INDIANAPOLIS - The Indianapolis Colts were the best regular-season team in football and the Cincinnati Bengals were AFC North champs last year.
This year, both were expected to make a Super Bowl push. Instead, they're both looking for a late-season charge to get their playoff hopes back on track.
"It's better that way, not to be in a comfort zone where everything is already set in stone, but sort of clawing your way, digging your way out of this hole," Bengals receiver Chad Johnson said.
Of course, that depends on the perspective.
When the schedule-makers set the Interstate 74 rivalry for Monday night, most figured it would be one of the season's most pivotal games between two teams vying for the AFC's No. 1 seed.
They got it half right.
When the Colts went to Dallas in November, they were the NFL's last unbeaten team and appeared headed toward a second consecutive top seed. Three losses in four weeks have left them reeling at 10-3.
The Bengals, in contrast, couldn't have scripted a more timely four-week stretch. The offense got rolling in mid-November, about the same time the defense started creating turnovers. Four wins in a row put Cincinnati (8-5) back in playoff contention, but playing in January is far from a certainty.
The two teams with similar approaches now find themselves in similar dilemmas.
While the Colts wrapped up their fourth consecutive AFC South title Sunday, courtesy of Jacksonville's loss at Tennessee, they're still fighting for a first-round bye. The Bengals, meanwhile, are still battling to clinch a playoff spot.
But it's the Colts who appeared in worse shape before Monday's game.
Plagued in recent weeks by dropped passes, turnovers and offensive penalties along with a struggling defense, coach Tony Dungy has emphasized the details and forgotten about the criticism that hasn't stopped.
Many have questioned whether the Colts can avoid another early playoff exit, and even the Colts admit their slump couldn't have come at a worse time.
The Bengals have taken a different path. Dogged by early season mistakes, a poor defense and quarterback Carson Palmer's continued recovery from a knee injury in January, Cincinnati followed its 3-0 start with five losses in six weeks.
The recent rally, combined with the failures of others, has renewed their playoff hopes.
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