CINCINNATI (AP) -- In a game of pinball offense, Peyton Manning
showed he's still the greatest wizard of them all.
He called the right plays. He made incredible passes. And,
ominously, he showed that the unbeaten Indianapolis Colts are just
starting to hit their stride.
Manning threw three touchdown passes in an offense that reached
the end zone on its first five possessions Sunday, setting up a
45-37 victory over the awe-struck Cincinnati Bengals.
"He's unbelievable," Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer
marveled. "They're unbelievable."
They're the 17th team to go 10-0 and the first since Denver in
1998. With the defense faltering for the first time and
Cincinnati's defense geared to stop running back Edgerrin James, it
was up to Manning to protect that perfect record.
He did it with his unique flair, sizing up the defense at the
line and then calling the right play to beat it.
"Peyton's the best," said tight end Dallas Clark, who had
career highs with six catches for 125 yards against a blitzing
defense. "If he sees it, we're going to take advantage of it."
The Bengals (7-3) couldn't stop him until it was too late.
Manning went 24-of-40 for 365 yards with one interception, while
James had 89 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
Coming off his record-setting 49-touchdown season, Manning took
some time to get going. He's found his stride -- 18 touchdown passes
in the last seven games, a threat to score on every snap.
"It's been a while since we've been in a shootout," he said.
"We had been running the ball, and I think Cincinnati came in and
said, 'Hey, we don't want to let Edgerrin James get established.'
We were kind of thinking they might be thinking that. So we came
out and threw it."
Johnson gave the Bengals confidence with an early 68-yard
touchdown catch and another novel celebration. He removed his
helmet on the sideline, knelt in front of a cheerleader and took
her hand in a mock proposal. Back at the bench, he wrote on a dry
erase board: "T.O. I Got You Baby."
In the end, Manning got them.
Johnson and Palmer drove to Indianapolis to watch Manning and
Marvin Harrison work their magic in a Monday night game last
season, hoping to pick up some pointers. On Sunday, they learned
not to try to one-up them.
Harrison had five catches, reaching 900 career receptions faster
than anyone in NFL history. And Manning had a perfect passer rating
after those first five touchdown drives that set the tone.
Johnson backed up his guarantee that the Colts couldn't cover
him. The Pro Bowl receiver had eight catches for a career-high 189
yards. But it wasn't enough in a game of unrelenting offense.
"Looking at that offense from the sideline, it's unfair,"
Johnson said. "We're going to see them again, believe me."
Huddles were disregarded and the defenses were flat-out dissed
by a pair of quarterbacks who made it look so simple. The first six
possessions resulted in five touchdowns, one field goal and two
perfect passer ratings.
It was so outrageous that Palmer and some of his teammates
laughed in disbelief on the sideline during the closing seconds of
the first half.
Manning was flawless on the Colts' first five possessions,
throwing for three touchdowns while the offense rolled up 301 yards
and scored 35 points.
Then, the Colts got greedy and made it a game.
Instead of running down the clock and taking a 15-point lead
into halftime, they tried to score after getting the ball back at
their 28-yard line with 1:25 to go. Manning slipped as he threw a
pass, and the ball went directly to Keiwan Ratliff for the Bengals'
NFL-high 21st interception.
That set up Rudi Johnson's second touchdown run, cutting it to
35-27 -- the second-most points ever scored in the first half of an
NFL game. The Jets and Buccaneers combined for 70 in 1985.
Surely, they couldn't keep up this pace, could they?
At the start of the second half, they did. Palmer opened with
his second touchdown pass, getting the Bengals to within a point.
Then the Colts showed their diversity, letting James carry 10 times
in a 77-yard touchdown drive.
Which quarterback would blink first?
It was Palmer, who finished 25-of-38 for 335 yards. His only
poor throw was picked off by Marlin Jackson, setting up Mike
Vanderjagt's 19-yard field goal for a 45-34 lead with 6:16 to go.
One mistake too many.
"You've got to be perfect," Palmer said. "It's unbelievable
what they do."
There were more guards on the sidelines and no security
problems for the first game after a fan ran onto the field and took
the ball from Brett Favre. ... Harrison became the sixth receiver
with 900 career catches. ... The Colts' 35 points in the first half
matched the most ever against Cincinnati in the half. Houston also
scored 35 in a 42-21 victory on Nov. 18, 1979. ... Johnson's
explanation of his touchdown celebration: "I reached deep into my
bag of tricks -- a proposal, something that everybody does and then
their life is over. If somebody tops that, I'm going to stop