INDIANAPOLIS (AP) – Manning to Harrison is the surest way to get the Indianapolis Colts out of a funk.

The most prolific passing duo in NFL history tore apart the Cincinnati Bengals, combining for three touchdowns in a 34-16 victory Monday night. Even the Colts’ maligned defense woke up after Indy dropped three of its last four games and yielded an incomprehensible 375 yards rushing a week ago to Jacksonville.

But it was vintage Peyton Manning throwing to his favorite target, Marvin Harrison, that dominated what was expected to be a shootout. The AFC South champion Colts (11-3) did their part, while the Bengals (8-6) slipped back in the wild-card race with their first loss in five weeks. They’d allowed 33 points in those four wins, one less than Indy scored Monday night.

Manning, 5-0 against Cincinnati, had one of the sharpest outings of his brilliant career, although he never looked deep because the Bengals couldn’t cover anyone on quick-hitting routes. He was 29-for-36 for 282 yards, a 136.3 rating, and his 15th career four-touchdown outing. In addition to bringing his total TD throws to Harrison to 103, he found Reggie Wayne on an 18-yarder and passed Vinny Testaverde for eighth place with 270 career touchdown passes.

He was helped greatly by Cincinnati’s inability to rush him or handle receivers coming off the line. More than half his completions came on short patterns where a Colt was wide open.

And the Colts came alive defensively, never letting the Bengals’ fourth-ranked passing attack to hit stride. Dwight Freeney led the defense with three sacks and Carson Palmer was a pedestrian 14-for-28 for 176 yards.

The victory kept Indianapolis even with Baltimore and one game behind San Diego in the race for top record in the AFC. Cincinnati is tied with the Jaguars, Jets and Broncos for the two AFC wild-card berths.

Rather than the expected shootout, the game became a poke-and-probe chess match in which Manning’s patience and Harrison’s polish were decisive. They displayed what has made them the most potent pass-catch combination in NFL history with their three short scoring connections.

On the first two, Harrison beat Cincinnati’s coverage to the inside for 4- and 3-yard touchdowns. He went the other way on the third, victimizing Deltha O’Neal for a 1-yard score that made it 24-13.

The touchdowns capped clock-sapping drives that had the Bengals’ strong offense anxiously awaiting its chances. Cincinnati did almost nothing with those opportunities

Indy’s suspect defense made the first big play of the night after a 21-yard completion to Chad Johnson was ruled incomplete thanks to coach Tony Dungy’s challenge. Freeney, who had only 21/2 sacks coming in, slammed into Palmer from behind and knocked the ball loose for Anthony McFarland to recover at the Bengals 46.

That led to Adam Vinatieri’s 30-yard field goal.

Shayne Graham tied it 3-3 with a 27-yarder set up by some poor tackling by the Colts on Rudi Johnson, who ran for 38 yards on a 66-yard drive.

With Indy up 10-3, Terrence Wilkins unwisely fielded a well-covered punt at his 25 and dropped the ball. Cincinnati’s Tony Stewart recovered, leading to Rudi Johnson’s 12-yard run that tied it 10-10.

No matter as Manning calmly led a 13-play drive using up all but 13 seconds of the half. He even scrambled for 12 yards on third-and-9, and then Harrison used another slant-in for a 3-yard touchdown. “We got in a rhythm early,” Manning said.

Cincinnati’s fourth-ranked passing attack managed 17 yards in the first half and couldn’t protect Palmer from the inspired Freeney. And the Bengals rushed for just 133 yards.

Colts rookie running back Joseph Addai left in the third quarter with an ankle injury. Bengals left tackle Willie Anderson hurt his right foot, while Chad Johnson needed an IV at halftime, but returned.

AP-ES-12-18-06 2355EST


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