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?
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 celebrating.”