Peyton Manning and Marvin Harrison, with some help from Buffalo and the New York Giants, have the Indianapolis Colts in a position few expected after nine games - tied for first place in the AFC East.
Manning hit Harrison on touchdown passes of 19 and 57 yards, Terrence Wilkins scored on a 39-yard punt return and the Colts won their fifth straight game with a 27-19 win over the error-prone Giants on Sunday.
The Colts (7-2) also forced four turnovers, including a late fumble recovery by former Giant Tito Wooten at the Indianapolis 18, in getting off to their best start since opening 1977 with a 9-1 record. The winning streak also ties the team's longest since moving from Baltimore to Indianapolis in 1984.
With Buffalo's 23-3 win over Miami, the Colts and Dolphins are tied for first place, with New England (6-2) and Buffalo (7-3) a half-game back.
``This feels really good, it's sort of a different feeling for this team,'' said Manning, who endured a 3-13 record last season as a rookie. ``There have been plenty of teams in first place, the key is you want to be there at the end. But from here on out, everyone is going to be gearing for us. It used to be the other way around.''
While happy with the start, the Colts know that the AFC has so many good teams when Jacksonville, Seattle and Tennessee are added to the mix, no one is guaranteed a playoff berth at this point.
``Nobody expected this from us,'' linebacker Cornelius Bennett said. ``Like last year in Atlanta, no one expected us to be as good as we were. Same with this team, people probably picked us to be 7-9. That's the joy of this sport, doing things, impossible things when no one expects you to do them.''
While the loss snapped a three-game winning streak for the Giants (5-4), they remained tied for first place in the NFC East with Washington, which was surprised by Philadelphia 35-28. The division leaders meet next Sunday in D.C.
``It's frustrating,'' said Giants running back Tiki Barber. ``We made some mistakes but we fought back. It was ours to take at the end but we gave it away.''
Kent Graham (27-of-50 for 253) threw fourth-quarter touchdown passes of 33 yards to Amani Toomer and 7 yards to Pete Mitchell to close the Giants to 27-19 with 6:50 to play. However, their last-ditch drive to tie the game ended when Mitchell (nine catches for 62 yards) fumbled after catching a short pass with 1:21 to play.
Leading 7-6 at halftime, the Colts took control by outscoring New York 17-0 in the third quarter.
After a debatable interception by Thomas Randolph in the end zone ended a New York drive, Manning (20-of-35 for 237) drove the Colts 80 yards in three plays for a 14-6 lead. The drive started with a holding penalty, but Manning hit Edgerrin James out of the backfield for 33 yards and then found Harrison all alone for 57 yards and a 14-6 lead.
``The way they play defense, you have to take it 10 yards at a time and be patient when you look for the big play,'' said Harrison, who had six catches for 109 yards. ``That's what we did and we got a couple of big plays.''
A 33-yard punt by Brad Maynard and a 14-yard pass to Harrison set up a 39-yard field goal by Mike Vanderjagt on the Colts' next possession.
Maynard's next short punt was fielded on the run by Wilkins at the Giants 39, and he didn't stop until he reached the end zone for a 24-6 lead with 2:44 left in the third quarter. Vanderjagt added a 35-yard field goal in the fourth quarter after a 72-yard run by James, who had 108 yards on 16 carries and 72 on five catches.
Manning opened the scoring late in the first quarter, driving the Colts 97 yards in nine plays. Just before the touchdown pass to Harrison, defensive back Phillippi Sparks was called for pass interference, giving the Colts a 27-yard gain.
Cary Blanchard closed the Giants to 7-6 at halftime, kicking field goals of 33 and 42 yards in the second quarter. New York had a chance to go ahead late in the quarter, but Wooten intercepted a pass that hit off the shoulder pads of Ike Hilliard at the 13-yard line.