GAME OF THE WEEK: Cats' D hopes to slow Colts' O

Updated: October 11, 2003, 12:02 PM ET

INDIANAPOLIS -- The Carolina Panthers want to find out how good they really are. On Sunday, they face their toughest test of the young season.

The mission: Slow down the Indianapolis Colts' thoroughbreds, Peyton Manning and Marvin Harrison, or risk losing their perfect record.

"This is the first time we're really going to get challenged," safety Mike Minter said. "We're looking forward to it; everybody back there will be ready to go."

If the past two weeks are any indication, Minter and the Panthers (4-0) should expect a formidable challenge.

The Colts (5-0) have been one of the NFL's best teams over the season's first month and their high-powered offense got a jump-start with impressive back-to-back wins over two of the Panthers' NFC South foes.

In those games, the Colts scored 93 points, Manning produced the best consecutive games in his brilliant six-year career, and Harrison had 17 catches for 334 yards and five touchdowns.

Oh yeah, the Colts also set a franchise scoring record on the road (55) at New Orleans, then at Tampa Bay became the first NFL team to rally from 21 points in the final four minutes of regulation.

Indianapolis might be playing better than any other team in the league right now, and for a young defense that is rapidly earning a reputation as one of the NFL's stingiest, Sunday's game is a chance to prove it's deserving.

"We're definitely going to have to step up," said defensive end Mike Rucker, who shares the NFL lead with five sacks. "We've seen what they are capable of doing. We have our hands full."

On paper, it's a classic in contrasts.

Carolina has been winning with a defense that has allowed the fewest points in the league (an average of 12), while Indianapolis has the NFL's highest-scoring offense (31.6 points per game).

The Colts thrive in the passing game, where Manning and Harrison form the league's most prolific combination. The Panthers prefer playing smashmouth football with running back Stephen Davis.

Defensively, Carolina is built for power, Indianapolis for speed.

But as this weekend's only matchup between unbeaten teams attests, both approaches work.

"It's a different style," Colts coach Tony Dungy said, referring to Carolina's defense. "Carolina is very, very sound and they do some things to cause you problems."

Still, the Colts have had little trouble moving the ball against top teams.

Indianapolis blew out Tennessee 33-7 and scored 38 points after halftime against the Super Bowl champion Buccaneers.

And the Colts' two most impressive offensive showings came without Edgerrin James, the 1999 and 2000 rushing champion. His availability will be a game-time decision again this week because of a sore back.

The difference for the Colts this season has been a defense that has held up on the few occasions the offense sputtered -- a combination that has produced the Colts' best start since 1977.

A win Sunday would give the Colts their first 6-0 record since their 1958 championship season.

But Dungy has some concerns.

While the defense has been solid, it's allowed three straight 100-yard rushers. So the Colts expect a steady dose of Davis, who has run for 100 yards in each of the first four games and averages an NFC-high 141.3. If he's productive, the Colts' offense likely won't get many chances to use its horsepower.

"They have the hottest running back in the league right now," Manning said. "So we may not get that many possessions."

Another problem could be injuries. Indianapolis already has ruled out starting right tackle Ryan Diem (ankle) for the game and left tackle Tarik Glenn's streak of 101 straight starts is in jeopardy because of a sprained ligament in his left knee.

The absence of Diem and Glenn could make the Colts susceptible to the Panthers' strong front four, which includes Rucker and last year's rookie of the year, Julius Peppers.

What the Panthers really want to do -- after winning eight of nine games dating to last season and getting off to the fastest start in franchise history -- is demonstrate that they are one of the NFL's top teams.

"This is really going to tell us where we are at," Peppers said. "We won all our games, but we're going to find out who we really are this week."

This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index