- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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CINCINNATI -- Chad Johnson lived up to his guarantee that he couldn't be covered by the Indianapolis Colts, but that was far from enough Sunday. While the Bengals wideout picks on cornerbacks, Peyton Manning picks apart whole defenses.
Johnson caught eight passes for 189 yards, including a 68-yard touchdown. Manning topped Johnson by ripping the heart out of the Bengals' defense, winning a 45-37 shootout in which he threw for 365 yards and three touchdowns.
"They're a good football team," Cincinnati quarterback Carson Palmer said of the Colts. "Peyton has answers for everything he sees defensively. But we can beat that team, and I really hope we see them later on this year. There's a good chance of that, and we're playing for that opportunity. We need to play better the next time we see them."
One thing was clear Sunday: The Bengals' offense is trying to evolve in the same mode as the Colts'. Palmer came out in a no-huddle offense that caught the Colts struggling to get in defensive calls. It took the Colts' defense until the third quarter to settle down after a first half in which Indy escaped with a 35-27 lead.
"I think that's the offense everybody wants to run," Palmer said. "Everybody wants to have the capability at the line of scrimmage that they have. We aren't there yet. I'm not there yet as far as being knowledgeable of this game as far as defenses and our offense. It's unbelievable to watch what they do. The amount of plays they run is very small, but they run them so well."
It's been unbelievable watching how defenses have played Manning this season. Copying the Patriots' game plan from last year, the Colts' offense faced defenses that dropped seven to eight players into coverage to limit Manning after his 49-touchdown season. Of late though, Colts opponents are starting to cheat an extra defender or two toward the line of scrimmage to take away Edgerrin James, who was the league's first-half MVP in my opinion.
The Bengals came out in a regular 4-3 scheme and tried to play man coverage against Manning's receivers. In the past three games, opponents have tried to force Manning to win the games and he's succeeded. Manning toyed with the Bengals' defense by going back to his old two tight-end offense of a couple years ago. Tight end Dallas Clark took the slot receiver spot usually filled by Brandon Stokley. Unknown tight end Bryan Fletcher took the blocking role on the other side of the field. Manning watched how the Bengals aligned and surgically carved up the defenders.
"Cincinnati came in and said, 'Hey, we don't want Edgerrin James to get established,' " Manning said. "We were thinking that they would be thinking that. The games against Cleveland and Houston in the past couple of weeks set up what Cincinnati did."
Manning countered by putting on a clinic. By moving Clark to the slot, he put the Bengals' pressure defense at a disadvantage. Marvin Lewis had to make a decision. He kept his defense in a 4-3 base early, which left Clark mostly on a linebacker. If Lewis brought up a safety to cover Clark, Manning had man coverage for Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne.
Clark finished with six catches for 125 yards and a touchdown. Manning converted his first five possessions into touchdowns, letting everyone score. He threw touchdown passes to Wayne, Fletcher and Clark while James and Dominic Rhodes scored touchdowns on the ground. The Colts led 35-17 in what turned out to be the second-highest scoring first half (62 points) in NFL history.
Palmer tried to keep up with the master of the no-huddle, but he couldn't do it for 60 minutes.
"He runs those plays so well," Palmer said. "It's fun to watch. I hope we are in the same boat as they are some day. I don't have the experience to know how far away I am in being able to run the whole game at the line of scrimmage. I've got a long way to go and have a lot of learn. Peyton has been in the league eight years, and has been running this offense maybe five of those years. The league is trying to move offenses in this direction."
Manning's efficiency is amazing. He completed 24 of 40 passes for 365 yards and three touchdowns, working almost completely out of the no-huddle. He's a machine and he's getting better. Out of 12 possessions, he engineered drives that resulted in six touchdowns and one field goal. For the season, Manning has 36 touchdown drives in 98 possessions. How efficient is that? Most teams average 12 possessions a game. Manning averages under 10 and scores a touchdown on 37 percent of those possessions.
Manning loved playing the Bengals because the Bengals' style gives his offense a chance to pass.
"They are a single safety team that is either going to blitz or play man-to-man," Manning said. "When teams do that, that's why you got Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne, Brandon Stokley and Dallas Clark who can beat one-on-one. That's why in March and April and May, you throw into air and pretend you are going against a good cover cornerback like Deltha O'Neal and try to put it in the right spot."
In the first half, Manning went 16-for-23 for 272 yards and three touchdowns. He had opened a 35-17 lead, but the Bengals rushed back with a field goal and a touchdown, the latter being set up by a Manning interception when he was knocked off balance by a blocker who stepped on his foot while he was throwing.
To his credit, Palmer had the Colts shaking their heads for a while. His no-huddle, which he showed a little bit in a game against Green Bay in Week 8, had the Colts reeling on defense. Palmer had a quick-call audible once when he spotted confusion in the Colts secondary and hit Johnson for the uncontested 68-yard touchdown.
"We couldn't get lined up and couldn't get the calls in fast enough," Colts cornerback Jason David said. "We weren't prepared for it in the first quarter. It got us off our game early on."
The Colts' defense settled down and held the Bengals to a touchdown and a field goal in the second half.
"Looking at the offense from the sidelines, it's not fair the way they play," Chad Johnson said.
For a while, though, the game was fun for the Bengals. Johnson reached into his bag of tricks twice to celebrate his score. He kneeled in front of a cheerleader and proposed along with later holding up a sign that read, "T.O. (Terrell Owens), I've Got You."
"Proposing is something everybody does, and once you do, you're life is over," Johnson said while laughing.
But the second half was no laughing matter for Cincy.
"It's been awhile since we've been in a shootout," Manning said. "We really haven't been in one this year. We knew Cincinnati had the potential for that coming into this game. We were very determined to come in here and move the ball."
A 15-play, 77-yard drive capped by a 2-yard James touchdown run gave the Colts a 42-34 lead in the third quarter. Rookie cornerback Marlin Jackson intercepted Palmer on the next series and Manning drove them to a field goal. Now, the Colts are 10-0 and looking unbeatable.
"You have to be perfect," Palmer said in retrospect. "It's no fun to see them move up and down the field."
Years from now, maybe Palmer can do the same thing. He's trying.
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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