By design, by execution, and by earned reputation, the Indianapolis Colts operate well beyond the shadowy margins of football games or of football seasons. Tony Dungy's team is a big-play, big-production, big-margin enterprise, powered by the genius of Peyton Manning, who later this season will become the only NFL quarterback with nine 4,000-yard autumns.
But the margins for this November afternoon at Heinz Field were devilishly narrow, particularly the Colts' margin for error in the brutal politics of the AFC. Pittsburgh was Desperation City for the men in white yesterday. A loss would have dropped them five games behind AFC South Division leader Tennessee with seven to play, and at least two games behind a knot of legitimate horses pounding away in front of them.
"We've played three division leaders in the last three weeks [Tennessee, New England, Pittsburgh], so we've gotten a good feel for what this AFC is all about," said Dungy, the NFL's winningest active coach and a man in no mind to see a string of six consecutive playoff appearances end by New Year's. "These [wins] are certainly tough to get in Pittsburgh; I know that for a fact. You have to play 60 minutes to win here. We did, fortunately. This was just a game of attitude, of hanging in there and making plays when it counted."
That the Steelers gave back a 10-point lead to a club that has won five consecutive AFC South championships is probably no embarrassment, and the fact that they failed to bury Indianapolis in the conference is, for the moment, mostly an annoyance, but the more relevant analysis of a 24-20 Indianapolis victory yesterday is that the Steelers didn't so much lose to the guys who used to be Peyton Manning and Marvin Harrison.
They lost to Keiwan Ratliff, to Tim Jennings (the Jeopardy guy?), to Rutgers rookie Eric Foster, and on a fastbreak outlet pass from Manning to Dominic Rhodes.
"That's why you work in training camp," Dungy said simply. "You develop a 53-man team. I tell all our guys on Day 1 of camp, at some point we're going to need every guy on this roster and you're going to have a chance to make plays. It's not just stars if you want to have a good team. It's gotta be everyone."
No two humans have combined on more NFL touchdowns than Manning and Harrison, but watching them yesterday was like listening as a grandfather clock developed arrhythmia. Imperfect Manning passes flicked off Harrison's finger tips. Catchable throws forced into the secondary found Harrison unable or unwilling to extend himself. There was virtually no combustibility in that combination, nothing like the game just three years ago when Manning drilled Harrison with an 80-yard touchdown strike on the first play from scrimmage against the Steelers at the RCA Dome.
Oh, Manning still threw three scoring passes, one that Ike Taylor tipped to Reggie Wayne on his way to a 65-yard splasher on Indianapolis' first possession, one a little dart to Dallas Clark a step inside the end zone near the end of the first half, and a third so clever in its execution that Manning was reluctant to even speak of it in the aftermath.
"I want to be careful what I say about that, I mean, Pittsburgh's definitely going to be in the postseason, which is what we're fighting to do, so I'm not going to get too far into the specifics of anything," Manning said of the play that overturned a 20-17 Steelers lead with 3:04 to play. "It was play-action off the stretch fake, and Dominic made a good play and it's a credit to him for being ready for it."
Manning faked a handoff to Rhodes in the backfield as both stretched right, then waited while Rhodes looped around Troy Polamalu for a soft 17-yard reception that sent the Steelers into a ditch in which they couldn't pull out.
For all that, the Colts won it with defense, specifically on two breathtaking tackles by Foster, a smallish rookie lineman, both near the goal line. He pulled Mewelde Moore down from behind by the ankle at the 1 on first-and-goal, then slammed into him like a truck, grill first, on third-and-goal from the 1.
"They ran the same running play six times in a row in that situation [Moore scored on two of them]," Foster said. "It's just a matter of fighting hard in that situation. On the second one, I jumped up, took out two guys, and nailed him."
Foster kept the Steelers out of the end zone when the Steelers were 36 inches from going up by a touchdown late in the game, but Jennings and Ratliff, propping up a seriously depleted secondary, intercepted Ben Roethlisberger at two critical junctures, both setting up Manning touchdowns.
"It's not about who is not playing," said Ratliff, a third-string free-agent cornerback playing for Kelvin Hayden. "It's about who is playing."
With no margin for error, the supporting Colts somehow made this all about who might be playing in January.
"This was a big, big win in the AFC," Rhodes said. "And against a great team like the Pittsburgh Steelers, in their house."
Even when they do things small, the Colts do big things.
Gene Collier can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1283.