Colts 26, Steelers 7
Displaying their considerable prowess before a nationwide television audience and one of the most formidable foes they'll face the rest of the regular season, the Indianapolis Colts made it 11 straight victories and continued their quest to become the first undefeated team since the 1972 Miami Dolphins with an emphatic 26-7 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers on Monday night at the RCA Dome.
With quarterback Peyton Manning finding favorite receiver Marvin Harrison running wide open down the middle of the field on his first offensive play of the night, he made a perfect throw for an 80-yard touchdown and the Colts never trailed. They became only the sixth team to start a season 11-0 since 1970, won their 19th regular season game in their last 20 starts and set a franchise record with their 10th straight victory at home.
Manning said offensive coordinator Tom Moore "had it in his mind early in the week that he wanted to throw deep on the first play. Rarely on a play-action fake do you get the cornerback [the Steelers' Ike Taylor] to bite like that. That's what happened. What a great way to start and set the tempo for the rest of the game."
The Colts showed off their gaudy skills in all three phases of another statement game, this time making a case to any naysayers that perhaps this is the season that Manning can finally win a big-time championship. The Colts' defense also showed up in full force, stuffing Pittsburgh's potent running game in allowing only 86 rushing yards and intercepting two Ben Roethlisberger passes.
The Colts rolled up 366 yards of offense, with their highly acclaimed triplets -- Manning, Harrison and running back Edgerrin James -- all having big nights. Manning completed 15 of 25 passes for 245 yards and two touchdowns. James pounded out 124 rushing yards in 29 carries, even though his longest run of the night was only 10 yards. And Harrison had four catches for 128 yards and his ninth touchdown reception of the season.
Roethlisberger, the Steelers' second-year quarterback, making his first start after missing two games following arthroscopic knee surgery, suffered only his second loss in 19 career starts. The somewhat undersized Colts, using more speed than brute force on their favorite artificial surface, swarmed to the ball and put the quarterback under excruciating pass rush pressure. He was sacked three times but was constantly trying to avoid rushers coming from every which way on a night the Steelers fell to 7-4.
Pittsburgh didn't help its cause much either with a dubious decision to try an onside kick on the opening kickoff of the second half. Trailing 16-7, place kicker Jeff Reed advanced the ball only seven yards -- three short of the minimum -- and the Colts took over at the Steelers 37.
"I was just trying to create a spark and trying to get a possession," said Steelers Coach Bill Cowher, explaining his decision to try such a risky play with his team already trailing by nine points at the half.
"They pretty much dominated us -- and you can't deny that."
Manning said he was "a little bit" surprised by the onside kick, though several teams have resorted to that tactic against the high-powered Colts over the last several years, especially when they fall behind. "Obviously, if they get it, it's a big play for them," he said.
"Obviously, you like the short field. If we get it recovered, it makes you even more determined to get a touchdown."
Eight plays later, that's exactly what happened. Manning threaded a pass through three defenders into the arms of tight end Bryan Fletcher for a 12-yard touchdown with 11 minutes 47 seconds left in the third period, and the Colts had a 23-7 lead that never was seriously threatened.
Indianapolis place kicker Mike Vanderjagt, another potent offensive weapon, made three of four field goals in the pivotal first half field, hitting from 29, 48 and 44 yards, the last on the final play before intermission.
That kick was set up by safety Mike Doss's interception of an ill-advised Roethlisberger pass as the quarterback was being pressured. The Colts got the ball at the Pittsburgh 45 with 15 seconds left, but Manning found Harrison for a 14-yard gain on a quick slant and James picked up five more to set up the 44-yard kick.
The Colts will try to make it 12 in a row Sunday against Tennessee, again on their home field, before facing three straight playoff caliber teams -- at Jacksonville on Dec. 11, at home against San Diego Dec. 18 and at Seattle on Christmas Eve before ending the season on Jan. 1 at home against Arizona.
Manning said what he likes best about the 2005 Colts is that "we can play any kind of game. We can spread out, or we can run, run, run, take the two-yard gain and not get frustrated. We stay with what works."
Colts Coach Tony Dungy was asked how he might approach resting his players if the winning streak remains alive and the Colts secure home-field advantage throughout the playoffs before the regular season ends.
"There's a proverb in the Bible that says you shouldn't look ahead," he said. "All I've said is that we'll play the way we've always played.
"Everyone is way, way ahead on this right now. We haven't even got our division won yet."