By Lyle Fitzsimmons, Contributing NFL Editor
(SportsNetwork.com) – The Indianapolis Colts’ struggles of early September
suddenly seem like a long, long time ago to the rest of the teams in the AFC.
Though year three of the Andrew Luck Era began with consecutive losses to
fellow league powerhouses Denver and Philadelphia, the team formerly led by
Peyton Manning has returned to the sort of consistent success it sustained for
many of the years in which No. 18 took the snaps.
In fact, the four-game win streak it carries into a Week 7 home game against
Cincinnati on Sunday is the longest since the 14-0 skein Manning and Co. ran
off to begin the 2009 season that ultimately ended with a Super Bowl loss to
the New Orleans Saints.
Luck is already just 13 yards short of 2,000 passing yards through six games,
and his league-best 17 touchdowns are six away from the career-high of 23 he
established in each of his first two seasons.
Three of the TDs and 370 of the yards came last week in Houston, where the
Colts topped the host Texans, 33-28, to take over sole possession of the AFC
South lead at 4-2.
Emerging as Luck’s partner in the 2014 version of Manning’s old aerial tandem
with Reggie Wayne has been fellow third-year man T.Y. Hilton, who has 40
catches and 604 yards this season after hauling in 223 yards worth of
receptions in Week 6. It was the 12th 100-yard game of his brief career and
the second-most prodigious yardage total for a receiver in franchise history.
“He’s like a ghost,” coach Chuck Pagano said. “They can’t see him. That’s why
he’s getting behind everybody. I don’t know. Maybe he looks invisible out
there just because he’s so small and he’s moving so damn fast. They’re
probably looking around going, ‘God dang, he got behind us again.'”
As for the Bengals, kicker Mike Nugent is probably wishing he could disappear,
The former second-round draft pick of the New York Jets had one of the low
points of a nine-year NFL career on Sunday, when he missed a potential game-
winning field goal from 36 yards away and forced Cincinnati to settle for a
37-37 tie with Carolina.
The Bengals were 3-0 heading into a Week 4 bye, but have since dropped a 26-
point decision to New England and blown the chance at a victory against the
Nugent said the kick, which sailed wide to the right, was “the worst ball I’ve
ever hit in my career.”
Still, Cincinnati remains percentage points ahead of Baltimore atop a
competitive AFC North – the league’s only division in which all four teams are
.500 or above – and coach Marvin Lewis is not at all interested in dwelling on
“I can’t look behind. It does no good looking back,” he said. “There’s too
much ahead to look back all the time, and there’s too much change in the
future to look back. You’re wasting your time look backwards.”
The Bengals’ version of Hilton, big-play wide receiver A.J. Green, has
averaged better than 100 yards across the three games that he’s played, but he
missed the Carolina game with a toe injury and is questionable for this week
after missing practice on Wednesday.
Running back Giovanni Bernard ran for 137 yards on 18 carries against the
Panthers – including an 89-yard TD gallop that was the second-longest in team
history – but more importantly he returned to complete the game after leaving
briefly with a shoulder injury.
Bernard is fifth in the league with an average of 112.4 yards from scrimmage
and had 138 total yards in Cincinnati’s 42-28 defeat of the visiting Colts in
Week 14 last season. Indianapolis has won all six series games on its home
turf since 1997, but all were with Manning as the quarterback.
Luck threw for 326 yards and four TDs in the 2013 game, while Bengals QB Andy
Dalton had 275 yards and three TDs. One of Dalton’s scoring passes went to
Marvin Jones, who’s lost for 2014 after suffering a foot injury. Mohamed Sanu
has taken over as the No. 2 target and had 10 catches last week.
“It seems like we play them twice a year, every year,” Pagano said. “Really
good football team. Well coached, a lot of athletes. They’ve built a big, long
athletic roster on both sides of the football. They have playmakers all over
On defense, Cincinnati has been gashed for 172 rushing yards in its last three
games and 288 passing yards in its last two. As a unit, the Bengals have
managed a single sack and forced a single turnover in the two non-victories,
but Lewis still seems less than anxious to push the panic button.
“We really have to go back and just do our jobs on defense,” he said. “We’re
trying to do too much, and guys need to relax and do their thing, and keep
doing your job consistently play after play after play.”
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
One of the keys to keeping the prodigious Colts offense in check is to
maintain a consistent harassment of Luck, but that’s something the Bengals
have shown little indication that they’re about to become capable of.
Cincinnati has eight sacks as a team through five games, and only 5 1/2 of
those eight have come from the front four. Tackle Geno Atkins, who signed a
$55 million extension last season, has zero.
Continue the Trends
It’s not a significant sample size, but it is accurate to say that Dalton has
been particularly successful against the Colts. He’s faced them twice and
beaten them twice while rolling up 539 passing yards, four passing TDs (and
one rushing) and a passer rating of 116.4 in the two games. Green, if he
plays, can continue a stretch in which he’s scored every time he’s faced
Indianapolis – once each in 2011 and 2013.
Three weeks ago, calling this a potential AFC Championship Game preview would
have been iffy because of the Colts’ slow start. Now, it’s a question mark
thanks to the Bengals’ recent slump.
Chances are both teams will still find their way to the playoffs and perhaps
to the final conference game, but it’s Indianapolis – and particularly Luck –
that looks far more the part as they get together this weekend.
Sports Network predicted outcome: Colts 28, Bengals 21