recover from his own injuries.

After winning his first four starts this season as Luck's replacement, Hasselbeck has lost his last two and has gotten beaten up in both. He left in the fourth quarter at Pittsburgh on Dec. 6 with neck and rib injuries and left last weekend's blowout loss at Jacksonville in the fourth quarter after apparently re-injuring the ribs.

Following the game, Hasselbeck's left arm was in a sling and it was still immobilized Wednesday as Hasselbeck watched Luck, Whitehurst and practice squad quarterback Alex Tanney throw. Hasselbeck has not spoken with reporters since before the Jacksonville game, an uncharacteristic move for the affable backup quarterback.

Pagano remains hopeful Hasselbeck will practice Thursday's practice and be available Sunday.

''I expect him to be out there and play,'' Pagano said, referring to Sunday's game.

If Hasselbeck can't go, Whitehurst would probably make his first start since Tennessee's 2014 season finale, against the Colts. Whitehurst has finished the last two games and replaced Hasselbeck for two plays in the third quarter when Hasselbeck also got hurt. He is 6 of 16 for 59 yards with no touchdowns and one interception this season.

The Texans are adapting, too.

Yates, who won his only other start with Houston this season, is 22 of 47 with 302 yards, three TDs and no interceptions. Former first-round draft pick Brandon Weeden will be the backup.

''He's a really bright guy, so now being here for a while, I think he has a really good grasp of our offense,'' O'Brien said of yates. ''So we can do the things we need to do to help us beat the Colts.''

Though the teams are tied for the AFC South lead, the two-time defending champion Colts tentatively hold the first tie-breaker courtesy of a 27-20 victory in Houston on Oct. 8. Another win Sunday would mean the Colts could clinch their third straight division crown with one more win or one more Houston loss.

If Houston wins, it would hold the inside track to a third division title in five years because of fewer losses against AFC South foes.

And all that will be decided by a couple of backups.

''He (Whitehurst) took every team rep basically today, which was great for him in his maturation and his understanding of the offense, the communication, the language, timing, all that stuff,'' Pagano said. ''It was good. We'll continue to prepare him just as we've done since he's been here.''

Notes: Safety Colt Anderson (ankle), cornerbacks Vontae Davis (knee) and Greg Toler (knee, hamstring), inside linebacker Jerrell Freeman (hamstring, ribs) and receiver Donte Moncrief (toe) all missed Wednesday's practice, too. ... Left tackle Anthony Castonzo (knee), tight end Jack Doyle (toe), inside linebacker D'Qwell Jackson (quad), cornerback D'Joun Smith (knee), right guard Hugh Thornton (elbow) and outside linebacker Erik Walden (foot) all did limited work in practice.

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