FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) – Yes, it was sloppy. No, Peyton Manning didn’t look like the same quarterback who carved up the Denver Broncos last week.

The Indianapolis Colts accomplished a lot Sunday night anyway, with a 27-20 win over New England that left them as the NFL’s only unbeaten team.

For one thing, they almost guaranteed that if they meet the Patriots in the postseason, the game will be played in the warmth of the RCA Dome – at 8-0, they are two games ahead of New England and hold the head-to-head tiebreaker.

Just like last year, only this year is different.

“We’re playing like the NFL, right now – every game different people contribute, every game, we have to play out the fourth quarter,” said coach Tony Dungy, whose team started 13-0 last season but lost in its first playoff game. “Last year was different – easier. This is allowing us to find different ways to win.”

True enough.

The Colts also demonstrated that they have at least a semblance of a defense. They did, after all, intercept Tom Brady four times just six days after the Patriots quarterback lit up Minnesota for 372 yards.

The first one, by Antoine Bethea on the first series of the game, set the tone because it stopped what looked like an inexorable Patriots drive for a touchdown; the last one, by Cato June, ended the Patriots’ last drive.

What’s more, it came after Adam Vinatieri, returning to the site of his career-making heroics, missed his second field goal of the night.

But most of all, they seemed to put to rest the “Patriots jinx,” the one that said Manning couldn’t win in Foxborough, where until last season, he was 0-7 in his career. Last season’s win, a 40-21 Indy decision over the battered and beaten Patriots, was supposed to be a fluke.

Not anymore.

This Patriots team has injuries, but it wasn’t battered.

New England came in 6-1, playing in top form after a 31-7 win in Minnesota last Monday.

The Colts? They were a suspicious 7-0, a team that had a little trouble putting together a rushing attack, and a lot of trouble stopping one.

Well, they stopped the run enough Sunday night. They allowed 97 yards rushing in the first half, then limited New England to just over 50 in the second half. And that was without Gary Brackett, their middle linebacker who left with a hamstring injury early, and without his backup, Rob Morris.

Their replacement was Freddie Keiaho, a third-round pick whose only distinction until Sunday night was being the last draft pick to sign this season.

Their biggest burden now might be their unbeaten status – Chicago lost to Miami on Sunday, leaving the Colts the last unbeaten team in the NFL, just as they were last season. Indy, meanwhile, is coming off road wins over two of the teams that figure to be there in the AFC: Denver and New England.

“Don’t get into that,” team president Bill Polian said of the unbeaten mark. “I don’t want to get into that again.”

Manning, who in training camp said “we’d like to fly under the radar a bit more this year,” just laughed when he was reminded about that.

“Yeah, I guess we’re here again. But let us enjoy just this one win. Let’s not start talking about the playoffs yet,” he said. “We’re only halfway.”

Dungy also laughed it off, intimating that his friend Lovie Smith, the Bears’ coach, might have put him back in the spotlight by losing. “Lovie let me down today,” he said.

True enough.

The unbeaten Bears, a team that was 5-11 just two seasons ago, were a novelty, a team that in this media-saturated era was being compared to their 1985 counterparts, a much better team that finished 15-1 and won the Super Bowl.

The unbeaten Colts?

No novelty at all – we were there last season.

Polian, Dungy, Manning and his teammates just hope that this time they finish the job.

Not necessarily an unbeaten season. Just a Super Bowl victory.

AP-ES-11-06-06 0039EST


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