AS THE Cincinnati Bengals jogged through their final workout last Saturday, a day before facing the unbeaten Indianapolis Colts, effervescent wide receiver Chad Johnson spied a visitor on the field and yelled, "You better get yourself a sideline pass tomorrow!" ¬∂ "For what?" the visitor yelled back. ¬∂ "You're gonna see something you never seen before!" Johnson said. "Something historical! You'll want to be up close!" ¬∂ How prescient. "I didn't lie," Johnson said Sunday night, walking off the Paul Brown Stadium field after the Colts had outgunned the Bengals 45-37 to improve their record to 10-0. "It was a great show, and the Colts are good. They're very, very, very good." ¬∂ But are they perfect? And should those annoying players from the 1972 Dolphins, who so abundantly relish their legacy as the only team in NFL history to go unbeaten and untied for an entire season, be nervous? ¬∂ The answers: No, and yes. The Bengals--with 492 total yards and a ridiculous 6.3 yards-per-rushing attempt on Sunday--exposed serious flaws in what was one of the AFC's stingiest defenses. Left in doubt is whether the Colts are good enough at the corners and in up-the-gut run defense to win their next nine games. That's what it would take: six more regular-season games and three in the playoffs to run the table and become the NFL's first 19-0 team. (The '72 Dolphins, playing a 14-game regular season, finished 17-0.)
Those nine games include some land mines. This Monday night the 7-3 Pittsburgh Steelers, with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger likely returning after arthroscopic knee surgery, travel to Indianapolis. A visit by the 2-8 Tennessee Titans is followed by a three-game murderer's row: a trip to Jacksonville (the Colts and the Jaguars, now 7-3, have split their last four games); a home date with San Diego (the Chargers, currently 6-4, will be fighting for their playoff life in Week 15); and a trip to Seattle (the Seahawks, at 8-2, lead the NFC) for a battle between the two teams that could have the league's best records. On New Year's Day the playing-out-the-string Arizona Cardinals close the season at the RCA Dome. After a bye week in the playoffs the Colts would host a wild-card winner (possibly the Patriots, which would give Indy a chance for some sweet playoff revenge), then the first-ever AFC title game in Indianapolis, perhaps against the dangerous Denver Broncos. Game 19, of course, would be Super Bowl XL in Detroit.
If the Colts do win 'em all, they'll have accomplished one of the great feats in NFL history. They'll have beaten the three-time Super Bowl champs, New England, by 19 on the road, and perhaps will have knocked them off again in the playoffs. They'll have negotiated a very difficult homestretch. And they'll have faced much better regular-season competition than did the '72 Dolphins. Miami's toughest opponent that year finished 8-6; Indy could play seven games against teams with final victory totals of 10 or more. And because media pressure today is far greater than what the Dolphins faced 33 years ago--Peyton Manning met a postgame scrum that included reporters from Chicago, Dallas, Kansas City, Los Angeles, New York City, San Francisco, San Diego, Seattle and Washington, and this was only Week 11--the weight of the streak will grow every week.
Adding to the degree of difficulty for Indianapolis is that even the weaker teams on its schedule will become more dangerous, because playing the Colts is their Super Bowl. Only seven teams have gone unbeaten past midseason in the past 25 years, and except for the '85 Bears, whose only loss was to an 8-4 Miami team that would end up in the AFC title game, all succumbed to mediocre opposition. In '84, 11-0 Miami lost a shootout to 5-6 San Diego. In 1990 the New York Giants and the San Francisco 49ers, both 10-0, fell to the pedestrian Eagles (6-4) and Rams (3-7), respectively, on the same weekend. The next year 11-0 Washington was beaten by 6-5 Dallas. Remember the bizarre case of the 1998 Broncos? In John Elway's last season Denver reached 13-0 and traveled east to play a 5-8 Giants team quarterbacked by the mighty Kent Graham. Final: New York 20, Denver 16. Two years ago, in the game that introduced Chad Johnson to America, the Cincinnati receiver guaranteed that the 4-5 Bengals would whip the 9-0 Chiefs. Cincinnati won 24-19.
When asked on Sunday night who he thought would beat the Colts, Johnson said, "I think it'll be Arizona. It'll be the team you never expect."
"It's too difficult in this day and age to go unbeaten," says Buffalo G.M. Tom Donahoe. "The Colts are an outstanding team, and they've really improved on defense, but there are too many good teams in this league for someone to go 16-0."
Both make valid points, as do those who say the Colts' defense will struggle against a versatile running game. Cincinnati, with rugged Rudi Johnson and speedy Chris Perry, boasts the same kind of inside-outside tandem that Denver (Mike Anderson and Tatum Bell) could throw at Indy in the postseason. Johnson and Perry combined to rush for 158 yards on Sunday.
But none of those theories reckon with Peyton Manning. He's why 19-0 is possible.
Manning is the living, breathing reason the Colts will be favored in every game they play for the rest of the season. To say he was masterly on Sunday is like saying Joaquin Phoenix watched a little footage of Johnny Cash for Walk the Line. Indianapolis never deviated from its no-huddle offense--71 plays, not a single huddle. Just Manning walking the line himself, calling plays and formations against a jumpy Bengals D. Everyone in Paul Brown Stadium, from the 65,995 fans to the deeply respectful Bengals, could attest to Manning's brilliance after he strafed Cincinnati for five touchdowns in five drives, totaling 331 yards, in the first 27 minutes.
Manning plays a cat-and-mouse game unlike any other quarterback's. He gets up behind center with 15 seconds left on the play clock, acts as if he's going to take a snap, makes the defense commit to its alignment, then steps back, changes the play verbally or with hand signals and takes the snap. "Peyton's a magician," said Bengals rookie middle linebacker Odell Thurman. "I'd say on half the plays today he knew exactly what we were doing. He'd call our plays. We'd have a blitzer walk up and disguise what he was doing, but Peyton would see it right away and point to one of his guys. He'd say, 'You get that block, I got the play.' And by going no-huddle they keep you in the same defense."
Manning showed his mastery with one particularly ingenious call on Sunday, picking up on something he'd learned in the Colts' final preseason game on Sept. 2. In the second quarter of that game, on the very same field, the Colts trailed the Bengals 28-0 and just wanted to get out of town without anybody getting hurt. On second-and-goal at the Bengals' five, Colts backup quarterback Jim Sorgi got sacked on a blitz by Cincinnati safety Ifeanyi Ohalete and fumbled. "Sorj got blindsided," Manning said on Sunday night, "but I remembered that blitz this week, and I thought if we saw that formation again, we had the perfect play for it."
Watching tape of that preseason game, Manning noticed that when the Colts' tight end set up to block the Bengals' right defensive end, it seemed to be the signal for Ohalete to blitz. Several times during the week Manning and third-year tight end Dallas Clark practiced a play devised to counter that blitz.
Early in the second quarter on Sunday, Indianapolis led 14-10 and had a first-and-goal from the Cincinnati nine. Manning, anticipating that he might see Ohalete inching toward the line, as he had in the red zone in the preseason, turned to his tight end to signal the prepared play. Instead of Clark, rookie Bryan Fletcher (career NFL catches: six) was in the lineup, but Fletcher knew what to do. As Fletcher set up on the left, opposite defensive end Robert Geathers, Ohalete inched toward the gap between Fletcher and the left guard. At the snap Fletcher feigned a block on Geathers as Ohalete steamed toward Manning. The tight end wriggled out of traffic, took a couple of running steps and looked back. The ball was already in the air. Fletcher, uncovered, had his first NFL touchdown.
Three hours later the rookie still had a grin on his face. "These games will never be forgotten--and this team will never be forgotten," Fletcher said. "You get the sense we're playing with history here."
Maybe. Since 1920, 17 NFL teams have been 10-0. One finished perfect. "I'm glad we have the schedule we have," Manning said, standing in the tunnel leading out to the team bus, and to the rest of the season. "Every week will be a big game. We've got the Steelers this week. You don't think we'll be focused for that one?"
Of course they will. As Chad Johnson might say, the Colts are doing something historical.
Read Peter King's Monday Morning Quarterback, each week at SI.com/football.
Manning ran the no-huddle to perfection, constantly switching up at the line to keep the Bengals' defense off balance.
Fletcher danced into the end zone untouched after he and Manning correctly recognized a Bengals blitz.