There's a whole lot worse that can come from this trip than losing to the Colts. Hey, losing Sunday doesn't kill the Redskins in the standings, especially after the visiting New York Jets upset the Dallas Cowboys, 22-21, leaving the Redskins in first place in the NFC East.

A loss to an AFC team doesn't hurt them in the NFC tiebreakers. And while nobody who draws a paycheck in professional sports should be into moral victories, the fact is that the Redskins were much more impressive in defeat here Sunday than they have been in victories over the Cardinals and Giants.

But the trip to Indiana will end up having a much worse result than losing a 24-21 ballgame if the Redskins have to play without Stephen Davis any length of time. That could be disastrous. With him, and with a re-commitment to running the football, the Redskins can play with anybody. Yes, anybody. We saw that in the first half when the Redskins were leading the supposedly invincible Colts, 13-10, with Davis carrying 14 times for 70 punishing yards. He and the Redskins' offensive line were wearing the Colts out; it looked like a stampede at times. Davis appeared on his way to another one of those monster games of 175 yards or so. Coming on the heels of last week's trampling of the Cardinals, the Redskins were re-establishing this refreshing new run-first, run-over mentality; they ran the ball eight of the team's first 13 plays from scrimmage. And the Colts couldn't do anything about it.

But when Davis went to the sideline with a sprained ankle and chip fracture, the Redskins suddenly reverted to ordinary. Skip Hicks did his best in a backup capacity, but Hicks is a bounce-it-outside kind of runner, not the pounder Davis is. And the passing game, which hasn't scared anybody in several weeks, was again spotty. Brad Johnson (16 of 31) was sacked four times, including a couple of times when he held on to the ball too long. Third-down conversions weren't plentiful (3 for 13). The linemen had a difficult time hearing the protections in the absurdly noisy RCA Dome.

I'm still trying to figure out what the call was on the final ill-fated fourth-down play of the game, the one after the special teams had gotten the ball back by executing a perfect onside kick and recovery. "We weren't throwing the ball well today," veteran receiver Irving Fryar said. "The deep game didn't produce much, because every time we called a seven-step drop, [Johnson] got pressure."

Am I getting nit-picky? Well, yeah. In a three-point game, all you've got to pick is nits. The Redskins did the big stuff well. When Norv Turner said the defense played well in all phases, he wasn't blowing postgame kisses. I'd make the case, given the opponent and the venue, that this was one of the Redskins' best defensive performances in the last several years. This wasn't some overhyped dude like Jake Plummer the Redskins were facing.

Peyton Manning and the Colts are the best team in the NFL. Better than Jacksonville, which struggled to beat expansion Cleveland Sunday, and better than the St. Louis Rams. It's not every day you get to watch a team win its 10th straight NFL game, which is what the Colts did. Manning isn't the league's next Golden Boy. He's the current Golden Boy. If you don't believe me, ask Kenard Lang, who got flagged once for unnecessary roughness after hitting Manning, and flagged a second time for tackling Manning around the knees. Not a late hit, mind you, but an accurate hit. Manning's got a smaller strike zone than an American League ump. The first penalty--at the end of an incomplete third-down pass--handed the Colts their first touchdown. The zebras ruled the first hit came out of bounds. "He did a Bill Laimbeer," Lang said, describing Manning's flop. "He went from just in-bounds to the first row of the stands. . . . I guess I gotta be careful hitting the next John Elway."

And the next Elway, when he isn't throwing with Troy Aikman-like accuracy, is handing off to Edgerrin James, who might be the next Terrell Davis, the way he picks holes from eight yards deep and cuts back to daylight with mad explosion. Manning and James in one backfield is almost unfair. Yet, on James's 10 first-half carries, the Redskins stopped him for negative yardage four times. He had only 19 yards the first half. The defense, particularly linebackers Derek Smith, Shawn Barber and Greg Jones, and safety Sam Shade, was fabulous against James for three quarters. The defensive line pressured Manning, forcing him into two turnovers. I guess you can't award a game ball after defeat, but if the Redskins had won I'd have given it to defensive coordinator Mike Nolan. This was the toughest defensive assignment of the year, a challenge a lot of teams have failed miserably this season.

"I am sure they beat us physically a few times," Colts tackle Adam Meadows said. ". . . I think they are an underrated defense. They have been playing well lately."

The defense kept it close enough that the offense could score and go for the two-point conversion late in the fourth quarter, then execute the onside kick. I suppose there could be some mild second-guessing of Turner's decision to go for it (unsuccessfully) on fourth and four with 3 minutes 52 seconds to play instead of attempting a 44-yard field goal that would have gotten the Redskins within eight points. It's one of those calls you can debate into the wee hours. The problem here is that the Redskins got their two possessions and still had a chance to win the game.

The final issue is determining what a game like this is worth for the Redskins. Is it just another loss? Or did playing evenly with the 12-2 AFC East champion Colts on the road suggest the Redskins have improved the last few weeks? "This would have been a big statement, had we won this game," said Fryar, who like Darrell Green has seen it all and lived it all in the NFL. "We still haven't proven yet that we can go out and beat a really good team on the road. We played decent. But we could have won this game."