INDIANAPOLIS (Dec. 18, 2006) -- Peyton Manning felt cuddly warm thanks to his favorite receiver.
Of course, Manning to Marvin 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.
"When your backs are against the wall, you go to that old blanket," Manning said. "I'm thankful for those guys every day. Without those two, Marvin and Reggie (Wayne) ...
"I watch other quarterbacks in the league and none of them have two guys like that. One great receiver, but not two great receivers. It makes my job easier."
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. Cincinnati gained 278 yards overall, much of it after the outcome was decided.
"The defense felt really challenged to stop the run and get the offense back on the field," Manning said. "We did a good job of staying on the field tonight and getting into a groove."
It was vintage Manning, throwing to Harrison and dominating for the AFC South champion Colts (11-3), 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.
"On some teams, it's almost like you have two different teams," Manning said. "We try to stick together."
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 Wayne on an 18-yarder and passed Vinny Testaverde for eighth place with 270 career touchdown passes.
"We have so much talent offensively, we know that at any time we can make things happen, no matter who has the ball," Wayne said. "So whenever you give him time to throw the ball, we know he'll light it up."
Manning 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.
"That's just him," Bengals cornerback Tory James said of Manning. "He did what he do. He did his job, which is what he does every time."
And the Colts never let the Bengals' fourth-ranked passing attack hit stride. Dwight Freeney led the defense with three sacks and Carson Palmer was a pedestrian 14-for-28 for 176 yards.
"We went out there and proved to ourselves that we could play well," Freeney said.
The victory kept Indianapolis even with Baltimore and one game behind San Diego in the race for top record in the AFC.
"Sometimes things get escalated," Manning said. "We lost two in a row, so we must have all these problems. We knew what was at stake. ... We're playing for a lot of momentum going into the postseason and for seeding."
The game became a poke-and-probe chess match in which Manning's patience and Harrison's polish were decisive. On the first two touchdowns, Harrison beat Cincinnati's coverage to the inside for 4- and 3-yard scores. He went the other way on the third, victimizing Deltha O'Neal for a 1-yarder 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. Freeney, who had only 2 1/2 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.
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.
Cincinnati's 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.
"I'm not stunned -- disappointed," Palmer said. "I felt we had an opportunity to win, a chance to extend our season. I played terrible, I missed too many balls."
Cincinnati is tied with the Jaguars, Jets and Broncos for the two AFC wild-card berths.
Notes: Harrison finished with eight catches for 86 yards and Wayne had seven for 84 ... Colts rookie running back Joseph Addai left in the third quarter with an ankle injury that Dungy didn't think was serious. Bengals left tackle Willie Anderson hurt his right foot, while Chad Johnson needed an IV at halftime, but returned.