Tony Dungy knew the Indianapolis Colts were facing a difficult November schedule. They’ve managed to stay perfect through it, at least so far.
Indianapolis faces another tough test in its quest to remain unbeaten when it hosts the Pittsburgh Steelers, who expect Ben Roethlisberger to start after the quarterback missed the last three games following knee surgery.
The Colts won their first seven games against opponents who currently have a combined 23-47 record, but faced a daunting schedule this month which included matchups with two-time defending champion New England, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh.
Indianapolis beat the Patriots 40-21 on Nov. 7, defeated Houston 31-17 on Nov. 13 and then topped the Bengals 45-37 last Sunday to improve to 10-0 on the year.
“We played Jacksonville and St. Louis, who had some wins, but for the most part, we hadn’t played teams with winning records,” Dungy said. “We had a lot of work ahead of us.”
That work continues this week against Pittsburgh as the Colts try to become the 11th team in NFL history and first since the 1998 Denver Broncos to open a season with 11 consecutive victories.
Steelers coach Bill Cowher is 6-0 against Indianapolis and Roethlisberger is 18-1 in his career, including a 9-0 road record.
Roethlisberger will be trying to inject some life into an offense that accomplished very little in last Sunday’s 16-13 loss at Baltimore that snapped Pittsburgh’s four-game winning streak.
The second-year quarterback has throw only two interceptions in 130 attempts this season for the NFL’s best passer rating (112.4), and he’ll need a strong performance against the Colts if Pittsburgh is to keep pace with Cincinnati atop the AFC North.
Cowher said Roethlisberger needs to get back to game speed in a hurry after not playing since Oct. 31, a difficult challenge since two or three failed drives early in the game may allow the Colts to build a big lead.
“That’s the most important thing in my mind, to keep this game within striking distance,” Cowher said. “If we can do that and not beat ourselves and not give up some of the big plays, make them do things methodically and slowly, the longer we can keep this thing going into the fourth quarter. Then it becomes a play here or a play there.”
Against the Bengals, Manning showed what can happen when the defensive focus is on James. Cincinnati limited James to 89 rushing yards after he topped 100 in his last five games and Manning rose to the occasion, picking apart a strong Bengals secondary for 365 yards and three touchdowns.
The Bengals entered the game with a league-best 20 interceptions and managed to pick off one of Manning’s throws, but the two-time MVP led the Colts to touchdowns on their first five possessions. He has 18 of his 20 touchdown passes in the last seven games.
“Peyton’s the best,” said tight end Dallas Clark, who had career highs with six catches for 125 yards against Cincinnati. “If he sees it, we’re going to take advantage of it.”
The Colts showed they can still win a high-scoring game as their defense gave up season highs in both points and total yardage (492).
“The thing I like about our team is we come to play every week, and we seem to adjust pretty well to what is put in front of us. Today had to be an offensive day,” Dungy said. “We won a couple games early in the year, 10-3 and 13-6, so I think that’s the sign of a good team: You can win whatever is presented to you.”
Cowher says the Steelers have to try and slow down Manning.
“Every defense you have, there is a void in there somewhere. He finds it,” Cowher said. “The thing we’ve got to do is make the time for him to process all that a little shorter and to try to confuse him a little bit. You’re not going to confuse him for a long period of time, but maybe just long enough to disrupt their passing game.”