INDIANAPOLIS — When Peyton Manning couldn't get the Colts into the end zone, the defense did.
These are strange days in Indianapolis.
Kelvin Hayden scored on an interception return, Antonio Johnson set up the Colts' only offensive touchdown with a fumble recovery and Indy stopped the Bengals twice in the final 2 minutes, 40 seconds Sunday to preserve a 23-17 victory over Cincinnati with a new script.
"Our whole emphasis this week was on causing turnovers and making a play on defense," Hayden said. "Making a play like that is exactly what we're trying to do on this defense."
In eight previous games, the Colts (6-3) forced 11 turnovers. On Sunday they got five, scoring 17 points off Bengals miscues.
That was enough to overcome a sub-par day for the offense in which Manning threw for a season-low 185 yards and failed to throw a TD pass for the second time all year.
Yes, Manning was accurate, completing 20 of 36, and he didn't turn the ball over — unlike Carson Palmer, who took the blame for all three of his interceptions.
The absences of tight end Dallas Clark, running backs Joseph Addai and Mike Hart and receivers Anthony Gonzalez and Austin Collie clearly took a toll on the Indy offense.
Manning relied almost exclusively on shorter throws and even had to get some new names involved in the game plan. Jacob Tamme had another big day, catching seven passes for 73 yards.
Brandon James, an undrafted rookie, caught four balls for 36 yards after being promoted from the practice squad this week. Both numbers were higher than five-time Pro Bowler Reggie Wayne, who became the second receiver in NFL history to have 10,000 yards receiving from one quarterback. And Javarris James, another undrafted rookie, scored on a 3-yard run, his third scoring run in two weeks.
"We just have to keep working and find a way to score more points and keep our defense out of those pressure situations," Manning said. "They came up big all day and we have to try and do our part."
Indy's defense held up its end of the deal against the Bengals (2-7), who have lost six straight and are quickly losing any hope of making the playoffs for a second consecutive year.
Palmer went 31 of 42 for 287 yards with two TD passes, three interceptions and three sacks. His stat line typified a day that looked better on paper for the Bengals than it did in person.
Rookie tight end Jermaine Gresham caught nine passes for 85 yards, both career highs, and a 19-yard TD. But he also lost a fumble at the Colts 34 with 2:33 to go — after the Bengals recovered an onside kick.
Chad Ochocinco caught seven passes for 86 yards and one TD but had one touchdown taken away because he lined up improperly, and he finished the game with a sore left shoulder.
"I just hit the floor. It just popped out," he said. "It does the same thing every year. Nothing new."
Cincinnati ran 20 times for 72 yards, but 42 of those came on a trick play and Cedric Benson lost a fumble that led to a Colts score.
Yet Indy's depleted defense still made the big plays.
Hayden's 31-yard interception return for a touchdown, his second this season, gave Indy a 10-0 lead late in the first quarter. On the Bengals' next offensive play, Johnson recovered Benson's fumble and seven plays after that James scored to make it 17-0.
The Bengals righted the ship. Mike Nugent booted a short field goal and Ochocinco made a nifty double toe-tap at the side of the end zone to get Cincinnati within 17-10 with 1:06 left in the half.
It was too much time for Manning, who set up Adam Vinatieri for a 47-yard field goal as time expired.
"We're a little bit off and when you're off, that's what happens," Palmer said, explaining the interceptions. "The passing game is a precision passing game, a timing passing game. When you're not on the same page, bad things happen."
Cincinnati was scoreless in the third quarter despite three drives into Colts territory and got burned again when backup linebacker Tyjuan Hagler picked off Palmer and set up Vinatieri's third field goal.Comment on this story
That's when the Bengals finally broke through. Palmer and Gresham hooked up on the 19-yard TD pass, then recovered the onside kick and got a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on Pierre Garcon, which put the ball at the Indy 40 with 2:35 to play.
But Gresham's fumble ended that chance, and on the Bengals' final possession, Palmer was sacked twice and Ochocinco dropped the final pass to end an ugly game.
"I don't know what kind of statement we made today," Colts defensive end Dwight Freeney said. "We're all in it together, and we can perform at a high level."