INDIANAPOLIS — So this is what the monster looks like.
On the most dominant defensive day of the past six years for the Indianapolis Colts, head coach Chuck Pagano allowed that fans are finally getting a peek at his vision. But, he added, Sunday's 27-0 demolition of the Cincinnati Bengals isn't necessarily the peak for this defense.
"We can play better," Pagano said. "I know we can, and we will. They're bound and determined to be (better). We've always envisioned us to be a top-five if not a top defense in the league. We've just got to keep working."
It's hard to envision a defense playing much better than this.
Cincinnati (3-2-1) came into the game with the fifth-ranked offense in the NFL. Yes, the Bengals were missing star receiver A.J. Green, but they gained a season-high 513 yards and scored 37 points without him last week against Carolina.
Against the Colts (5-2), Cincinnati ran 28 plays in the first half and gained just 27 yards. The Bengals finished with 135 yards of total offense, and even that paltry figure was burnished by a 60-yard drive that ended at Indianapolis' 4-yard line with 8:30 remaining in the fourth quarter.
Cincinnati was just 1-for-13 on third down — the fourth straight game in which the Colts have limited an opponent to a single third-down conversion — and quarterback Andy Dalton finished 18 of 38 for 126 yards.
"They played well, and we didn't execute," Dalton said. "I think that's what it comes down to. We got beat in every part of it offensively. We were terrible on third down, and so you put all that together and you get a game like we had today."
And yet this game remained close into the second half.
Part of that was due to Indianapolis' recurring problems with turnovers. Ahmad Bradshaw fumbled at the Bengals' 11-yard line midway through the first quarter, and Andrew Luck and Trent Richardson botched a handoff leading to another fumble at Cincinnati's 33-yard line with 8:14 remaining in the half.
Bradshaw made up for his miscues with a pair of touchdowns — a 1-yard run to give the Colts a 10-0 lead with 12:08 to play in the second quarter and a 10-yard reception to make it 24-0 with 12:09 left in the game. The bruising running back finished with 52 yards rushing and 36 receiving, and he now has seven touchdowns for the season.
"I think with this offense, it's a lot of different weapons," Bradshaw said. "I think we're figuring that out now, and we know everybody on the field when we're out there can make that play."
Luck tied a franchise record with his fifth consecutive 300-yard passing game, finishing 27-of-42 for 344 yards with two touchdowns. His other score came on a 32-yard pass to Dwayne Allen on which the tight end made a leaping catch over a defender and tip-toed down the sideline into the end zone.
Luck completed passes to eight receivers in all. T.Y. Hilton led the way with seven catches for 107 yards, marking his 12th career 100-yard game and the second in a row. Reggie Wayne caught four passes for 15 yards and became just the ninth player in NFL history with 14,000 career receiving yards.
Adam Vinatieri remained perfect on the season and ran his streak of consecutive field goals to 20 with successful kicks from 23 yards in the first quarter and 50 in the fourth.
But this day was about the defense.
The Colts didn't surrender a first down until 30 seconds remained in the first half, and they gave up just eight overall. Speedy running back Giovani Bernard — the type of player who traditionally gives Indianapolis defenses fits — was held to just 17 yards on seven carries. And the Bengals averaged just 2.7 yards per rush as a team.
Inside linebacker D'Qwell Jackson led the team with seven tackles, and Cory Redding, Zack Kerr, Ricky Jean Francois and Bjoern Werner each recorded a sack against a Cincinnati offensive line that had allowed just two sacks in its first five games.
Cornerback Vontae Davis had four pass deflections — and one bone-jarring hit on Bernard — and the Colts had six tackles for a loss.
"I know Indy is known for their offense all the time," inside linebacker Jerrell Freeman said. "We have a great offense here, and I'm blessed to be at a place like this with the offense. But we definitely want everybody to know that we do have a defense, and we're going to be up for any challenge."
This was a statement victory against a Bengals team that just three weeks ago was being hailed as a leading Super Bowl contender in the AFC.
It's easy to get lost in what this win could mean for the Colts. It's an important tie-breaker, if necessary, for home-field advantage and perhaps even a postseason bye. And the current five-game winning streak is the franchise's longest since 2009, the last season in which it advanced to the Super Bowl.
None of that is at the forefront of the players' minds. They'll leave the speculation to others.
"I think the big-picture perspective is more the head coach or front office," Luck said. "As players, you just focus on the next one, keep the blinders on. We'll enjoy this because it's on to Pittsburgh (next Sunday), another very good AFC team."