At 11-0 and with a dominating, balanced team, the Colts bear down on an unbeaten season.

Perfectly Poised

Pro football


Perfect through 11 games, the Indianapolis Colts are scarily good on offense and deceptively strong on defense.

They have a soft-spoken coach, a cerebral quarterback and a steely determination that matches both men. They are suddenly everyone's favorite to reach the Super Bowl now that they have distanced themselves from the playoff crowd.

So how good are these 11-0 Colts, anyway?

Good enough that the onside kick has become a staple of the opponent's game plan.

The Pittsburgh Steelers, of all teams, started the second half of Monday night's 26-7 loss in Indianapolis with it. Down nine points, coach Bill Cowher tried to create a spark for his team and got it incinerated instead.

After the Colts recovered the kick, quarterback Peyton Manning drove them to a short-field touchdown and 23-7 lead. Game over.

The next day, Cowher defended the call. Desperate measures? Beating the Colts has become a matter of desperation.

The Steelers aren't the only team to resort to onside kicks this season, either. On Nov. 7, the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots attempted one. The Colts recovered and kicked a field goal in a 40-21 romp.

On Oct. 9, the San Francisco 49ers tried two onside kicks. They got one and a field goal for their effort. They would have been shut out otherwise in a 28-3 loss.

And, going back to last December, the overmatched Tennessee Titans tried three onside kicks in the first quarter in Indianapolis, recovering two. Still, the Colts won, 51-24.

Colts coach Tony Dungy isn't surprised.

"One thing our offense does, it puts a lot of pressure on people," he said. "It makes teams get out of character at times."

It's not hard to understand the mind-set opposing teams must adopt. Manning, last year's Most Valuable Player in the NFL after throwing 49 touchdown passes, operates his no-huddle offense like a guy at the ice cream parlor.

If the defense brings eight players to the line of scrimmage, Manning will find the best matchup in man coverage and hit Marvin Harrison or Reggie Wayne for a big play. If the defense drops seven into coverage, running back Edgerrin James gets the ball against this spread alignment.

"They have fewer plays in their offense than most teams," said Titans coach Jeff Fisher, whose team visits Indianapolis today. "They just do them well. They do them well because [Manning] puts them in the right situations. They are exceptional at running the football.

"You can stop the run, now. We could probably hold Edge to 50 yards rushing, but we'll give up 500 yards passing. We could probably stop the passing game, but then you'll give up 200 or 300 yards rushing. That is the way they are."

It's the way the Colts have been the past few years. What's different is the defense. In their fourth year under Dungy, the Colts finally have created the right blend of experience (defensive tackle Montae Reagor, cornerback Nick Harper), physical presence (defensive tackle Corey Simon, safety Mike Doss) and playmakers (defensive end Dwight Freeney, linebacker Cato June, safety Bob Sanders).

The Colts didn't simply beat the Steelers on Monday night, they beat them up. Pittsburgh managed just 3.4 yards per rush and 3.8 per pass attempt.

"There's no doubt they've really elevated their game this year," Manning said of the Colts' defenders. "I sleep a lot better on Saturday night. I don't feel like we have to go out there and score 40."

That said, the Colts have taken the quantum leap from being New England's whipping boys to big dog on the block. With five games left, they have a shot to make history and join the 1972 Miami Dolphins as the only NFL teams to go unbeaten and untied in the regular season.

The past five teams that started the year 11-0 all went to the Super Bowl, and four of them won it. In order, they are the 1998 Denver Broncos, 1991 Washington Redskins, 1985 Chicago Bears, 1984 Dolphins and 1972 Dolphins. The '84 Dolphins were the only Super Bowl losers.

To a man, the Colts all say they can handle the distraction of a perfect season.

"The closer we get, yeah, you think about it," Reagor conceded. "But we can't overlook anyone at this level."

The Colts already own prospective AFC tiebreakers with wins over the Patriots, Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals. They have three teams left on their schedule in playoff contention - the 8-3 Jacksonville Jaguars (away), 7-4 San Diego Chargers and 9-2 Seattle Seahawks (away).

They can clinch a playoff berth with a win today, the AFC South title with a Jacksonville loss, and a first-round bye with losses by the Jaguars and Bengals.

The Super Bowl - and a perfect season - beckon, but Dungy will approach the latter with great caution.

"That's never been a goal for us," he said of 16-0. "It would be nice, and sure, if you get close, you'd like to do it. But our goals have always been to win the AFC South, get the bye, get home-field advantage, try to be as good as you can be in the playoffs."

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