The Indianapolis Colts are AFC South champions for the fourth straight season, but due largely to a porous run defense, they no longer have the inside track toward the conference’s top seed.
The Cincinnati Bengals’ improvement on defense is a big reason they are back in position to make the playoffs.
One night after backing into the division title, the Colts try to avoid a third straight loss while preventing the Bengals from recording their longest win streak in 18 years when the teams meet on Monday at the RCA Dome.
Indianapolis clinched its fourth consecutive division title by virtue of Jacksonville’s 24-17 loss to Tennessee on Sunday. However, the Colts (10-3) could use a strong performance—particularly on defense—to prove to doubters they’re still viable Super Bowl contenders.
The Colts allowed 375 yards rushing, tied for second-most in the NFL since the 1970 merger, in a 44-17 home loss to the Jaguars last week.
It was the third loss in four games following a 9-0 start for the Colts, who had been the top seed in the AFC before last week’s defeat. They need to win this contest to remain tied with Baltimore for the conference’s second-best record, one game behind San Diego.
“We don’t have that No. 1 seed in our hands right now. We did up until yesterday,” coach Tony Dungy told the team’s official Web site last Monday. “We have to continue to play and win, and win as many games as we can. But right now, we’re in the thick of things.
“If we’re playing well, I don’t think it really matters what seed you are. You can be the No. 1 seed—if you’re not playing well, it’s not going to help us. So, that’s our concern, is to try to get ourselves back playing well. That’s everything.”
Last Sunday’s loss was the team’s worst since a 41-0 defeat to the New York Jets in the playoffs five years ago. That season also was the last time Indianapolis lost three games in a row.
Indianapolis spent much of last week working on tackling, but it didn’t seem to pay off as the Colts were again awful against the run. The Colts rank last in the NFL with 176.5 rushing yards allowed per game, and have given up 594 on the ground in their last two.
“What we have to do is look at things, examine the breakdowns and improve,” Dungy said. “Fortunately, we have time to do that. If this was the last game of the season, it would be tougher.”
The Colts defense will look to rebound against Cincinnati’s Rudi Johnson, who ran for 117 yards and two touchdowns on a season-high 30 carries in the Bengals’ 27-10 victory over Oakland on Sunday. Johnson notched his third consecutive 1,000-yard season.
The victory was the fourth straight for the Bengals, who haven’t won five in a row since the 1988 season, the last time they reached the Super Bowl.
Cincinnati (8-5) has bounced back after dropping five of six to fall to 4-5. The Bengals enter this contest one-half game in front of Denver, Jacksonville and the Jets for the AFC’s top wild-card spot. A victory over the Colts would also keep Cincinnati two games behind the AFC North-leading Baltimore Ravens, and in contention for the division title.
“We’ve been in this position for the last month,” Johnson said. “Our backs have been against the wall. We’ve been coming out fighting and clawing. We definitely understand our situation.”
Cincinnati’s defense has keyed the resurgence, giving up only 17 points over the last three games to set a club record. The team recorded its first shutout in 17 years at Cleveland on Nov. 26.
The Bengals have held the opposition below 100 yards rushing in four straight games, allowing a total of 276 yards and 3.8 per carry. Before that stretch, they gave up more than 100 yards on the ground in every contest during a three-game skid.
“We’re on the way up,” linebacker Brian Simmons said. “We don’t want to peak until Miami (the Super Bowl), if we’re fortunate to get there.”
Cincinnati gave up a club-record 42 points in the second half of a loss to San Diego that capped the 1-5 slump, and allowed New Orleans to gain 595 yards in a win the following week.
The Bengals go up against a struggling Indianapolis offense that has failed to score more than 17 points in four of its last five games. Quarterback Peyton Manning failed to throw a touchdown pass last Sunday for the first time this season, and has only five TD passes in his last five games.
Making matters worse, receiver Brandon Stokley may be out for the season after injuring his right Achilles’ tendon and tight end Dallas Clark will miss his third straight game with a sprained right knee.
“The thing I told the team is that we will see what we are made of from here,” Dungy said. “It’s fixable. We are going to have to get it fixed to get where we want to go.”
The Bengals, meanwhile, have been dealing with more disciplinary issues. Cornerback Deltha O’Neal was inactive against Oakland, a day after his arrest on a drunken driving charge, becoming the eighth Bengals player arrested this year.
Cincinnati’s off-field problems even prompted NFL commissioner Roger Goodell to call team president Mike Brown on Monday to offer his help.
“Unfortunately, I can’t hold their hands 24/7, but it is embarrassing,” Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said Monday. “It’s an embarrassment to our organization, to our city and to our fans. These things socially are not right.”