Riding high on a three-game winning streak, the Indianapolis Colts (4-2) hit a steel wall under the harsh lights of Monday Night Football. The Pittsburgh Steelers scored touchdowns on their first three drives of the game en route to a 28-10 defeat of Tony Dungy's crew. The loss raised questions about the Colts' legitimacy as a division leader.
Among concerns is a running game that has seen Edgerrin James go over 100 yards rushing just once this season. James finished with just 62 yards on 20 carries in Pittsburgh, his high-water mark of the past three games. Coming off a three-interception performance on Monday night, Colts quarterback Peyton Manning feels the lack of a running game is affecting more than just the Colts' rushing statistics.
"I probably have been forcing some things. When you are struggling to run the ball, the only other option is to throw it," Manning said.
While Indianapolis tried to reestablish James and a struggling running attack, the Steelers went to the air in the first half, then turned to running back Amos Zereoue to control the clock and the game in the second half.
Quarterback Tommy Maddox opened the game by completing 10 of 13 passing on the first three drives for 111 yards and a touchdown, to give the Steelers a 21-0 lead.
The Colts cut the lead to 21-10 in the third quarter, but the second of three Manning interceptions set up another Steelers touchdown to close the scoring. Filling in for an injured Jerome Bettis, Zereoue carried the ball 15 times in the second half for 87 yards.
"Fundamentally, we didn't play well enough to compete (in) this game," Dungy said. "From special teams, penalties, in the trenches, throwing and catching, making plays defensively, being on the right shoulder and in the right gap defensively, we just didn't play well fundamentally."
Indianapolis will be in the national spotlight again this weekend when they travel to Washington for a Sunday night showdown with Steve Spurrier's 2-4 Redskins. Defensive tackle Josh Williams will likely miss his second consecutive game with a foot injury, and the Colts may also be without starting right tackle Adam Meadows, who has been battling nagging groin and hip flexor injuries.
Houston's lack of experience is showing itself as costly mistakes are hurting the expansion franchise. But the Texans are getting better every week, even if it doesn't show in the standings.
The Cleveland Browns handed Houston its fifth consecutive loss, 34-17, but the Texans outgained the Browns, 354 yards to 230. David Carr was sacked nine times but he also threw for 267 yards, including a 37-yard touchdown to Corey Bradford. The Texans surrendered 34 points but the Browns scored 21 of those points as a result of two fumbles and a devastating 95-yard kickoff return by Andre Davis.
At 1-5 and in the AFC South basement, the Texans aren't satisfied by improvement alone.
"This losing stuff is for the birds," defensive tackle Gary Walker said. "They say you have to be strong. We're trying. If we were getting beat like a typical expansion team, that would be different, but we spotted (the Browns) a lot of stuff. Losing is always frustrating."
The Texans have been competitive in several losses this season, and while they are improving, particularly on offense, the same factors have done them in time and time again; the types of miscues you would expect from a young team: turnovers, penalties in key situations, special teams lapses. But one trouble area -- pass protection -- is consistently causing more problems than any other.
Carr has been sacked an incredible 40 times in six games, a pace that would shatter the NFL record. Case in point: Entering the Texans game, the Browns defense had six sacks for the season; they had nine on Sunday.
"There's three things we have to do: Get the ball out of my hand quicker; the offensive line has to protect; and our wide receivers have to get open. So we all have to take the blame for the sacks," Carr said.
Houston will try to put it all together Sunday in Jacksonville against the second-place Jaguars. If nothing else, the Texans should be well-prepared in their first matchup against their AFC South foe. Head coach Dom Capers and offensive coordinator Chris Palmer each spent time coaching in Jacksonville under Tom Coughlin, and defensive tackles Seth Payne and Gary Walker and linebacker Jeff Posey and injured offensive tackle Tony Boselli all formerly played for the Jaguars.
The Titans had a week off to enjoy a victory, heal some wounds and even gain some ground in the division. Sitting at home, they got an assist when their three AFC South rivals all lost this past weekend. At 2-4, they are just two games behind the Colts.
Tennessee got a boost a week earlier when it beat the Jaguars to end a four-game losing streak, and just as importantly the Titans found their running game, as Eddie George ran for 113 yards, breaking the 100-yard barrier for the first time this season.
This week it may be the passing attack that gets a boost. Coach Jeff Fisher announced on Wednesday that injured receiver Derrick Mason's rehab has gone well and there's a good chance he will play this weekend. He had missed their previous two games with an injured shoulder.
The Titans should have a chance to keep things going in the right direction when they head to Cincinnati Sunday to face the 0-6 Bengals.
"We have 10 games left and our goal is to win 10 games. We got our selves into a big hole at the start of the season and we just have to take one game at a time and try to get out of that hole," wide receiver Kevin Dyson said.