Only four short weeks ago, the Indianapolis Colts didn't look like much of an opponent for the Buffalo Bills when the teams met in Rich Stadium.
The Colts were 0-3 then.
They are 0-6 now, yet they seem like a much more formidable foe entering Monday night's rematch in the RCA Dome.
It isn't that the Colts have made many strides since the first meeting. It's that the Bills have taken some steps backward.
In last week's game against New England, with a chance to own a piece of first place in the AFC East, the Bills should have been at their best. Instead, they gave their worst showing of the season.
Their offensive line looks no closer to being solidified than it did in the preseason. Their special teams are a mess. Their defense is beginning to buckle under the strain of the other two units' shortcomings. And they aren't in the best of health.
Meanwhile, the Colts are steeped in frustration. They squandered a 26-0 lead in allowing the Bills to record the third-biggest comeback win in NFL history, 37-35. They have lost by two points in two of their last three games, and by four in the other.
By all indications, the Colts' players have not quit and, in fact, are determined to show the rest of the country they are not nearly as bad as their record indicates. A crowd of 60,000-plus is expected to greet the cameras and microphones of ABC's Monday Night Football with a good degree of exuberance.
When the Bills have the ball
QB Todd Collins starts despite the shoulder injury that sidelined him for most of the New England game. He insists he can go the distance, although Alex Van Pelt will be ready -- certainly much more ready than ex-No. 2 QB Billy Joe Hobert -- to take over. If the Bills have any hope of providing better protection than they gave Collins last week, they must, once and for all, develop a consistent running game with RBs Antowain Smith and Thurman Thomas.
The Colts' run defense continues to be vulnerable to occasional big gains, such as the 54-yard TD Smith had in the final minute-plus to clinch the Sept. 21 game. But it held the Bills' ground game in check for most of the first half.
Another plus for the Bills' porous line is that RE Tony Bennett, who had three of the six sacks vs. Collins last month, is recovering from arthroscopic knee surgery. Dan Footman, an outstanding athlete who tends to underachieve and is not a great reactionary player, will take his place. LE Al Fontenot is a smart, efficient player who can get good inside penetration. He should have his share of success against sub-par alternating RT's Corey Louchiey and rookie Jamie Nails.
LT Ellis Johnson, who has excellent short-area quickness, is playing well. But the Colts are looking for a much stronger contribution from their other DT, Tony McCoy.
Quentin Coryatt, who has moved from RLB to LLB, has improved his game significantly since earlier in the year. The Colts might still be without MLB Stephen Grant (neck), who has an excellent nose for the ball and is rarely off his feet, and talented LLB Elijah Alexander (groin). Rookie Scott Von Der Ahe, who combines great mobility with athleticism and good instincts, replaces Grant, while Steve Morrison, who has a great nose for the ball, is at RLB.
The Colts' best CB, Carlton Gray, will match up with the Bills' best WR, Andre Reed, and do the best he can with him. RCB continues to be the weak spot, even with Dedric Mathis replacing Damon Watts.
FS Jason Belser remains another strength, providing great range and a knack for making plays. But SS Robert Blackmon hasn't been nearly as physical as the Colts had hoped when they signed him as a free agent from Seattle.
When the Colts have the ball
Although the Colts share the NFL lead for most sacks allowed with 26, Jim Harbaugh's protection has gradually improved. Still, thanks primarily to conservative play-calling, they have the league's lowest-ranked offense and are its only team without a pass completion of 30 yards or longer.
Rookie LT Adam Meadows, who did a surprisingly good job vs. RE Bruce Smith on Sept. 21, injured his left hamstring in Thursday's practice. If he can't play, Jason Mathews, who has long arms that serve him well in pass protection but who spends too much time on the ground, will replace him. Rookie RG Tarik Glenn, who was drafted to play LT, is beginning to feel comfortable at a spot at which he has played all of six games in his life. When the Colts are serious about running the ball, they run behind RT Tony Mandarich, a mauler who continues to show good strength at the point of attack.
C Jay Leeuwenburg is still the brightest spot of the line, and the Colts hope he can again avoid being overwhelmed by NT Ted Washington.
With blossoming Marcus Pollard and Ken Dilger expected to return from a hamstring injury, the Bills' TE coverage will need to be much sharper than it was when Ben Coates shredded them last week.
Opponents are either doing a good job of preventing RB Marshall Faulk from cutting inside or he is simply reluctant to do so. Whatever the reason, Faulk is bouncing almost everything outside. Despite having great speed to get to the corner, he is often being caught by pursuit.
If the Colts don't have immediate success on the ground, coach Lindy Infante is quick to abandon his running game.
And in the rare instances when Harbaugh does throw deep, he looks to WR's Marvin Harrison and Aaron Bailey, who is also aching to have a big kickoff return vs. the Bills' struggling kick coverage.
Home team has won five of last six games in series. . . . Bills have lost 7 of last 10 prime-time games, all on road. . . . Colts are 6-2 when hosting on Monday night.
As bleak as things look, Bills will do usual rebound number with a 17-14 victory.
Keys To The Contest
For the Bills:
O-line gets push for Smith, Thomas.
Collins overcomes injury to hit big plays.
D-line stuffs Faulk, overwhelms Harbaugh.
Coverage blankets Harrison, TE's.
For the Colts:
Johnson, LB's shut down running game.
Pass-rush forces Collins into mistakes.
Harbaugh has time to pick apart secondary.
Faulk has room to run inside.