INDIANAPOLIS (AP) - For the past two weeks, the Colts' combination of Curtis Painter and Pierre Garcon has been among the best in the NFL.
They have teamed up for 271 yards and four touchdowns and helped the Colts offense at least resemble what Indy fans have grown accustomed to.
Garcon had touchdown receptions of 87 and 59 yards at Tampa Bay, then followed up with five catches for 125 yards and two more scores last Sunday against Kansas City. He has more yards and touchdowns the past two weeks than players like Calvin Johnson, Steve Smith, Mike Wallace and Greg Jennings.
It has been a rare bright spot for the Peyton Manning-less Colts (0-5) headed into Sunday's game at Cincinnati (3-2).
The connection between Painter and Garcon developed during the summer.
"We worked out a lot," Garcon said. "With the lockout, we just had more time to take advantage of us being together and throwing with each other. It's working out good for us."
Their success hasn't led to a win so far this season, but Painter has developed well and Garcon, not Reggie Wayne or Dallas Clark, leads the team in receiving yards and touchdowns.
It's a scenario that seemed unimaginable a month ago.
The Colts brought Kerry Collins in to start at quarterback after Manning had his third neck surgery. Collins struggled, then had a concussion, and Painter had his a chance.
Painter has a 100.0 quarterback rating and hasn't thrown an interception. The Colts have been competitive enough that Coach Jim Caldwell says Painter will keep the starting job after Collins recovers.
"Curtis is our starter, plain and simple," Caldwell said. "That's the way it is. He's playing well, he's doing a nice job, and I think you'll continue to see him develop."
As a rookie, Painter famously stepped in for Manning to try to preserve Indy's unbeaten 2009 season. The 14-0 Colts pulled their starters in the third quarter against the New York Jets, and a 15-10 lead quickly turned into a 29-15 loss.
After not playing at all in 2010, Painter opened this year's camp with the first unit while Manning recovered from neck surgery. The team then brought Collins out of retirement, but Painter started showing signs of progress.
He completed 11 of 21 passes for 171 yards with two TD passes in a preseason game against Green Bay. In his first regular-season action this year, Painter directed the Colts to a game-tying touchdown against Pittsburgh in an eventual loss.
The next week, against Tampa Bay, Painter passed for 281 yards and two scores. He followed that by throwing for 237 yards in the first half against Kansas City, the ninth-highest first-half total in Colts history.
"I think everybody has witnessed and understands that he has talent and ability," Caldwell said. "It was just a matter of experience more so than anything else. Obviously, I think you can see that the more reps he gets and the more opportunities he gets, than the better he plays."
The Colts players never lost confidence in Painter, but instead of just being happy for him when he performs well, the team expects it.
"Curtis did what Curtis is supposed to do," said Wayne, who leads the team with 22 catches. "He came in as a starting quarterback. He took what they gave him and he excelled at it. It's no surprise."
Getting playing time behind Manning always was going to be a challenge.
"Obviously, you're not going to get many when you're behind the greatest of all-time," receiver Austin Collie said. "Reps are Curtis' friend right now, and he's gotten plenty of them so far. He's just going to keep on getting better, but he's playing excellent."
With Clark and Collie returning from injuries, Garcon was not expected to be near the top of the pecking order. Instead, Garcon has 19 catches, Clark has 14 and Collie has 12. He has overcome a history of drops to rank eighth in the NFL with 420 yards receiving.
Garcon said he, like Painter, needed time to fine-tune his game.
"The more time you're in this offense and the more experience you have in this offense the more you're comfortable with it," he said. "You're comfortable with the guys around you, and you're comfortable with what you can do and what not to do. Now, as I get older, it's a lot easier and more comfortable to play in this offense, to do things, set guys up and make plays."
Garcon has shown signs that he could be special. He had 11 catches for 151 yards in the AFC championship game against the New York Jets in 2009.
"We've all seen over the years that he's an explosive individual that has great speed and power," Caldwell said. "He can catch it and run with it, he can go deep and he can catch it short and turn it into a long gain. Pierre's having quite a year thus far, and I think you've seen him in spurts do it before. He's been able to put a few back-to-back this time around."
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