Bengals impersonate them well, but Colts real thing

ON THE NFL

November 21, 2005|By KEN MURRAY

The Indianapolis Colts took the Cincinnati Bengals' best shot yesterday and answered with an offensive clinic for the ages.

Quarterbacks Peyton Manning and Carson Palmer performed like maestros, marching their respective teams up and down the field. They delivered big plays, perfect passes, gaudy touchdowns and lots of entertainment.

In what had the feel of an Arena League game - all offense, all day - the Colts outlasted the Bengals, 45-37, in Cincinnati to become the ninth team since the NFL-AFL merger to go 10-0.

There were eight touchdowns, 62 points and only one punt in the raucous first half. Two Colts receivers - Reggie Wayne and Dallas Clark - each had more than 100 receiving yards at intermission. Fans couldn't leave their seats for fear of missing two or three touchdowns.

Two weeks after the Colts exorcised their New England demon, they roughed up the new kids on the playoff block. The Bengals are wanna-be Colts, with enough weapons on hand to give a representative impersonation.

They have Palmer and Chad Johnson, one of the league's best passing tandems. They have veteran Rudi Johnson and fast-rising Chris Perry at running back. They have wide receiver T. J. Houshmandzadeh and one of the best offensive lines in football.

And yet, for all their skill players, they were always a step behind the Colts. It was a game of catch-up for Cincinnati. The Colts never trailed and always were in control, even when the Bengals closed within a point early in the second half.

Down 45-34 in the final six minutes, the Bengals pulled within eight and made it a one-possession game again. They even had a great scheme for an onside kick, when Shayne Graham pooched the ball to the Indianapolis 30, where Clark scrambled to recover.

Because of a holding penalty, they got to try again. They didn't recover the second kick, either, and that was that.

So what really did this game say?

Probably that Indianapolis has a chance to run the table and become the first team since the 1972 Miami Dolphins to go unbeaten. Certainly it will take a very strong defense and a very clever scheme to defuse the Colts' explosive offense.

It also said something about Cincinnati. The Bengals proved they can play the Colts' game of big-play offense and be competitive. With more maturity, they might even be able to win that game.

But the AFC power structure is an intricate mix of power and finesse, defense and experience. The Bengals couldn't play the Pittsburgh Steelers' power game four weeks ago when they dropped a 27-13 verdict at home. Pittsburgh mugged the Cincinnati offense that day and forced Palmer into two interceptions.

Now the question is, can the Colts play the Steelers' power game? We'll find out next Monday night when the Steelers visit the Colts.

Even though the Colts already have beaten the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Patriots, two teams known for defense, neither is as stout defensively this season as the Steelers.

Expect Ben Roethlisberger to emerge from the ashes of Pittsburgh's 16-13 overtime loss in Baltimore. Expect the Steelers to rebound. Expect the Colts to meet that resistance with power of their own.

Running game? When they want, the Colts can run the ball with Edgerrin James, who punched out 60 yards in the second half to help Indianapolis maintain its lead. James is a surprisingly powerful runner. His only weakness is a penchant for fumbling, a tendency the Steelers are certain to explore.

The Colts should have the advantage on the fast track of the RCA Dome. But whether they have enough defense to go unbeaten through the Super Bowl is more problematic. There are roadblocks. They have a Week 14 game at Jacksonville, and a Week 16 game at Seattle against the Seahawks.

In the postseason, they'll have a formidable list of potential opponents at the dome. The Denver Broncos have lost each of the past two years to the Colts in the postseason. The Patriots have made a habit of beating them there. The San Diego Chargers, if they can get in, are a worthy opponent. The Bengals have room to grow.

Yesterday was a delicious preview. Each week now will take us deeper into this mystery. But right now, it's hard to pick against these Colts.

Hot reads

The Chicago Bears brought the Carolina Panthers down a notch with their 13-3 win, accomplished when they harassed quarterback Jake Delhomme into a two-interception, five-sack game. The Panthers rely too much on the pass and too much on wide-out Steve Smith. They're a playoff upset waiting to happen.

The Atlanta Falcons suffered their second straight home loss, 30-27, to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Even though quarterback Michael Vick threw for 306 yards and two touchdowns, he made the big mistake with a fumble that set up the Bucs' winning field goal. His passing is getting better, but his defense is getting worse.

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