INDIANAPOLIS – An NFL season is filled with many twists and turns. Some are predictable and others totally are unforeseen.
The 16-game season is such a test of endurance over four months that a game in week three could not be classified as critical in any sense. There is far too much football to be played.
What tonight is, though, is big.
The Colts host the Steelers in Lucas Oil Stadium in a contest that pits perennial playoff teams who harbor aspirations to remain post-season participants.
Indianapolis and Pittsburgh both absorbed division losses on the road to open the season. The Colts lost at Houston, 34-7, while the Steelers lost at Baltimore, 35-7.
Under the NFL's scheduling formula, teams from the AFC South meet teams from the AFC North this season.
Tonight marks the second straight game for Indianapolis against that division. The Colts lost last Sunday at home to Cleveland, 27-19. The Colts will conclude play against the AFC North by visiting Cincinnati on October 16 and Baltimore on December 11.
Pittsburgh stepped out of AFC action last Sunday when it beat Seattle, 24-0. Tonight's game starts a month of AFC South action for the Steelers. Pittsburgh travels to Houston next Sunday before hosting Tennessee and Jacksonville the following two weeks.
The Colts and Steelers are not regular combatants. The teams have met in league play only four times since the 2002 NFL Realignment. When the teams have met, however, the bright lights of prime-time, the late-afternoon television time slot or the national glare of playoff football have been involved.
Indianapolis and Pittsburgh engaged in Monday Night battles in 2002 and 2005. The Steelers earned a 28-10 win in Heinz Field on October 21, 2002, the first season of realignment. Indianapolis forged a 26-7 win in the RCA Dome on November 28, 2005. The teams engaged in a Divisional Playoff contest a few weeks later, and the final post-realignment meeting was in Pittsburgh on November 9, 2008. The Colts earned a 24-20 late-afternoon win before a near-national television audience. Tonight's game brings the same level of coverage between the successful franchises.
Though past successes play no part in tonight's game, part of the expectancy of the viewing public comes from the winning traditions of the teams.
Since the start of the 1999 season, Indianapolis (138-56) stands as the winningest regular-season team. Pittsburgh (122-71-1) ranks third. Over that span, Indianapolis leads the league with 11 playoff appearances. Pittsburgh is tied for fourth-most with seven. The Colts (19) are tied for the league lead in the number of playoff games since then, while Pittsburgh is fourth and both clubs are in the top five in the NFL in the number of playoff wins since the start of the 1999 season.
When realignment hit the NFL prior to the 2002 season, Indianapolis moved from the AFC East to the newly-formed AFC South. Pittsburgh had been in the AFC Central with five other teams – Baltimore, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Tennessee and Jacksonville. With Tennessee and Jacksonville joining Houston and the Colts in the South, the Central was re-named the North and Pittsburgh was left with rivals it had shared a division previously.
The Colts and Steelers have found realignment to their competitive satisfaction. The Colts are tied for the NFL lead with seven division titles, while Pittsburgh is lodged with four other teams for third-most with five crowns. Indianapolis (42-13) and Pittsburgh (39-16) have the second- and third-best divisional records since 2002. Indianapolis is the only NFL team with double-digit victory totals and playoff berths annually since 2002, while the Steelers have won 10 or more games six times. Pittsburgh has qualified for the playoffs six times as well since 2002, the league's third-best total. The Colts have won 12 or more games seven times since 2002, while Pittsburgh has done it three times, and both clubs have reached multiple Super Bowls.
For the teams now, though, the challenge is in the present.
Indianapolis has started the season with consecutive losses and needs to rebound against Pittsburgh. The Colts are a veteran group that is competing without quarterback Peyton Manning. Kerry Collins, a 17th-year pro, joined Indianapolis on August 25 and is directing an offense that is finding its way in 2011.
Indianapolis showed improvement in week two against Cleveland and hopes to continue that upward graph tonight.
Collins and the offense used the no-huddle attack last week for the first time and though the results did not meet the team's full aspirations, it did function well enough to create scoring opportunities.
Indianapolis had four scoring drives that featured 10 or more plays. Three of those drives ended in field goals, while the fourth produced a touchdown, and the team had an additional scoring march that totaled nine snaps. Indianapolis was the NFL leader in the number of drives exceeding 10 plays last season.
Indianapolis has averaged 4.0 and 4.2 rushing yards over the first two games. Counting the final three games of 2010, all wins, the Colts have averaged more than four yards per rushing attempts in five consecutive outings.
Over the first two games this year, Joseph Addai has totaled 103 yards on 22 attempts, a 4.7 average, while rookie Delone Carter is averaging 3.9 yards per attempt (18-71). Indianapolis had 26 rushing attempts last week against Cleveland, and one barometer for the club is when it attempts at least 22 rushes in a contest. The Colts were 10-0 in such games in 2010, 10-1 in 2009 and 7-2 in 2008. The club won its last five games in 2008 when having at least 22 rushes, and the lone setback in 2009 was against the Jets in game 15.
The key now is to continue to execute the attack and finish drives.
"We obviously did some things better last week, but that's not what we are measured by around here. We are measured by winning, and we failed to do so," said head coach Jim Caldwell. "We ran the ball a bit better, and it is encouraging to see some of the things we have going with Joseph Addai and Delone Carter. There are things to build on, and that is a plus. We are making progress, and we want to keep trending in that direction."