A REAL CHALLENGE

The Colts will play host to the 2-6 Cincinnati Bengals Sunday, but quarterback Peyton Manning said the record means little. 'They're an excellent team,' Manning says.

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Bengals Far Better Than 2-6 Record, Manning Says
INDIANAPOLIS – In preparing this week, Peyton Manning said there were many concerns.

Manning, the Colts' 10-time Pro Bowl quarterback, said with the Colts facing a slew of injuries and a significant amount of mid-season adversity, focusing on finding a way to improve despite a depleted roster was imant.

Important, too, was reducing offensive mistakes. And finding a way to be consistent.

What wasn't a concern, Manning said, was the record of the Colts' opponent, and he said that was true because while the Cincinnati Bengals had lost six of their first eight games, they hadn't played like anything close to a franchise in last place in the AFC North.

And often, Manning said, the Bengals have played much better than that.

"You don't look at their record," Manning said as the Colts (5-3) prepared to play the Bengals (2-6) at Lucas Oil Stadium in downtown Indianapolis Sunday at 1 p.m. "They're an excellent team – very good on defense. They give you a lot of different problems, but it's up to us to have a good week of practice and hopefully take that to the field.

The Bengals' record, Manning said, is deceiving, and indeed, the team that won the AFC North last season and swept each of its three division rivals to do so has sustained a flurry of close losses.

The Bengals, after losing to the New England Patriots, 38-24, in the regular-season opener, won back-to-back games against Baltimore (15-10) and Carolina (20-7), but since then, they've lost five consecutive games by eight points or less:

*At Cleveland, 23-20.

*Home against Tampa Bay, 24-21.

*At Atlanta, 39-32.

*Home against Miami, 22-14.

*Home against Pittsburgh, 27-21.

Against the Steelers this past Monday, the Bengals cut a 27-7 fourth-quarter deficit to six points and faced 4th-and-5 from the Steelers 12 with 34 seconds remaining. A pass from quarterback Carson Palmer to rookie wide receiver Jordan Shipley fell incomplete.

The loss made an already urgent situation for the Bengals a bit more so.

And Colts defensive end Dwight Freeney said that makes them a bit more dangerous, too.

"Obviously we know that these next few games, if they lose, it might be a tough situation for them trying to get into the playoffs," Freeney said. "I'm sure they will be throwing everything and the kitchen sink at us. We'll be prepared for it, though. They don't have any more reason to win than we do.

"We need to win. We need to keep this thing going."

Freeney and Colts middle linebacker Gary Brackett each said key against the Bengals will be defending the run. Cedric Benson, who rushed for 1,251 yards and six touchdowns last season, has rushed for 599 yards and three touchdowns this season.

"You always want to make a team one-dimensional," Brackett said.

The Bengals' passing dimension is potent, too, with Palmer having passed for 2,103 yards and 14 touchdowns with eight interceptions, and veteran Terrell Owens – acquired as a free agent in the off-season – catching 55 passes for 770 yards and seven touchdowns.

"It's going to be a tough, difficult challenge, but it's also going to be fun," Colts cornerback Jerraud Powers said.

Manning said the offense faces an equally difficult challenge – and like the defense, the offense must deal with potential player absences because of injuries.

While Powers, who missed the last two weeks with a foot injury, practiced this week, safety Bob Sanders has been ruled out because of a biceps injury and defensive tackle Antonio Johnson practiced on a limited basis with a foot injury. Linebacker Clint Session missed last week's game with an elbow injury and did not practice all week.

"What we have to worry about is playing more consistent ball," Freeney said. "Obviously, we have a lot of holes from injuries and things of that nature, but I think we'll do a pretty good job. I think we have a good mentality around here of, 'Next Guy Up.' We're going to continue to keep working on that."

Offensively, the Colts recently placed wide receiver Anthony Gonzalez and tight end Dallas Clark on injured reserve. Indianapolis played against Philadelphia without running backs Mike Hart and Joseph Addai. Wide receiver Austin Collie sustained a concussion and has been ruled out against Cincinnati.

But Manning said the concern isn't as much who's not playing for the Colts as the Bengals, a team better than the first of their season might indicate.

"Everybody has a lot of pride in the NFL," Manning said. "You saw them against Pittsburgh on Monday. (They) easily, could have won that game, probably should have won that game. They are going to come in here ready to play. Certainly, they are going to see some things on the film from our Philly game, and they are going to say, 'Hey, this is a team that maybe we can beat.' I think it's going to take our best effort, best preparation, so I think a team like Cincinnati is going to come in and to think that you are going to get anything less than their best effort would just be a mistake.

"They've got excellent players, good coaches and like I said, if you really watch the games and the scores of the games, really there are one or two plays here or there, they easily could be sitting here 6-2 or 7-1."

Said Brackett, "This is the NFL. Any given Sunday, a team can show up and play great, particularly against us – teams want to play their 'A' games. We expect that. We know they're going to be fired up."

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