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Unbeaten and Untested

October 30, 2005|Bob Oates | Special to The Times

One team is as good as another in pro football this year with three possible exceptions: the Pittsburgh Steelers, New England Patriots and Indianapolis Colts.

Injuries may have lately somewhat weakened the Steelers (4-2), and especially the Patriots (3-3), so how good are the streaking Colts (7-0)?

That isn't easy to say.

In fact, nobody can know about that until next month, when Indianapolis, with Peyton Manning at quarterback, will play in the two biggest football games of November -- each a Monday night game.

The Colts will be at New England on Nov. 7 and at home to Pittsburgh on Nov. 28.

During the first half of their season, the Colts, unlike the injury-battered Patriots, and unlike the Steelers, who lost quarterback Ben Roethlisberger for a spell, were hardly bothered anytime. Anywhere

Week in and out, the Colts breezed through one of the softest schedules of the season, which gave them, notably, their Week 7 victim, 0-6 Houston, a team that put up a 38-20 fight.

Otherwise, they have knocked off undistinguished Baltimore (now 2-4), Cleveland (2-4), Tennessee (2-5), San Francisco (1-5) and St. Louis (3-4).

The only winning team Manning has encountered, Jacksonville (4-2), can boast about its defense -- which Coach Jack Del Rio keeps strengthening -- but hardly its offense.

In September, the Colts outlasted the Jaguars, 10-3, a low-scoring result that made it seem like 1972 all over again. That was the year the Miami Dolphins went 17-0, when they didn't always look as good as they did later, in retrospect. Maybe Manning knows something.

Steelers vs. Ravens

The Steelers restored order in the AFC North when Roethlisberger came back from injury, which was in Week 7. Winning a 27-13 game, they schooled the youthful Cincinnati Bengals, teaching Carson Palmer how far it is from the back row to the head of the class.

Almost surely, the Steelers will next give the Baltimore Ravens a similar lesson in what figures to be the most lopsided Monday nighter of the season.

Earlier, for many weeks, Palmer -- who gets Green Bay at Cincinnati today -- had been playing like the best and most consistent quarterback in the league, and he still has the 5-2 Bengals atop their division, half a game ahead of Pittsburgh.

The schedule he has played, however, closely resembles Manning's at Indianapolis. So the Palmer story today is: If beating the teams you should beat is the first sign of progress in the NFL, he's a comer.

Roethlisberger is already there. What he does for the Steelers -- just with his presence on the field, even when hurt -- is provide a passing threat that makes their running attack go against teams like Cincinnati.

He doesn't throw often, but when defensive teams overload against the Steeler run, Roethlisberger can hit them with the pass, which he did in the second quarter Sunday.

As Pittsburgh rookie Heath Miller, a 256-pound blocking tight end, came open in the end zone by 10 yards, Big Ben flipped him a two-yard touchdown that finally put the Steelers up at halftime, 7-6.

That day, Palmer had done most of the early damage on Bengal drives that against Pittsburgh ended only in field goals.

NFL's Best-Balanced

The Steelers, whose defense is far more powerful than that of the Colts, are at the moment the NFL's most reliably well-balanced team.

Besides Roethlisberger, they feature two kinds of runners: Willie Parker, a breakaway threat who comes in at 209 pounds, and Jerome Bettis, 255, who in his 13th NFL season is still breaking tackles, left and right.

At Cincinnati, it was Parker who stole away on the game's longest touchdown play, a 37-yard run, but it was Bettis who as usual produced the most characteristic Pittsburgh run.

This one gained four yards on third and three, a passing down, particularly with Roethlisberger under center. When instead Big Ben handed Bettis the ball, he disappeared under a pile of Bengals and seemed to have been stopped but kept burrowing away.

If Parker is the Steelers' can't-miss kid, Bettis is their can't-quit vet.

Their hope, however, is Roethlisberger, when he returns to full good health. As a running team, the Steelers have been coming up short in the playoffs because that's what happens to running teams in the playoffs. Their rangy sophomore has the talent to make the Steelers a passing team if they can give him some experience in the rest of the regular season. Their postseason depends on it.

Parcells Guesses Wrong

The Dallas Cowboys, held to a 10-10 tie going into the final seconds of a game they lost at Seattle last week, 13-10, were a much better bet to win the overtime coin toss than to throw the long pass they had to have in regulation time to get into field-goal range.

Their coach, Bill Parcells, watching closely from the sideline, should have noted that.

He needed to curb the ambitions of his offensive staff, which kept sending in pass-play calls to new quarterback Drew Bledsoe.

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