Does anyone out there still think the Indianapolis Colts don't have a great chance to go unbeaten?

Recant now.

As the Colts' winning run to open the season reached eight, nine and 10 games, the talking heads were all over television saying it couldn't be done. Their tone was almost scolding, as if anyone who even imagines that it could happen simply doesn't know how football works. The former players and coaches turned broadcasters said the NFL is just too difficult and the Colts would slip up somewhere, somehow. And maybe, they said, that would be the best thing for them, since they don't really need the pressure of chasing perfection anyway, as they pursue the Super Bowl title that has eluded quarterback Peyton Manning and Coach Tony Dungy.


Manning and Dungy are as media-savvy and media-friendly as they come, and talking about the quest to go unbeaten simply isn't going to bother them that much. And it is becoming increasingly clear that the Colts simply are a few notches better than any other team in the league. They might not make it through the season unscathed. But their odds certainly seem to be better than 50-50 now.

Monday night's dismantling of the Pittsburgh Steelers in Indianapolis made the Colts the 11th team in NFL history -- and the sixth since the 1970 merger -- to go 11-0. They just survived one difficult stretch of their schedule that included a game at Cincinnati against the high-scoring Bengals, who had hung a loss on a 9-0 Kansas City Chiefs team two years before, and a highly anticipated Monday night contest against a Steelers club that, when quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is in the lineup, might be the second-best team in the league.

The Colts almost certainly will beat the Tennessee Titans at home Sunday to improve to 12-0. Win No. 13 likely will come the following week at Jacksonville. The Jaguars always play the Colts tough, but now they're without injured quarterback Byron Leftwich.

Then comes a two-week stretch against teams capable of beating them. The Colts face the San Diego Chargers at home, then play at Seattle in the the second-to-last game of the regular season. The Chargers, like the Bengals, have an offense capable of getting into a track-meet game with the Colts, with the running of tailback LaDainian Tomlinson to balance the throwing of quarterback Drew Brees. They have a defense that could give Manning and Co. a few problems, and they won't make the mistake that recent Colts opponents have made and dare Manning to beat them while focusing on slowing down tailback Edgerrin James. The Seahawks, too, are loaded on offense and decent on defense, and their overtime win Sunday over the New York Giants showed that Seattle can be a difficult place for a visiting club to play. The Giants committed 11 false-start penalties as they struggled to deal with the din of the crowd.

But the Colts are better than each of those teams. And if they manage to survive those two games, it won't matter if Dungy decides to rest his front-line players in the regular-season finale. It's against the Arizona Cardinals at home.

The one thing the Colts probably couldn't survive is if they have home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs wrapped up before the Seattle game, and Dungy sits down his stars against the Seahawks. But the Denver Broncos are keeping close enough to the Colts that home-field advantage might not be secured by then. And even if it is, there's three weeks for any injured players to heal between the second-to-last regular-season game and the AFC semifinals, when the Colts first would play in the postseason.

The Colts are a few steps ahead of everyone else because they can play any kind of game their opponent forces them to play, and still win. When the Bengals spent the first half stacking defenders at the line of scrimmage to stop James, Manning lit them up for 35 points. As soon as Cincinnati changed defensive tactics in the second half, the Colts began handing the ball to James and immediately crafted a methodical touchdown drive. On Monday, Manning found wideout Marvin Harrison for an 80-yard touchdown on the Colts' first offensive play, and the defense flexed its muscles and refused to be bowled over by Pittsburgh's usually powerful running game.

Don Shula, the coach of the undefeated 1972 Miami Dolphins, has said he thinks the Colts have a legitimate chance. For anyone who doesn't agree, there's still time to convert.

Would Rams Welcome Back Martz?

Mike Martz is sending mixed signals about whether he will attempt to return to the St. Louis Rams this season.

The coach told KMOV-TV in St. Louis that he feels good and would like to coach again this season if he receives medical clearance. But he told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that, while he'd like to be working, he also doesn't want to risk a setback in his recovery from a bacterial infection of his heart and probably will stick to his plan of sitting out the rest of the season. He has been on a leave of absence for six games, and interim coach Joe Vitt has led the club to a record of 3-3. The Rams just adjusted Vitt's contract to give him a raise to reflect his added responsibilities.

The Rams would have an interesting decision to make about whether to welcome back Martz if he does want to return this season.

The friction between Martz and the Rams' front office has been on display during his leave of absence, including an incident in which he was denied telephone access to members of the coaching staff to pass along a play call during a game. Few people in the league, it seems, have expected Martz to coach the Rams again, and team officials said publicly Tuesday that it was premature to say what the club's response would be since Martz has not been cleared by doctors to return.

It's possible that Martz and his agent, Bob LaMonte, simply are sending a public signal to other teams who might be interested in Martz as a coach for next season that he is healthy enough to ponder a return to work.

League, Holmgren At Odds

The league office took the unusual step Tuesday of issuing a written statement to contradict reports that stemmed from comments made Monday by Seahawks Coach Mike Holmgren about the officiating in his club's win over the Giants.

Holmgren said he'd spoken to the NFL's officiating department and had been told that mistakes had been made, implying that two touchdown catches by the Giants should have been ruled incompletions. The first was a second-quarter reception by tight end Jeremy Shockey in which he had the ball knocked loose by a hit; the second was a fourth-quarter grab by wide receiver Amani Toomer on which Toomer did all he could to get both his feet in bounds in the back of the end zone. In each case, the play was ruled a touchdown by the officials on the field and an instant-replay review failed to produce a reversal.

"The report that the NFL informed the Seahawks of officiating mistakes on two Giants touchdown receptions is inaccurate," the league's statement said. "Our officiating department never discussed with the Seahawks the Amani Toomer touchdown reception, which was properly called. The Jeremy Shockey touchdown catch at the end of the first half was not overturned because the referee determined that there was insufficient visual evidence to reverse the call."

The statement does not say whether Holmgren, a member of the NFL's competition committee, was told that the Shockey touchdown catch should have been overturned and called an incompletion.

Grossman Getting Healthy

Chicago Bears quarterback Rex Grossman was healthy enough to be the club's emergency third-string quarterback last weekend, and soon could supplant Jeff Blake as the primary backup to rookie starter Kyle Orton.

Orton is the league's last-rated passer and there has been some clamoring for Coach Lovie Smith to consider going back to Grossman, who broke his ankle in preseason, as the starter. But with seven straight victories and a record of 8-3, Smith has said he has no intention of pondering a quarterback switch. . . .

The Bears signed center Lennie Friedman, who'd been released by the Washington Redskins, and placed wide receiver Airese Currie on the injured reserve list. . . .

Kicker Doug Brien, last season's playoff goat for the New York Jets, has filed a grievance against the Bears, contending they owe him an injury settlement because he had a back injury when they released him earlier this season. . . .

Oakland claimed cornerback Lenny Walls, a former starter in Denver, off waivers from the Broncos and placed safety Reggie Tongue on the IR list because of a torn knee ligament. Walls had been on the Broncos' IR list because of a groin injury but was waived this week because he'd recovered sufficiently to play. . . .

Middle linebacker Zach Thomas might return to Miami's lineup this week despite a torn labrum in his shoulder and a high ankle sprain. If he plays this weekend, he will have missed only one game. . . .

Tampa Bay added kicker Todd France to its practice squad. The Buccaneers' kicker, Matt Bryant, is bothered by a hamstring injury and missed a 29-yard field goal attempt that would have tied the score in last Sunday's loss the Bears. . . .

New England released running back Mike Cloud. The Patriots could have starting tailback Corey Dillon back from ankle and calf injuries this week. . . .

Roethlisberger hurt his ankle Monday night but probably will be fine for the Steelers' game Sunday against the Bengals. . . .

Cincinnati activated linebacker Nate Webster from the physically unable to perform list. He's returning from a severe knee injury suffered last season. The Bengals released linebacker Larry Stevens to create a roster spot. . . .

Dallas could have No. 3 receiver Patrick Crayton back from an ankle injury for Sunday's game against the Giants with first place in the NFC East at stake. He has missed the last four games, with Peerless Price taking over as the third wideout behind starters Terry Glenn and Keyshawn Johnson. The Cowboys also hope to have cornerback Anthony Henry, who was on the inactive list for the Thanksgiving loss to the Broncos because of a groin injury, and center Al Johnson, who's trying to return from arthroscopic knee surgery without missing any games, available.

Specter Backtracks

Sen. Arlen Specter (R.-Pa.) said earlier in the week that he might ask the antitrust subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary Committee to look into whether the Philadelphia Eagles' deactivation of wide receiver Terrell Owens for the remainder of the season violates antitrust law.

But Specter, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said the panel is too busy to take up the matter and he instead had discussed the issue with attorneys in the antitrust division of the Justice Department.

"I think it is better left to them rather than to the Judiciary Committee because of our heavy workload," Specter said in a written statement.

Garcia Named Lions' Starter

Dick Jauron, who was appointed Detroit's interim coach Monday, today named Jeff Garcia the Lions' starting quarterback for Sunday's game against Minnesota.

Jauron had said Monday, when he was named to replace Steve Mariucci, that he didn't know whether Garcia or Joey Harrington would be his starter. Harrington started the Lions' last four games, including the Thanksgiving loss to Atlanta that led to Mariucci's ouster, after Garcia aggravated the leg injuries he suffered during the preseason.

Jauron also told reporters that cornerback Dre Bly had apologized to the team today for public comments he made in the aftermath of Mariucci's firing. Bly, among other things, blamed Mariucci's dismissal on Harrington's poor play. . . .

Rams rookie offensive tackle Alex Barron is scheduled to undergo thumb surgery Thursday. It's unclear how long he'll need to recover, but the team possibly could be without both its starting tackles this weekend against the Redskins. Orlando Pace left last Sunday's comeback win over Houston early because of hip and hamstring injuries, although an MRI exam taken Monday reportedly showed no serious damage.