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BOB RYAN

Situation winners are in? You just can't beat it

FOXBOROUGH -- Now we know for sure exactly how high the bar has been raised in the NFL, and in case you're wondering, yes, the Colts could do it. They could run the table. They could become the first team since the 1972 Miami Dolphins to go undefeated in the regular season.

In the last two weeks, they have come, they have seen, and they have conquered their two chief AFC competitors. Even better, they have beaten the Broncos and the Patriots on the road. If the question is, "Who's the best team in the league?" we can hold all calls. We have a winner.

Patriots coach Bill Belichick was predictably glum. "We just didn't do a good job tonight," he said. "I didn't do a good job coaching and they didn't do a good job playing . . . You're not going to win with five turnovers . . . There's not a lot to make of it. They did a better job than we did. We've got to go back to work and get ready for the Jets."

And, uh, this might not be the day to raise the Manning-Brady issue.

Tom Brady was 20 for 35 and Peyton Manning was 20 for 36, but that's where last night's comparison ended. Manning's completions were good for 326 yards and two touchdowns, one of which, admittedly, was far more a virtuoso act from a brilliant wide receiver than the product of a great throw, but, really, does it matter? Manning was picked off once.

Brady's 20 completions were only good for 201 yards. He did not throw a TD pass and he was intercepted four times. If you had never seen him before, you would have been asking, "What's the fuss?" (You might keep your eye on him next week, however. He is notoriously brilliant in response to a subpar outing.)

"It was a tough night all the way around," said Brady. "The defense kept us in the game with the turnovers the way they were."

And what did Brady think of his counterpart?

"He made some real good throws," Brady acknowledged. "We had a lot of pressure on him, and he stood in there and made the throws."

And it was all about Manning and his passing game. Brady had a complementary running game (148 yards); Manning didn't (53). But Manning made up the difference with great throw after great throw after great throw when a great throw was needed. And on the occasions when it wasn't, on those numerous times when his receivers were 5 yards or more from a New England defender, he delivered the ball with ease.

The man does have great receivers. Marvin Harrison demonstrated once again why he someday will be making a speech in Canton, Ohio. His spectacular touchdown grab of a pass thrown to the right corner of the end zone in the third period will be on the short list of great receptions made in the entire 2006 season; you can be sure of that. Harrison stopped the ball with his left hand, gathered it into his body after latching onto it as it hung in the air, and then somehow kept both feet inbounds as he fell out of bounds.

Reggie Wayne and Dallas Clark aren't too bad, either.

The Colts' defense did what it had to do, utilizing its quickness and good hands to force those turnovers. Look, we all know they're not going to put up gaudy defensive stats. The Colts are about outscoring teams, and they have done it eight times in eight attempts in the 2006 campaign.

Does all this translate into winning a Super Bowl? No, it does not. In fact, an undefeated Indianapolis Colts team would be under enormous pressure entering the postseason. This is not the world as it was in 1972. There was pressure and there was media coverage in those days, but it was nothing like it is today. That was pre-ESPN, pre-Internet, pre-talk shows, at least as we know them. The landscape is entirely different. In sports today there is no escape from your accomplishments or your expectations. It is far, far harder to do historic things in this smothering communications climate. But that's a story for the new year. The current story is this: Can anyone defeat the Colts in the here and now?

In the last two weeks, the Colts marched into Denver and knocked off the Broncos, running up 34 points on a superb defensive team, and have now marched into Foxborough and defeated the Patriots, 27-20, while intercepting Brady four times and making the Patriots' secondary look very, very bad. Are you perhaps familiar with the term "separation" as it pertains to pass receivers and defensive backs? Good. Are you also familiar with a geological phenomenon known as the "Grand Canyon"? Good. Now use your imagination.

The Patriots had a chance. They were tied at 14-14, and this was after Brady threw a drive-ending interception the first time he had the ball that would have had Bill Walton screaming "Horrrrrrrible!" They were down only 24-17 entering the fourth quarter and had some excellent chances to get back in it, right down to the final minute and change when Brady's pass intended for Kevin Faulk on a first and 10 at the Indianapolis 39 bounced off the little guy's hands and was picked off by Indianapolis linebacker Cato June. It was a wee bit high, but it was catchable, so there was shared blame, if that really matters. What mattered was that the game was over.

"We had an opportunity to tie the game at the end," said Brady. "What more could we ask than that? We've got to execute better."

It was an odd game in that while there was a definite Patriots shoulda-woulda-coulda element to it, there was also a sense that Peyton Manning and friends were essentially unstoppable. Hunter Smith was called upon to punt only once. If you're looking for something to nitpick, you can point to missed Adam Vinatieri field goals of 37 and 46 yards.

So here's the deal. The Colts are halfway home, and a look at the schedule tells you they have a serious chance to go undefeated. Their remaining road games are at Dallas, Tennessee, Jacksonville, and Houston. Yes, they could lose at Dallas and Jacksonville, but I dare you to put your money on it.

The remaining home games are against Buffalo, Philadelphia, Cincinnati, and Miami.

As we learned yesterday in that Dolphins-Bears game, the NFL can still be an "any-given-Sunday" league. But let's see . . . Peyton Manning or Rex Grossman? Hmmm.

We'll deal with January dynamics when we get to January. It looks as if November and December will belong to the Colts.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is ryan@globe.com.

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