FOR THE first time in a long while, the Colts looked like themselves on Sunday. After five straight nail-biting wins, they thumped the hapless Bengals 35--3 in Indianapolis, getting three touchdown passes from Peyton Manning, a 67-yard catch-and-run by wide receiver Marvin Harrison, four sacks and three interceptions from the defense, and a huge sigh of relief from a sellout crowd that had begun to wonder if high-scoring, lopsided victories were a thing of the past.
The question now is whether this was a breakout performance from a team that has finally regained its stride after a 3--4 start, or simply a good day against a bad club. The answer may not come until the playoffs, because Indy closes against winless Detroit, struggling Jacksonville and the front-running Titans, who might rest their regulars if they've locked up the AFC's No. 1 seed by Week 17.
So what is the Colts' true identity? "We're trying to figure that out," said tight end Dallas Clark on Sunday. "It's been a different year for us, [with] Peyton missing camp and the preseason because of the knee injury, and the offense not putting up big numbers. A lot of the things we're doing aren't what the Colts are used to."
From 2003 to '07 Indy's offense ranked fifth or better in the league every year in total yards and averaged 32.6 points per game; this season it's 20th in yards, and scoring is down by more than 10, at 22.5 points. In four of the five wins before the Bengals game Indy had to overcome second-half deficits, and in the other the Colts needed a last-second field goal in San Diego after squandering a 10-point second-half lead. "It's good that we've been able to play in close games and win," says coach Tony Dungy, whose Colts are outscoring opponents by just three points per game. "I told our team that the last month is really what the NFL is all about—winning games in the fourth quarter, having to make plays. It seems like the last couple of years we've been way ahead in the fourth quarter in the games that we've won. But this has been good for our team."
The Colts have had to grind out wins because of a revolving-door lineup. Eleven regulars have missed starts. Injuries to the offensive line—three starters have missed at least three games—and to running back Joseph Addai (two games) have hamstrung the ground attack, which is second to last in the league. Opponents have capitalized by taking away Indy's trademark downfield pass. The Colts, who had 53 completions of 20 yards or more last year, have just 29 with three games to go. In 2007 Manning had 13 touchdown passes of 20 yards or longer; this year he's thrown just five. Stripped of its usual daring, Indy has been forced into a more disciplined, horizontal offense.
Like the offense, the D has been hit hard by injury. It appears to be finding its stride, not having allowed a touchdown in its last two games. "I don't know how teams view us right now," says defensive end Dwight Freeney, who is well aware that Indy is better known for hot starts and cold finishes, "but whether we're under the radar or have a red dot on our chests, you've got to go out there and ball. If they see us coming, we've got to hit them in the face. If they don't see us coming, we've got to hit them in the back of the head. Doesn't matter. Just get it done."
ONLY AT SI.COM Jim Trotter's Inside the NFL.