CINCINNATI (AP) – Before they headed off for their week of R&R – rest and relaxing in first place – the Cincinnati Bengals made a wish.

They wanted the Indianapolis Colts to be unbeaten when they returned after their bye week, giving them the chance to bump off a 9-0 team for the second time in three years.

“I would love it, and all the hype that comes with it coming into Cincinnati,” guard Bobbie Williams said, before heading home last week.

They didn’t even try to hide their rooting interest.

“You always want to be the first to knock them off,” running back Rudi Johnson said.

Wish granted.

The Colts remained the NFL’s last unbeaten team with a 31-17 victory Sunday over the Texans. They’re the 11th team since 1970 to win their first nine games, and have a chance to become the first team since Denver in 1998 to go 10-0.

Standing in their way is the last team to end somebody’s 9-0 streak. Kansas City came to Cincinnati with the same record in 2003, receiver Chad Johnson guaranteed a victory, and the Bengals got a 24-19 win that amounted to a breakthrough under coach Marvin Lewis.

That was a novelty. A lot has changed in the last two years.

The Bengals (7-2) are no longer looking for attention with an unbeaten team coming to town. They’re more interested in a win that keeps them in first place in the AFC North, where they’re currently tied with Pittsburgh.

“There’s a lot more at stake,” left tackle Levi Jones said Monday. “There’s a lot more riding on it than when we played Kansas City.”

That game will be remembered in part for Johnson’s brash guarantee, which angered veteran teammates and Lewis. He hasn’t guaranteed any victories since then, turning his creativity toward Riverdance touchdown celebrations and who-can’t-cover-me checklists.

Johnson hadn’t given it much thought on Monday, deciding it was too soon after the bye to pick a theme for this 9-0 team. He needed a couple of days to think about it.

“I won’t have no good stuff until Wednesday,” he said. “I’m not guaranteeing anything until Wednesday.”

His demeanor fit the mood in the locker room Monday. The Bengals got what they wished for when the Colts won, but were having second thoughts about whether it was a such a good thing after all.

“I actually was hoping they would lose this past week or the week before,” quarterback Carson Palmer said. “We’re still shooting to win the rest of our games and hopefully get home-field advantage and a bye week in the playoffs. We hope to beat them, and we hope they drop another game to give us that advantage.”

The Bengals are tied with Pittsburgh and Denver for the AFC’s second-best record at 7-2. The team with the best record in each conference gets home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, and the top two teams get first-round byes.

Every time the Colts win, they stay two steps ahead of the pack.

“That’s going to be a huge game for us to go out and keep pace with several teams that are 7-2 right now,” right tackle Willie Anderson said. “The more we can keep winning and staying on pace, it’s going to be better for us.”

When Cincinnati beat Kansas City two years ago, Palmer was a rookie watching from the sideline and the Bengals were a team looking to get back to .500 and earn a little recognition after years as a doormat. They weren’t given much of a chance to pull off the upset.

“Prior to the Kansas City game, we were still trying to find our identity, who we were going to be under Marvin,” Anderson said. “Guys hadn’t had as big of a game around here as the Kansas City game.”

This one is just as big for the Bengals’ development into a playoff team. The veterans are taking a low-key approach this week, hoping it turns out better than the other high-stakes game at Paul Brown Stadium this season.

With a chance to open a 21/2-game lead in their division last month, the Bengals got pushed around in a 27-13 victory by the Steelers, showing they hadn’t learned how to play their best when it matters the most. Instead, they froze up and fell apart.

“I guarantee you, the Colts aren’t going to do that,” Anderson said, issuing the only guarantee of the day. “The Colts are going to take a businesslike approach. They’re not going to say, Aw, man, this is the Super Bowl.”‘

No, it’s not. But the winner will undeniably improve its playoff standing.

Incentive enough.

AP-ES-11-14-05 1729EST

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