A FUN AFTERNOON

The Colts, after squeezing five consecutive crucial victories from a nailbiting November, turned in one of their most dominant performances of the season Sunday afternoon on the first weekend in December, beating the Cincinnati Bengals 35-3 victory at Lucas Oil Stadium.

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After Stressful November, Colts Pull Away for 35-3 Victory over Bengals
INDIANAPOLIS – This one just felt different. Much different. And for the Colts, it was a good feeling.

Because this time, no late-game heroics were needed.

No late-game rally.

No game-saving interception.

No fourth-quarter stress.

The Colts' sixth consecutive victory – a game that continued to enhance their playoff positioning – wasn't easy, players said afterward . . .

But it sure was fun.

The Colts (9-4), after squeezing five consecutive crucial victories from a nailbiting November, turned in one of their most dominant performances of the season Sunday afternoon on the first weekend in December, pulling steadily away for a 35-3 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals (1-11-1) in front of 66,402 fans at Lucas Oil Stadium in downtown Indianapolis.

"It was great to have a fun one," said Colts defensive end Dwight Freeney, whose 1.5 sacks were part of a second consecutive stifling defensive effort for a unit that hasn't allowed a touchdown in eight quarters.

"It was a little less stressful out there," Colts offensive tackle Ryan Diem said.

"We haven't had that in such a long time," Colts Head Coach Tony Dungy said. "You get them (big leads) by just working hard. You never know when they're going to come. It was fun to have some of our young guys in there and see them play and get some rest for our guys."

The Colts, after winning five November games by a total of 20 points, took a 14-3 halftime lead, pushed it to 28-3 with a pair of third-quarter touchdown passes by quarterback Peyton Manning, then pulled further away with an 85-yard interception return by cornerback Kelvin Hayden with 5:02 remaining.

"It didn't feel easy out there," said Manning, who completed 26 of 32 passes for 277 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions for a passer rating of 134.0. "We look at teams. We didn't look at records. They have good players. They have good schemes.

"You still have to go out there and make the plays."

The Colts became the second team in NFL history to win at least six consecutive games in five consecutive seasons (San Francisco had a seven-season streak, 1989-1995). Indianapolis had an eight-game winning streak in 2004, a 13-game winning streak in 2005, a nine-game winning streak in 2006 and seven- and six-game winning streaks last season.

"As long as we stay consistent and keep getting better, we should be good," Colts defensive end Raheem Brock said. "Week by week, game by game . . ."

Since 2003, the Colts have had seven streaks of at least five regular-season victories.

The Colts' victories in November came by a total of 20 points. They trailed in each game, and in four of the five games, they rallied in the second half.

"Going 5-0 in November with some really tight games against some tough teams – it was kind of refreshing to get one that was a little less stressful," Diem said. "You have to be concerned with every team out there you're going to play. You never know what's going to happen.

"They're professionals. They're going to play hard. They just kind of let it get away from them."

The victory ensured the Colts will finish above .500 for a seventh consecutive season, a streak that began in 2002, Dungy's first season.

"A lot of things about the streak make you feel good," Dungy said. "The fact that we have played tough teams and we've played some teams we may see again. We've had to win different ways. We've had tight games. We've had bad weather, so a lot of things that will prepare us, I think we've come through. That helps you."

The victory also ensured the Colts will maintain their hold on the No. 5 seed in the AFC wild-card chase entering next weekend, a status they held entering the weekend over Baltimore (8-4) because of a superior conference record and a head-to-head victory. New England and Miami entered the weekend 7-5.

New England and Miami played at 4:15 Sunday, with Baltimore playing at 8:15 p.m.

The Tennessee Titans on Sunday beat the Cleveland Browns, 28-9, to clinch the AFC South title. The Colts had won the last five South titles.

"Regardless of what happened with Tennessee, whether they won or lost, it didn't matter to us," said Freeney, who in addition to his sacks pressured Bengals quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick into scrambling into one of defensive end Robert Mathis' 2.5 sacks. "We're just trying to go out there, play our best game, and keep winning. Right now, we're in a good position. If we keep winning, we're good."

This year's winning streak followed a 3-4 start, a stretch that ended with back-to-back losses in late October at Green Bay and Tennessee.

"I think we've just continued to practice well, and obviously we've had the offense working together a little bit more," Dungy said. "More than anything, we just continued to work on what we do. We haven't added anything. We just worked on our fundamentals and we hung in there.

"Tennessee got the jump on us in the division, but the guys just kind of put that out of their mind and tried to improve, and we have. I think we've gotten better each month. . . .

"The first thing, we have to get in (the playoffs). We have a couple of more wins to get in, but if we get in, I think we have as good a shot as anyone."

Said Manning. "It's truly been a one-game-at-a-time philosophy since we have been 3-4, and that was the philosophy today. That will be the philosophy the rest of the month."

And while many observers wondered if the Colts would overlook the Bengals because of their record, players said streaks – this season's and ones in the past – don't happen without a focused, consistent approach.

"It's the approach we take – get ready for this week and take care of the little things," Diem said. "We prepare for a tough game, regardless of who we're playing."

Said Colts defensive end Raheem Brock, "We never overlook anyone. We tell guys as soon as they come here, 'Anything can happen on any given Sunday. Regardless of the opponent's record, they can make plays, too. They play in the league for a reason and they're out there to make plays just like we are.'

"We never overlook anybody. Game by game, week by week, we want to get better."

The Colts on Sunday took a 7-0 lead when running back Dominic Rhodes scored on a 17-yard run with 36 seconds remaining in the first quarter. The play capped a nine-play, 79-yard drive.

The Bengals twice drove into Colts territory in the first quarter, with Colts cornerback Tim Jennings recovering a fumble by quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick to end the first drive, and with the defense forcing a punt to end the other.

Early in the second quarter, the Colts drove to the Cincinnati 11, losing possession when tight end Dallas Clark fumble at the 1. The ball rolled into the end zone where Bengals linebacker Rashad Jeanty recovered.

The Bengals then drove for a 19-yard field goal by kicker Shayne Graham, but late in the half, a Cincinnati turnover led to a momentum-changing Colts score.

With just over a minute remaining before halftime, Hayden intercepted Bengals quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick and returned it to the Bengals 15. An unsanlike conduct penalty moved the ball to the Bengals 7.

Two plays later, Manning's 5-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Marvin Harrison gave the Colts a 14-3 halftime lead.

After entering the third quarter with a 14-3 lead, the Colts used a 15-play, 81-yard drive to take a three-possession lead – 21-3 – with a 2-yard touchdown pass from Manning to wide receiver Anthony Gonzalez with 6:15 remaining in the quarter.

The Colts pushed their lead to 25 points on the ensuing possession, with Clark catching a 4-yard touchdown pass from Manning with 2:22 remaining in the third quarter.

Manning set up the touchdown with a 67-yard catch-and-run pass to Harrison at the Bengals 2, and giving the Colts momentum they never relinquished, but momentum that Dungy said was much harder-earned than many might believe.

"Everyone thinks these games are going to be easy," Dungy said, "and they'll look at the final score and feel like it was. But we had to work. Everybody came out and played well. . . .

"The second half we got rolling. It was a good effort and the kind of thing you need. I told the team it was what we expected. We got that and now we can look to next week."

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