INDIANAPOLIS — The Indianapolis Colts don’t need Peyton Manning playing at an MVP level to win every game.
On Sunday, they found an old-fashioned formula — defense and turnovers — works just fine.
The Colts overcame Manning’s season-low 185 yards by scoring 13 points off five Cincinnati turnovers and stopped the Bengals twice in the final 2 minutes, 40 seconds to preserve a 23-17 victory Sunday.
“That’s the way it has been with this team over the years,” defensive end Dwight Freeney said. “We find ways to win games like this. We needed to do that today, and we did.”
The injury-depleted Colts (6-3) retook sole possession of the AFC South lead thanks to Tennessee’s loss at Miami.
But it certainly wasn’t pretty.
The four-time league MVP completed 20 of 36 yet had the lowest yardage total of any game he’s finished since Nov. 30, 2008 at Cleveland. His quarterback rating of 69.8 marked the first time he’s had sub-70 ratings in successive weeks since November 2007 and for the second time this season, Manning didn’t throw a touchdown.
The explanation: He’s working with some new parts.
Indy played again without All-Pro tight end Dallas Clark, running back Joseph Addai, short-yardage specialist Mike Hart and receivers Anthony Gonzalez and Austin Collie.
And all those absences finally caught up to the Colts, whose only offensive touchdown came on a 3-yard run from undrafted rookie Javarris James.
“We had chances to put the game possibly out of reach and we did not do that,” Manning said, referring to the offensive struggles. “Fortunately our defense was able to hang on there at the end.”
The defense played well all day.
Cornerback Kelvin Hayden scored on a 31-yard interception return. Backup linebacker Tyjuan Hagler nearly scored on another pick and Antonio Johnson’s fumble recovery set up Adam Vinatieri for a short field goal late in the first quarter.
Meanwhile, nothing went right for the Bengals (2-7).
Carson Palmer was 31 of 42 for 287 yards with two TD passes, three interceptions and three sacks. Cedric Benson ran 14 times for 24 yards and lost a fumble that led to one field goal.
Chad Ochocinco caught seven passes for 86 yards and one score but 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.”
Even rookie Jermaine Gresham’s best NFL game, nine catches for 85 yards and the TD catch that got the Bengals within 23-17 with 2:35 was tarnished. He lost the fumble that cost Cincinnati its best chance to win, at the Colts’ 34, with 2:33 to go after the Bengals had recovered an onside kick.
Manning improved to 7-0 against the Bengals, who found themselves following a familiar script during this six-game losing streak.
“Everybody needs to be on the same page, like an old married couple,” Ochocinco said. “Like a man being able to say a sentence and your wife being able to finish it off. The more we’re on the same page, the easier it is.”
It wasn’t easy for Palmer & Co. on Sunday.
When Palmer and Terrell Owens had a first-quarter miscommunication, Hayden jumped the route, grabbed the ball and sprinted 31 yards for a 10-0 lead.
Benson lost a fumble on the Bengals next offensive play, and James capped the seven-play drive with his scoring run to make it 17-0.
Finally, the Bengals started correcting things.
Mike Nugent booted a short field goal, and a beautiful double toe-tap from Ochocinco for a 5-yard score got Cincinnati within 17-10 with 1:06 left in the first half.
It was too much time for Manning, who set up Vinatieri for a 47-yard field goal as time expired.
“That was huge,” Indy coach Jim Caldwell said.
Indy nearly sealed the win when officials ruled Hagler scored on a 45-yard interception return early in the fourth quarter, but Lewis contended Hagler was down by contact at the Bengals 10 and won the challenge.
So the Colts settled for another field goal to make it 23-10.
Cincinnati answered with the 19-yard score from Palmer to Gresham and got the ball twice in the final 2:40, but fumbled it away the first time. Palmer was sacked twice the second time and Ochocinco dropped the final pass of the day — a fitting end to an ugly game.
“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.”
Notes: Vinatieri’s first field goal Sunday gave him 1,600 career points. … Ochocinco’s first-half TD catch gave him 65 career scores, breaking a tie with James Brooks (64) for second in franchise history. Only Pete Johnson (70) has more. … Reggie Wayne caught three passes for 34 yards, joining former teammate Marvin Harrison as the only players in league history to top the 10,000-yar d receiving mark with one quarterback. … Nugent was carried off the field by his teammates after hurting his knee on the onside kick. Lewis did not have details about the injury but said it did n ot look good.