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With Peyton Manning out -- perhaps for the season -- the Colts show some fight against the Steelers before falling late.

By Jeff Labrecque
Updated September 26, 2011 at 01:28 PM EDT
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You could practically hear the huge sigh of relief as the Steelers eked out a three-point victory over the Colts last night. It didn’t emanate only from the Steelers’ sideline or the city of Pittsburgh, but rather, the NBC TV trucks. See, Steelers-Colts once seemed like the ideal, glossy Sunday Night matchup — between two powerhouse teams who’ve represented the AFC in the Super Bowl in five of the last six seasons — but that was before Peyton Manning had neck surgery. Without him, the Colts looked inept in their first two games, and the visiting Steelers were installed as heavy double-digit favorites. NBC’s Sunday Night Football was stuck with a potential lemon, with Manning not only missing from the gridiron, but also from their Football Night in America pregame show (even though his former coach, Tony Dungy, is part of the NBC studio crew.) Bob Costas & Co. settled for the next best thing, asking Colts center Jeff Saturday if he could recognize Manning’s trusted hands on his rump. Fortunately, Indy showed some pride and Pittsburgh kept them in the game so that folks tuned in until the final seconds.

When Dan Patrick, Dungy, and former Patriot Rodney Harrison opened up Football Night in America last night, they relied on a dramatic day of results to postpone tackling the night’s meh main event. In Buffalo, Ivy Leaguer Ryan Fitzpatrick outplayed Tom Brady as the long-suffering Bills rallied against the Patriots. (“Fair Harvard! we join in thy Jubilee…”). In Philly, the Giants knocked out Michael Vick and the Eagles, and the star quarterback wondered aloud why defenses were being allowed to rough him up. “I don’t know why I don’t get the 15-yard-flags like everybody else do,” he said at the post-game presser. (I’m guessing, “Because some of the refs love their dogs” is not the answer he’s looking for.)

My favorite highlight of the day was Maurice Jones-Drew’s long run in a monsoon in Charlotte. You rarely see actual games played in these conditions, unless it’s in movies like The Last Boy Scout. Fortunately for the defensive players, Jones-Drew wasn’t packing heat.

Patrick is always right at home with the highlights, tossing in the pop-cultural asides that are his trademark. Napolean Dynamite and David Lynch’s Blue Velvet got shout-outs tonight, causing Costas to swing for the fences with a Guys & Dolls reference that most likely missed the mark. (Though I could be underestimating the NBC football audience: there was a promo for The Sing Off!)

Dungy and Harrison are the perfect pairing of old-school/new-school. An odd mix of Joe Paterno, Richard Petty, and Gandhi, Dungy gets his points across without stealing anyone else’s juice. Harrison has the gift of making conventional wisdom seem profound. For example, he’s “never been a fan of one-dimensional teams,” and the Colts have a chance if they don’t give up many “big plays.” True and truer… pretty much always. Yet I hang on his every word like he’s Vince Lombardi.

On to the game, which featured 38-year-old Kerry Collins subbing for Manning. For those who don’t know, Collins had retired in July after 16 seasons, and based on his on-screen vanity photo, he’d spent the last few months filming The Deadliest Catch. He looked lost out there on the field, as did Colts head coach Jim Caldwell, who, no matter the score, always looks like he’s chilling to Lionel Richie’s greatest hits on his coach’s headset. (“Stuck on you / I’ve got this feeling down deep in my soul that I just can’t lose / Guess I’m on my way…”)

The Colts D, though, came to play. They pressured Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger repeatedly, forcing three consecutive turnovers in the second quarter, including a sack/fumble returned for a touchdown that tied the score at 10. Is there anything better than a 300-pound-plus big-ugly scoring a touchdown? Man, do they savor it.

A late field goal before the half gave Indy a three-point lead, and Pittsburgh fans must have been banging their heads against the bar. Their offense seemed to be playing with one hand tied behind their backs on first-down, and yet in third-and-long situations, Roethlisberger inevitably converted. Why weren’t they simply calling those plays on first down?

As a result, the Colts just kept hanging around and Pittsburgh couldn’t seem to shake them. In addition to Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis’ relentless Colts pass rush, super-named linebacker Pat Angerer seemed to be in on every tackle (a game-high 21, actually). But tragedy finally struck for the underdog Colts when Collins left the game in the fourth quarter with a suspected concussion. Well, tragedy might be overstating, since Collins was increasingly ineffective, telegraphing his throws and being bailed out a few times simply because his throws were off the mark and thus couldn’t be caught or intercepted. In a tie game, enter Curtis Painter, the third-year pro who could’ve played one of the Cobra Kai in The Karate Kid. Recall, the Colts have such confidence in Painter that they reeled Collins out of retirement with $4 million just three weeks before the season began. Painter gave off a Matt Saracen-like scent of fear, missing some open receivers and looking overwhelmed, but the Steelers still couldn’t put the Colts away. In fact, the Colts proceeded to move the ball on the ground, another development that must have had the Steelers faithful screaming into their Terrible Towels. You’re facing on ineffective Johnny Lawrence and you’re letting the Colts run the ball up the gut?!

After the Colts tied the score with just over two minutes remaining in the game, Roethlisberger, whose gaudy numbers masked a sloppy performance, marched the Steelers down the field for the game-winning field goal with eight seconds left. “He did nothing but survive tonight,” Cris Collinsworth said to Al Michaels, as the Steelers clinched the victory, 23-20. What had been feared to be a bloodbath turned out to be an exciting, if not inspiring, game — though Colts fans probably don’t care to hear anything more about their quote-unquote moral victory. Now 0-3, they face an uncertain future with an unproven quarterback. Perhaps Painter will be more polished by Week 7, when the Colts are slotted for another Sunday Night Football showcase. NBC is hoping, no doubt, for a Manning medical miracle by then.

The Colts seem like they’re heading towards a lost season, but did Pittsburgh give their fans cause for concern tonight? Not only is their offensive line in shambles, but Roethlisberger still seems prone to boneheaded mistakes. What other team impressed you this week? Are the Bills for real? Can anyone touch the perfect Packers if they stay healthy?

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Football Night in America

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