Bengals reduced to role of spoiler

INDIANAPOLIS — Forget the records, rankings and perceptions. Peyton Manning and his teammates are trying to keep things in perspective.

Yes, they have won five straight, just completed their most difficult month of the season and face flailing Cincinnati on Sunday. Yes, they're back in the playoff hunt.

So it's just another work day for the Colts.

"You never take winning for granted, but certainly we want to score more than three points," Manning said, alluding to the offensive points total last week in a 10-6 win at Cleveland. "You're trying to improve every single week, and by improving that results in you, hopefully, winning the game."

Most believe it won't take much more than that to beat the Bengals.

Cincinnati's offense has been moving at a snail's pace, the defense has been decimated by injuries and players are trying to salvage something from another dismal season.

How bad has it been?

Players openly discuss their goal of playing spoiler even as Coach Marvin Lewis expresses dismay at such a suggestion. And Chad Ocho Cinco is running out of patience, and room, to count the problems.

"I don't have enough fingers to put them on," Ocho Cinco said. "I only have 10 of them, and there's more than 10 reasons why we're not successful on offense and I'm one of them."

Clearly, this wasn't the Bengals' master plan.

Four years ago, Carson Palmer and Ocho Cinco made the two-hour drive to Indy with the intention of replicating Indy's offensive success. It worked — for a while.

They made the playoffs in 2005 and topped more than 370 points in three straight seasons.

But Cincinnati has reverted to its old ways. Palmer hasn't played in a game since early October because of an elbow injury, and the Bengals (1-10-1) are on pace to barely crack 200 points. The offense ranks last in the league, and leading rusher Cedric Benson is averaging 2.9 yards per carry.

Bleaker yet, Manning has won all five regular-season meetings between the teams, and the Bengals haven't won in Indy since 1997.

Plus, the Colts (8-4) finally seem to be rounding into form after beating New England and winning at Pittsburgh and San Diego to get themselves back into playoff position.

But none of that matters to Coach Tony Dungy.

"We'll have to be ready for them," he said. "Not playing with anything at stake, they can throw a lot at us."

Indy has hardly looked like a juggernaut, though. It won five November games by a total of 20 points and are dealing with another injury rash.

Center Jeff Saturday could miss a second straight game with a strained left calf. Middle linebacker Gary Brackett, the defensive captain, is expected to sit out after cracking a bone in his lower right leg. Defensive tackle Keyunta Dawson (pulled hamstring) also may be out, and the status of reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year Bob Sanders is still in doubt, too.

Sanders has been out three straight weeks with swelling in his right knee, but Bengals receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh would welcome the challenge.

"I think 'Psycho Bob' will be back and it should be fun," he said. "If he hits me, he hits me, I can take it. The way he plays, kamikaze style, it's like he has two bodies."

The key for Indianapolis, though, is ignoring conventional wisdom.

Oddsmakers installed Indy as a two-touchdown favorite early in the week, and with the resurgent Colts playing their best ball of the season, most expect this to be more like a Sunday stroll through Lucas Oil Stadium.

Manning isn't buying it.

"The defense is a salty bunch," he said. "They took the Giants into overtime and tied Philadelphia and beat Jacksonville. At this point in the season, you take records out of the equation."