As the game began in Indianapolis between the Colts and the Steelers, you could sense that the Colts had the energy of a restless bull -- just seconds before the gate is opened at a rodeo.
The defense swarmed, quickly calming any fears that the Steelers and their self-proclaimed smash-mouth running game was going to be a problem.
And after three downs and a punt, the Colts offense touched the ball for the first time.
One play. Manning to Harrison. 80 yards. Touchdown.
Welcome to Indianapolis.
But that same energy began to nip at the Colts as aggressiveness evolved into carelessness. The Colts were flagged for an unbelievable eight times for 76 yards in the first half, and a total of twelve times by the end of the game. Even mild-mannered Marvin Harrison (4-128, 1 TD) got involved in a fracas, costing the Colts 15 yards as they closed in on the goal line, which led to the Colts settling for a 10-0 lead after a Mike Vanderjagt 29-yard field goal.
And then Peyton Manning (15-25, 245 yds, 2 TDs, 1 INT), who obviously wanted to knock the Steelers into an early submission, tried to thread a pass into double coverage and paid as Pittsburgh's Troy Polamalu snared it, shifting the momentum as he returned it 36 yards to the Indy 7-yard line.
The Steelers converted the opportunity on a 12-yard strike from Ben Roethlisberger to Hines Ward. And suddenly what looked like was going to be an early rout had turned into a ball game. But the pendulum started to swing back after Steelers kicker Jeff Reed missed a 41-yard field goal attempt on the Steelers first possession of the second quarter.
The Colts wouldn't be threatened again from that point on.
The Indy defense, which took a beating from some in the media this past week -- after allowing a big first half by the Bengals last Sunday -- looked like the unit that had made believers of early-season critics. They were repeatedly battering Steelers runners at or behind the line of scrimmage. The Colts pass rush returned putting up three sacks on the night (Montae Reagor, Robert Mathis, Josh Thomas) and creating confusion and pressure in the Steelers backfield.
By the end of the game, the Steelers had just 86 yards rushing. But get this. Twenty-nine of them came on their final possession, on a meaningless drive with the Colts already pocketing a 26-7 win. That's 57 total net yards during the real flow of the game for a team that was supposedly going to provide the biggest test of the year for the Indy run defense.
I'd say that defense got an "A" for the night on that test. And give a gold star to safety Bob Sanders who led the Colts with nine tackles and delivered some of the biggest blows of the night.
Despite their focus on shutting down the run, the Colts defense was extraordinary against the pass as well. Ben Roethlisberger finished with just 133 yards passing with a net of 111 yards. Mike Doss and Jason David both pulled in interceptions to help ruin his return to action after a three-week layoff due to knee surgery.
In the second half, the Colts offense transformed their style of play to that which the Steelers had hoped to deploy. After another pair of Vanderjagt field goals gave the Colts a 16-7 lead at the half, the Colts took advantage of a foolish onsides kick attempt by Pittsburgh. Rookie Matt Giordano covered the play, setting up the Colts at the Steelers' 37. A combination of Edgerrin James runs and a pair of passes to tight end Bryan Fletcher resulted in Fletcher's second touchdown catch of the season and a 23-7 advantage.
From there, it was mainly the Edgerrin James show as the Colts started to grind out the clock with their running game. And it took the Steelers the latter half of the third quarter to stall him and force a punt. Then he helped remove another four minutes of the early part of the fourth quarter. And with 5:31 remaining, he bullied his way for 23 yards before turning over the last three runs to James Mungro and Dominic Rhodes to set up Mike Vanderjagt's fourth field goal of the night.
James finished the night with 124 yards on 29 carries (4.3 avg), his eighth time this season finishing above 100 yards. For Vanderjagt, it was a heavy night of work after only having an opportunity to attempt 12 kicks in the first 10 games. He's now converted 15 out of 16 attempts on the year (93.8%).
With the win, the Colts push their record to 11-0 and will host the Tennessee Titans this Sunday. The Steelers (7-4) will host the Bengals, who they trail by a game in the AFC North race.