Jungle fever

ROB LONGLEY -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:46 AM ET

CINCINNATI -- Welcome to the jungle, the suddenly mighty jungle.

That's the greeting awaiting Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning, who despite all he has accomplished, has yet to play in Paul Brown Stadium.

The hot Cincinnati Bengals (7-2) are the latest beasts bidding to halt the Colts' (9-0) bid for perfection.

Indy coach Tony Dungy is calling it "this week's Game of the Century."

Unlike two years ago, when the still so-so Bengals put an end to the Kansas City Chiefs' 9-0 start, this time the home team sees itself as a bonafide contender.

Quarterback Carson Palmer and the Johnsons -- running back Rudi and receiver Chad -- have the Bengals revitalized. And as with any city on the cusp of success after a long dry spell, the locals are wild with anticipation. Their safari-themed stadium, once notable more for its thousands of empty seats, is suddenly an NFL hot spot.

CBS convinced the NFL to move the kickoff to 4:15 p.m. to reach a bigger audience. And with Indy a two-hour drive away on I-74, the jungle will be jumping.

"We're much better than we were two years ago," Rudi Johnson said. "The main thing is to go out and prove it."

As the NFL's dominant team to date, the Colts don't have much to prove. They do, however, feel they have some important tasks on their to-do list.

Like most of the Colts, tackle Corey Simon, a key addition to the suddenly tough defence, is putting aside talk of getting through the season undefeated.

"Talk to us about 16-0 when we are 15-0," he said.

More important is building up a big enough record to secure the top seed in the AFC. With that comes the perks the Colts feel would provide a huge edge in January.

As talented and balanced as they are with the No. 2 ranked offence and No. 4- ranked defence, the Colts want to avoid a post-season trip to New England, Pittsburgh or even back here to the banks of the Ohio River. Home-field and a first-round bye are the targets.

"There is going to be a lot of talk about things that happened in the past, things that could happen in the future," Dungy said. "You really have to block all of that out."

The Bengals, meanwhile, have their own statement to make -- namely that they can compete against an elite team. A month ago, red-zone struggles ruined the chance to take down the visiting Pittsburgh Steelers. And as impressive as they've been, the Bengals have still defeated only one team with a winning record -- and that was the Chicago Bears.

An upset today, however, and they'll be only a game behind the Colts in the race for the AFC's top seed and almost guarantee a first playoff berth since 1988.

"We don't need to worry about the playoffs," said head coach Marvin Lewis, whose defence leads the NFL with 29 takeaways. "We've got a long way to go before we qualify."


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