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NFL Preview - Indianapolis (0-5) at Cincinnati (3-2)



By Lyle Fitzsimmons, Contributing NFL Editor

(Sports Network) - OK, let's go back a bit.

Back in the summertime, when looking ahead at the 2011 NFL schedule, let's say a Week 6 game was being previewed as having one team that had gotten off to a good start trying to maintain the momentum against a sad-sack unit that had barely registered as competitive in five season-opening defeats.

Exactly how many people would have labeled the former entry as the Cincinnati Bengals and the latter as the Indianapolis Colts?

Nope...not us either.

But entering Sunday's mid-October matchup between those clubs at Lucas Oil Stadium, the reversal of fortune is nearly complete.

Not only have the rookie quarterback-led Bengals already won three times in five games -- just one win short of what they managed in 16 tries last season -- but they've worked themselves into the conversations that include the words "playoff positioning" and "AFC North Division."

A 30-20 win at Jacksonville last Sunday was the latest step in the quick maturation process of Bengals signal-caller Andy Dalton, the would-be sacrificial lamb chosen to fill in while Cincinnati figured to plead for the return of holdout former No. 1 draft pick Carson Palmer.

Instead, Dalton has become the absent millionaire's worst nightmare, completing 59.7 percent of his passes for 1,047 yards and six touchdowns while simultaneously earning enough respect in the huddle to make teammates believe he's the man for the job...Palmer or no Palmer.

"It's not about whether he's got Superman talent or all this," left tackle Andrew Whitworth said of Dalton. "He knows how to get you in and out of the huddle and put you in the good situations, and he's going to play with his heart. And that's going to help you win football games.�

Meanwhile, the Colts continue searching for the formula without their best ingredient.

Now accustomed to the absence of perennial All-Pro quarterback Peyton Manning, coach Jim Caldwell and his team has gotten only incrementally closer to a first victory without the sure-fire Hall of Famer.

Attempt No. 5 ended in a 28-24 home loss last week to previously-struggling Kansas City, which rallied from a 10-point halftime deficit with a touchdown in each of the final two quarters -- the last coming at the end of a nine-play drive with just more than five minutes remaining.

Unheralded understudy Curtis Painter got his second start of the season for Indianapolis in place of injured veteran fill-in Kerry Collins and was respectable, completing 15-of-27 passes for 277 yards and two touchdowns.

"I think we're close," said Painter. "We're just scratching for a win here, and I think everyone's playing hard. I think that's one thing about our team, I don't think we're going to quit. I think we're going to battle and hopefully get over that hump this next week."

Caldwell agreed, saying the Manning stand-in role is now Painter's to lose.

"Curtis is our starter right now, and after this [last] performance, I certainly don't know why there would be a question," Caldwell said. "He did a tremendous job. He's not turning it over, doing a great job in terms of getting checks done at the line of scrimmage, and he threw the ball well even when he had a few drops out there.

"This is one of the first times that he's had a complete week to prepare, and I think you can see the difference. He keeps getting a little better."

SERIES HISTORY

Indianapolis has a 16-8 lead in its all-time regular-season series with Cincinnati and extended its win streak in the set to seven with a 23-17 decision at Lucas Oil Stadium during Week 10 of last season. The Bengals were also dealt a 35-3 road drubbing at the hands of the Colts in 2008 and haven't defeated Indianapolis since a 28-13 victory at the RCA Dome on Nov. 9, 1997, the year before Manning's rookie season.

In addition to the regular-season meetings, the teams have squared off once in the postseason, with the then-Baltimore Colts securing a 17-0 win over Cincinnati at Memorial Stadium in a 1970 AFC Divisional Playoff.

Cincinnati head coach Marvin Lewis is winless in four lifetime matchups against the Colts, while Caldwell won his only previous encounter with both the Bengals and Lewis with last season's result.

WHEN THE COLTS HAVE THE BALL

The Colts, who have won seven of eight lifetime games at Cincinnati, will again go with Painter, who's completed 28-of-57 passes for 558 yards, four touchdowns and a 107.2 quarterback rating in his two starts. Three of his first four scoring passes have been for 59-plus yards (87, 59, 67) as well. Rookie running back Delone Carter recorded his first career touchdown last week and could start on Sunday with leading rusher Joseph Addai unlikely to play with a hamstring injury. Wide receiver Reggie Wayne had five catches for 117 yards with a touchdown in the Colts' last game at Cincinnati, while counterpart Pierre Garcon has seven receptions for 271 yards with four touchdowns over the past two weeks. Garcon aims for a third consecutive game with 100-plus receiving yards (146, 125) and is averaging 22.1 yards per catch in 2011 (19 catches, 420 yards). In two career games against the Bengals, tight end Dallas Clark has 10 receptions for 154 yards with two touchdowns.

The Bengals have allowed an NFL-low 279.6 yards per game and recorded five fumble recoveries, tied for second-most in the league behind Baltimore (8). Defensive end Frostee Rucker has two sacks in his past three games and fellow end Carlos Dunlap had a sack in last year's loss to the Colts. Linebacker Rey Maualuga leads the team with 38 tackles, while in the backfield, free safety Reggie Nelson has 33 tackles, a sack and a fumble recovery on the season.

Statistically, Indianapolis is 27th in scoring offense (17.4 ppg), 30th in total yards (287.0 ppg), 25th in passing yards (205.0 ppg) and 30th in rushing yards (82.0 ppg). On defense, Cincinnati is sixth in scoring (18.8 ppg), third in passing yards allowed (191.0 ypg) and seventh in rushing defense (88.6 ypg).

WHEN THE BENGALS HAVE THE BALL

Cincinnati, which seeks a third straight win on Sunday, again starts Dalton, who tied his career best with two touchdown passes last week. He has an 85-plus passer rating in three of five career starts. The Bengals are 11-1 all-time when running back Cedric Benson has 25-plus carries in a game, while backup Bernard Scott posted his first touchdown of the season last week. Rookie wide receiver A.J. Green, the No. 4 overall pick in April's draft, has nine receptions for 208 yards with a touchdown in his past two games. Green leads NFL rookies with 402 receiving yards and is second in the NFL among first-year players with 24 catches. Tight end Jermaine Gresham aims for a third consecutive game with a touchdown reception this week.

For the Colts, defensive end Dwight Freeney needs 1 1/2 sacks to become the 26th player with 100 in his career since the stat was made official in 1982. Freeney has 6 1/2 sacks in five career games against the Bengals as well. Fellow end Robert Mathis has 4 1/2 sacks in four games against Cincinnati. Middle linebacker Pat Angerer has 65 tackles and a fumble recovery on the season, while free safety Antoine Bethea has 39 tackles from the backfield.

The Bengals' offense is 17th in scoring (22.0 ppg), 22nd in total yards (320.2 ypg), 24th in passing yards (212.6 ypg) and 18th in rushing yards (107.6 ypg). On defense, Indianapolis is 29th in points allowed (27.2 ppg), 26th in total yards allowed (399.4 ypg), 19th in pass defense (254.2 ypg) and 31st against the run (145.2 ypg).

KEYS TO THE GAME

Cincinnati has been stingy and opportunistic, not exactly the best opponent combination for a still-green Painter, though his improvement has been steady. Forcing him into mistakes will be vital to the Bengals' success.

Though the Bengals are hardly prolific, they have a strength in Benson that corresponds to a glaring weakness on the Colts' side -- stopping the run. Expect big numbers from him this week.

Dalton is emerging as a cool-in-a-crisis type, which may put him in position to make a play that could prove decisive in a close game.

OVERALL ANALYSIS

As foreign as it still sounds to the ear, the Bengals are a far superior team to the Colts through five weeks and seem a smart-money bet. Until Painter proves he can be an asset rather than a hindrance, expect Cincinnati to play a ball-control, clock-management game with Benson and its defense.

Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Bengals 20, Colts 14

10/13 13:31:41 ET

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