Peyton Manning practices, but Brock Osweiler will start for Denver Broncos

Peyton Manning returned to practice for the first time in a month but not to his starting job. That still belongs to Brock Osweiler, for at least another weekend.

Coach Gary Kubiak ruled out Manning for the Denver Broncos' showdown at Pittsburgh. But he said Manning took a "step in the right direction" in his return from a torn plantar fascia in his left foot Wednesday.

Kubiak said the plan was to increase Manning's workload Thursday. He wasn't about to prognosticate an eventual return to the lineup for the 18-year veteran.

"No, I couldn't make a judgment" based on one practice, Kubiak said. "I just think it was good. I think it's another step in the process, and it was a good step"

Manning spent a week in a hard cast and several more days in a walking boot after he was pulled from the lineup Nov. 15. He progressed to throwing indoors on his own last week and this marked his first practice with his teammates in 32 days.

"It's great to have him back out there," said Osweiler, who will make his fifth start in place of Manning when the Broncos (10-3) visit the Steelers (8-5).

Colts' Luck, Texans' Hoyer to miss game

Andrew Luck went back to work Wednesday but still isn't ready to play.

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

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."

Houston Coach Bill O'Brien said 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 been with the team for only 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.

Panthers' Stewart won't play Sunday

The Carolina Panthers will be without their starting running back on Sunday against the New York Giants as they look to keep their unbeaten season intact.

Coach Ron Rivera said Jonathan Stewart has been ruled out because of a sprained left foot.

Stewart, who is third in the NFL in rushing with 989 yards, left last weekend's 38-0 win over the Atlanta Falcons early. Rivera said either Fozzy Whittaker or Mike Tolbert will start for Carolina (13-0).

Rivera also said he's uncertain whether Pro Bowl tight end Greg Olsen will play against the Giants. Olsen injured his knee against the Falcons and, like Stewart, did not play in the second half.

Referees can call on director

The NFL will have game referees in the playoffs consult with its director of officiating about the application of rules in situations not currently covered in instant replay reviews.

Those situations will include the appropriate assessment of penalty yardage, proper administration of the game clock, correct downs and any other administrative matter not currently reviewable.

But Dean Blandino, the vice president of officiating, will not be able to call a foul or change a call, "or otherwise become involved in on-field judgment calls that are not subject to the current instant replay system."

Communication on administration matters can be initiated by Blandino or the referee, the league said Wednesday.

The changes were recommended by the NFL's powerful competition committee and approved by Commissioner Roger Goodell. Earlier this month, Goodell had spoken to the 32 team owners about the concept.

"The committee feels strongly that giving the referee and Dean the ability to consult with each other in certain situations beyond instant replay will further support officiating in the playoffs," said competition committee Chairman Rich McKay, president of the Atlanta Falcons. "The officials do a very difficult job exceedingly well, and we think this adjustment in the playoffs will make them even better."

The NFL has had a rough season with its officiating, including notifying teams several times that calls had been missed or incorrectly made. Officials, who are part-timers, have also been doubted by team personnel, players and the media about their mastery of the encyclopedic rule book.

Injuries strike Vikings' defense

The Minnesota Vikings are still dealing with a significant injury problem on defense.

Three starters were held out of practice Wednesday: defensive tackle Linval Joseph (foot), linebacker Anthony Barr (groin, hand) and defensive end Everson Griffen (shoulder). Eight defensive players appeared on the injury report, including five starters.

The best news for the Vikings was a return to the field on a limited basis for safety Harrison Smith (knee, hamstring). Safety Andrew Sendejo (knee) practiced on a limited basis. He has missed the past two games.

Barr and Smith missed the previous game at Arizona. Joseph has missed the past two games with an injury to his toe.

The Vikings host Chicago on Sunday.

Etc.

The New England Patriots placed running back LeGarrette Blount (hip) on season-ending injured reserve, and the defending Super Bowl champions again are looking for replacements in the backfield. ... Running back Christine Michael was welcomed back by the Seattle Seahawks, who signed the former second-round pick after he was released from Washington's practice squad Tuesday. ... The New York Giants have released veteran safety Brandon Meriweather, leaving the team with only three safeties on the roster. The Buffalo Bills have placed starting cornerback Stephon Gilmore on season-ending injured reserve because of a dislocated shoulder. Buffalo signed defensive end Max Valles off the Oakland Raiders' practice squad.

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