- Michael Smith, NFL Senior Writer
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Peyton Manning threw three first-half scoring passes against the Bengals.
I know I'm late, but give me a break. I had a schedule problem. But I need to get on now, and I don't even have any carry-ons, so if you've got room left, I'd love a seat. p>
No, I'm not talking about the Logan-to-LaGuardia late-afternoon shuttle. I'm talking about the Indianapolis Colts' bandwagon. p>
I'll admit it. Before Sunday, I was one of those (perhaps the last) "the Colts are undefeated, but ..." critics. Indy's first eight opponents, including the Texans twice, have an aggregate record of 30-50. They've played four games against clubs that are now 2-8. I was reluctant to call them the best team in the league because they'd compiled the league's best record mainly against some of its worst teams. Only two of Indy's wins came against teams with winning records. Week 11 would bring their first true test, at 7-2 Cincinnati (forget the decimated Patriots), a test I was certain they would fail. My bad. p>
With a 45-37 win, the Colts became the ninth team since the 1970 merger to start a season 10-0. Perhaps more impressive is Indy's 6-0 road record. If you're trying to reason why the Colts can become the second team to go through a regular season unbeaten, start there. If they're going to lose, it most likely is going to happen away from the RCA Dome. The Colts have just two more road games, albeit difficult ones, at Jacksonville in three weeks and at Seattle on Christmas Eve. p>
Pittsburgh, the team I once believed to be, when healthy, the best in the league, visits Indy next Monday night. San Diego, which put 48 on the Bills on Sunday, comes to town two weeks later. Last week I said the Colts could very well lose four games. The way the offense is executing, I'm doing a 180 and saying they very well could go 16-0. That was a statement win by the Colts in Cincinnati -- they told people like me to can it. p>
By the way, six of the eight previous teams to win their first 10 made it to the Super Bowl, and five won the whole thing. As for the Bengals, though they lost a second "statement" game, they proved in defeat that they can hang with anyone. p>
The Colts weren't the only team to enjoy a statement victory Sunday: p>
• If Indianapolis is saying, "We can take out any team anywhere," the Bears are saying, "We are to be taken seriously." The knock on the Bears, like the Colts, had been their easy schedule. Chicago had won five straight over five losing teams with a combined 14-31 record. So into Chicago came the team tied for the best record in the NFC: Carolina, a popular Super Bowl pick since the preseason and riding a six-game winning streak itself. The Bears (7-3) won in convincing fashion behind eight sacks by what right now is the best defense in football. With the way Chicago plays defense, runs the football and protects rookie QB Kyle Orton, I don't think we'll be talking about the Bears in January as a one-and-done playoff team. p>
• Tampa Bay just might be the toughest good team to figure out. The Bucs won their first four games, including close ones over Green Bay and Detroit, before losing to Vinny Testaverde and the Jets. At 5-1, they then lost at San Francisco and were blasted by Carolina. With Chris Simms at quarterback, Tampa scored a total of 24 points in those two losses. p>
Since then? Two games, both victories, and 36 and 30 points, respectively. And the Bucs are supposed to be a defensive team. A week after a gutsy call to go for two at the end made the difference in a win over Washington, the Bucs went into Atlanta (what does it say about the Falcons that they've dropped two in a row at home?) and took care of the Falcons, despite being outgained by 185 yards. p>
The Bucs (7-3) are tied with the Panthers for first in the NFC South, with Chicago coming to town next Sunday. Sure, the Bucs are winning in weird ways, but their record says they aren't to be taken lightly, either. p>
By Len Pasquarelli, ESPN.com
Front and center
As measured with their words as they were merciless with their pass rush, Chicago Bears defenders tried hard after Sunday's victory over the Carolina Panthers to maintain an air of anonymity, to remain the league's most underrated division leader for just a little bit longer. p>
Guess what, guys? The word is out. Or soon will be. The Bears, especially on the defensive side, are pretty darned good.
PRIME TIME HQ
By Jeremy Green, ESPN Insider
Three and out ...
• I don't like all the max-protection schemes Washington uses. I'd like to see them use more three- and four-receiver sets and open up the field some.
• Atlanta will never win a Super bowl with Michael Vick, because at some point in the playoffs he will have a game like today and Atlanta will be sent packing.
• Baltimore has a top-five defense but is not forcing turnovers. When you are as bad as they are on offense, you need TOs and field position.
ROOM TO GROW
By John Clayton, ESPN.com
A different level
One thing was clear Sunday. The Bengals' offense is trying to evolve in the same mode as the Colts. Carson 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.
PRIME TIME HQ
By Rick Spielman, ESPN Insider
Three and out ...
• Romeo Crennel has Cleveland playing with a lot of confidence. They still need to add talent. When they do, watch out.
• QB play usually makes the difference in the playoffs. Kyle Orton is not better than Matt Hasselbeck or Eli Manning.
• The Giants have the most balanced team. They will pull out the NFC East over the Cowboys.
Giants, Cowboys gaining separation in NFC East
Last month a lot of folks were calling the NFC East the NFL's most competitive division. It might be down to a two-horse race now. p>
The Cowboys and Giants, tied for first at 7-3, have created some space between themselves and the Eagles and Redskins. Like, two games' worth. p>
Dallas kept it going (three straight wins) by beating Detroit at home, while the Giants rebounded from that special teams disaster last week by putting perhaps the final nail in Philly's coffin at the Meadowlands. The Donovan McNabb-less Eagles lost a fourth straight for the first time in five seasons and fell to 0-4 in the division. p>
Washington, like Atlanta, has struggled at home lately, where the Redskins have lost two in a row. Go figure. A week after dropping 35 on the Bucs, the 'Skins did not score an offensive touchdown Sunday in losing to old friend Norv Turner's Raiders, a loss that dropped Washington to 5-5. The 'Skins have lost five of seven after a 3-0 start. I think they're better than .500, but I really thought this team would assert itself in the division in the second half. p>
The Giants probably have the NFC's best offense east of Seattle (Giants at Seahawks next Sunday, by the way), and the defense went some 3½ games before giving up a touchdown. New York can run it with Tiki Barber, and Eli Manning has a couple nice targets to throw it to in Plaxico Burress and Jeremy Shockey. p>
Dallas was fortunate a week ago, but the Cowboys have a nice backfield tandem in Julius Jones and Marion Barber III, a strong defense and a veteran quarterback. Drew Bledsoe is why I give the Cowboys the slight edge over the Giants, but these teams are really close. How huge was Dallas's three-point win in Week 6? These teams meet in New York in two weeks, and that could decide the division. p>
SUNDAY'S BEST AND WORST
A win and a loss
The Patriots have won back-to-back games for the first time this season. That's how tough the going has been for the world champs. Another quarterback, this time the Saints' Aaron Brooks, shredded the Patriots' patchwork secondary, but New England has allowed its last three opponents only 16, 16 and 17 points. The defense is doing what it has to, which is to keep it close and let Tom Brady (three TD passes Sunday) win it. p>
It never ceases to amaze me how people in professional sports do what Bill Belichick (left) did Sunday: perform despite the pain that comes with the death of a loved one. Belichick's father and mentor, Steve, died Saturday night of heart failure at the age of 86. Steve Belichick was an assistant coach at the Naval Academy for 33 years. p>
"[Saturday] he did what he enjoyed doing," Bill Belichick said after the Patriots' win. "He went and watched Navy play, watched them win. ... And like he normally does Saturday night, sitting around watching college football, and his heart just stopped beating. So I'm sure that's the way he would have wanted it to end. He went peacefully, which is unusual for him." p>
We offer our condolences to the Belichick family, the Naval Academy and the coaching community on their loss. p>
You hate to write anybody off with six weeks left in the season, but a couple teams that lost Sunday can just about be counted out of the playoff hunt.
I'm specifically talking about the Buffalos and Detroits of the league, teams that still had a shot. Philly and St. Louis also fell to 4-6, but we knew they wouldn't be in contention much longer.
On the other hand, the Bills went to San Diego and lost 48-10, their fifth loss in as many road games this year. New England hadn't yet pulled away in the AFC East and still has to go to Buffalo later this year, but now the Bills are two games back and can at best earn a split with the Patriots. Buffalo would have to win all of its remaining games to have a shot at a wild card, and we all know that isn't happening.
What else is there to say about Detroit? The Lions had a chance to get to .500 and keep their slim playoff hopes alive and what did they do? They committed 17 penalties and lost at Dallas.
Again, there's a lot of football left, and no one has clinched anything, but the NFC postseason field looks pretty much set at this point. I'd be shocked if the six aren't Dallas, New York, Chicago, Carolina, Tampa Bay and Seattle, the six teams that have seven or more wins.
Still, the Steelers blew it bigger than anyone Sunday. Even though they're still technically in first place by virtue of an earlier win over the Bengals, Pittsburgh would be alone atop the AFC North and not tied with Cincy at 7-3 had it gotten anything out of its offense in a loss to the Ravens.
When your offense looks worse than Baltimore's, that's saying a lot. Then again, perhaps Baltimore, which snapped a four-game losing streak, really is better than its 3-7 record. The Ravens are definitely a difficult matchup for Pittsburgh. Remember, the Steelers needed a late field goal to beat the Ravens in their first meeting.
Thankfully, Ben Roethlisberger (left) should be back next week for Pittsburgh, which has lost both games this season started by Tommy Maddox (interception, fumble Sunday). The Steelers will try to end Indy's undefeated dream Monday night at the RCA Dome.
With the way the Colts are rolling, you have to figure the two AFC North contenders are vying for the division and maybe the second bye in the playoffs. And don't forget about 8-2 Denver. If the Steelers end up being a wild card, they can look back at a loss like Sunday's at Baltimore as the reason why. p>
The matchup leaves much to be desired, but Monday Night Football at Lambeau Field is always special. The Packers are all but eliminated from the playoffs, but that has not stopped QB Brett Favre and his injury-riddled supporting cast from showing up every week with intensity. Despite QB Daunte Culpepper's season-ending injury and a host of off-the-field distractions, the Vikings are still in contention in the NFC North, following last week's impressive road victory over the Giants.
Veteran QB Brad Johnson will look for his third consecutive win as the Vikings' starter on Monday night, but he will need help from his supporting cast. Minnesota became the first team ever to return a punt, kickoff and interception for touchdowns in one game last week. One thing is for certain; it will take a complete effort for the Vikings to make it three straight in what could be Favre's last MNF appearance at Lambeau.
SOME THINGS TO SLEEP ON
• Seattle has won five in a row -- and if not for the choke job at Washington in Week 4 would be 9-1 right now. In my personal power rankings, the Seahawks, not the Panthers, were the best team in the NFC even before Sunday. p>
• Good for Kurt Warner, going back to St. Louis and not only winning but also playing well (285 yards, three TDs). Warner truly is one of the good guys in this league. He's had his share of bad fortune the past few years, from being replaced in St. Louis to getting the hook in New York to dealing with injuries his first year in Arizona and having people like me say Dennis Green should stick with Josh McCown. p>
• Drew Brees had one fewer touchdown pass (four) than incompletion (five) against the Bills. The way he's playing, Brees is going to make it difficult for the Chargers to trade him and more expensive for another team to acquire him. The question for San Diego is going to be not what Brees has done but whether Philip Rivers can do that and more if given the job. As for this year, the 6-4 Chargers are good enough to win 10 games, but their schedule is difficult enough for them to finish 8-8. That Antonio Gates injury didn't look too good, though. p>
• Atlanta is 3-3 at home. That's the most home losses of any team with a winning record. p>
• Whatever their record ends up, the Browns are going to make things hard for Jacksonville, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh in the coming weeks. Cleveland blanked Miami behind (who else?) Reuben Droughns' 166 yards. What a pickup. And Braylon Edwards is the real deal. p>
• After going almost four years without scoring 30 points, the Jaguars (7-3) have done it in back-to-back games. Byron Leftwich grew up Sunday against Tennessee, producing his first three-touchdown game. If Jacksonville keeps playing offense this way, and with that defense, it can be a factor in the playoffs, even as a wild card. p>
• Jake Plummer will never throw another interception in his life. Just kidding. Seriously, though, that's now eight pick-free games in a row for the Denver QB. p>
Antonio Gates, TE, Chiefs
Left game vs. Buffalo in the third quarter with a sprained right foot.
Marc Bulger, QB, Rams
Left game vs. Arizona with a bruised shoulder and a mild concussion.
Dan Morgan, LB, Panthers
Left game vs. Bears in the first quarter with a sprained left ankle.
Lito Sheppard, CB, Eagles
Left game vs. Giants in the third quarter with a high ankle sprain.
WEEK 12 SCHEDULE
Thursday, Nov. 24
Atlanta at Detroit, 12:30 p.m.
Denver at Dallas, 4:15 p.m.
Sunday, Nov. 27
St. Louis at Houston, 1 p.m.
Carolina at Buffalo, 1 p.m.
San Diego at Washington, 1 p.m.
San Francisco at Tennessee, 1 p.m.
Chicago at Tampa Bay, 1 p.m.
Baltimore at Cincinnati, 1 p.m.
New England at Kansas City, 1 p.m.
Cleveland at Minnesota, 1 p.m.
Miami at Oakland, 4:05 p.m.
Jacksonville at Arizona, 4:05 p.m.
N.Y. Giants at Seattle, 4:15 p.m.
Green Bay at Philadelphia, 4:15 p.m.
New Orleans at N.Y. Jets, 8:30 p.m.
Monday, Nov. 28
Pittsburgh at Indianapolis, 9 p.m.
With Sunday's 45-37 win at Cincinnati, the Colts converted at least one non-believer in their ability to go 16-0, writes Michael Smith.