Did you get the idea that Monday night’s game was over when Peyton Manning hit Marvin Harrison for an 80-yard touchdown on the Indianapolis’ Colts first play from scrimmage?
I did, and it looked like Pittsburgh Steelers coach Bill Cowher did too. Though the Steelers hung with the Colts for the rest of the half on the scoreboard thanks to a slew of Colts penalties and a 7-yard touchdown drive that followed an interception, Cowher, down 16-7, called a desperation play to start the second half.
He ordered an onside kick, which the Colts recovered at the Pittsburgh 37. Seven plays later Manning hit Bryan Fletcher for a 12-yard touchdown and a 23-7 lead. Goodnight, everybody. Your late local news is next.
The Colts improved to 11-0, five wins shy of the first undefeated regular season in the NFL since the Miami Dolphins went 14-0 in 1972. So they’re about a third of the way there. I wrote a few weeks ago that you’re halfway to 16-0 when you’re 14-0. Monday night Al Michaels said on ABC that you’re halfway there at 13-0. Either way, long way to go.
But against two of the best teams in football the last two weeks, the Colts have started to look like the New England Patriots of the last few years, or a better comparison would be the San Antonio Spurs. They can beat you playing their game, but they can also beat you playing yours.
Want to try to outrace and outgun ‘em? Colts 45, Cincinnati Bengals 37. Want to slug ‘em in the mouth, rough ‘em up a little? Colts 26, Steelers 7.
That used to be the way to get to the Colts, as the Patriots repeatedly showed in the playoffs. Mug them. They’re known as a finesse team — a football code word meaning they’re a bunch of sissies who listen to show tunes in the locker room if you know what I mean — that will wilt if physically challenged.
Not anymore. After Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor made the colossal mistake of biting on a fake handoff on that first play, allowing Harrison to race past him for the easy catch and score, he went to the next page in the playbook, trying to rough Harrison up.
Harrison, always a Lady Byng Trophy candidate, fought back, even earning a personal foul penalty around the goal line that pushed the Colts back from second and goal at the 7 to second and goal at the 22, possibly costing them a touchdown. They settled for a field goal and a 10-0 lead, which, as it turns out, was all they’d need.
The message was clear. This is a different Colts team than those earlier editions. And if Marvin Harrison didn’t get the message across, the Colts defense did.
The Steelers managed 197 yards of offense, 3.6 yards per play. The powerful running game was held to 86 yards on 25 carries, 3.4 yards per run. Ben Roethlisberger, in his first game back from a knee injury, was limited to a dismal 5.1 yards per pass attempt. Counting the three sacks, the Steelers gained 3.8 yards for every time Roethlisberger dropped back.
The Colts defense threw a shutout. And by the way this game shows why you should take it with a grain of salt when you start hearing about a defense having a shutout streak of this many quarters or that many minutes.
You have to have a good defense to go five quarters or 100 minutes or two and a half games or whatever without allowing a point. But you also have to have an offense that doesn’t leave that defense with a seven-yard field to defend. The Colts have the best offense on the planet and it left the defense with a seven-yard field to defend, so long shutout streaks are pretty heavily influenced by luck.
The Colts don’t get credit for a shutout, but they couldn’t have played much better on defense.
So the discussion continues: Can the Colts go undefeated?
The real question is, Will they win the Super Bowl? That, not going undefeated, is the goal of an NFL team. At the moment, it looks like it’s going to take a pretty big upset to stop them from winning the Super Bowl.
Unless they lose two of their last five, and at least one of those two is a conference game, and the Denver Broncos win out, the Colts will have home-field advantage, and they’re built for the Hoosier Dome FieldTurf.
They’ve already beaten the Steelers and the Jacksonville Jaguars at home and the Bengals and Patriots on the road. Any of those teams might beat the Colts in Indy on a different day, and the Broncos, who look like a clear No. 2 in the AFC, would certainly have a shot. But the Colts would be favorites against any of those likely playoff teams, not to mention the other candidates, the San Diego Chargers and Kansas City Chiefs.
And if they win the AFC they get to go play the Super Bowl at Ford Field in Detroit. Surface: FieldTurf. Opponent: Somebody from the NFC. That’s a recipe for a win.
I still don’t think the Colts will go undefeated, for what that’s worth. Assuming they don’t trip up against the Tennessee Titans at home Sunday, they’ll face two tough tests after that if they want to stay unbeaten.
They’ll play at Jacksonville and then at home against the Chargers. The Jaguars gave the Colts trouble in Indianapolis in Week 2, when Indy won 10-3. The Chargers probably don’t have the defense to stay on the field with the Colts, but their offense is good enough that with a few lucky bounces they can steal a win.
After that, if the Colts are undefeated, it’ll come down to whether their second- and third-stringers can beat the Seattle Seahawks and the Arizona Cardinals.
The Seahawks might also be playing their reserves if they’ve clinched home field in the NFC, though I don’t think that will be the case, and I don’t think the Colts’ bench is better than the Seahawks’ first team when it’s playing for something.
The Cardinals are terrible, but they do have recent experience in dashing the hopes of a superior team in the last game of the season. And that team, the Minnesota Vikings in 2003, was playing for its life.
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