- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 9, 2008

The Indianapolis Colts get no breaks in the midseason portion of their schedule.

This week it’s a trip to Pittsburgh following a loss at Tennessee and a home win over New England that gave the Colts a half-decent shot at their seventh straight playoff berth. It’s almost sure to be a wild card spot if they do get it.

That’s because at 4-4 they trail the unbeaten Titans by four games in the AFC South, meaning their run of five straight division titles is all but over.

“It was a win we needed,” said safety Bob Sanders, who made his return after missing five games with ankle and knee injuries and helped stiffen what has been a porous defense.

Pittsburgh is a win the Colts need, too, and one that will be hard to come by. The Steelers (6-2) are 5-0 against AFC teams, lead the NFL in defense and are almost impossible to run against, something that Indianapolis will have to do if it wants to get Peyton Manning into the rhythm he had against the Patriots.

The question for Pittsburgh is the health of Ben Roethlisberger, whose throwing shoulder is slightly separated after batterings in losses to two NFC East teams. He was sacked eight times by the Eagles and five by the Giants.

But Byron Leftwich stepped in efficiently in the second half of Monday night’s 23-6 win in Washington, going 7-of-10 for 129 yards and one touchdown.

“We all know Ben’s the guy,” Leftwich said. “Ben’s the quarterback of this football team, and I know I was going to be there in case something happened.”

The Steelers are unlikely to say if Ben is the guy until Sunday; perhaps it will be one of those “gametime decisions.” Roethlisberger practiced Friday.

But the 28-year-old Leftwich, the seventh overall pick of the 2003 draft, gives Pittsburgh something few teams have - an experienced backup quarterback (46 starts) who isn’t in his dotage.

Leftwich, signed by the Steelers after Charlie Batch was injured, says he still doesn’t know Pittsburgh’s offense. His teammates don’t care.

“We didn’t think twice about him coming in and doing the job,” wide receiver Nate Washington said. “We never skipped a beat.”

In other games Sunday:

N.Y. Giants (7-1) at Philadelphia (5-3): Washington’s loss to the Steelers and the Giants’ win over Dallas last week probably left the Eagles as the second-best team in the NFC East and the most likely challenger to New York. A win here by the Giants, who face a tough final eight games, would be a big step toward a division championship and potential home-field advantage in the playoffs.

But while the Giants are good on the road - they won in Pittsburgh two weeks ago - this should be one of their biggest challenges. The Eagles have Brian Westbrook back to spur the defense and are tough at home, especially at night.

Tennessee (8-0) at Chicago (5-3): The Bears lead the Packers and Vikings by a game in the AFC North after overcoming a 10-point halftime deficit against winless Detroit behind Rex Grossman, who is likely to spell Kyle Orton (sprained ankle). Chicago also will be without oft-injured safety Mike Brown, who hurt a calf last week.

Green Bay (4-4) at Minnesota (4-4): A win by the Packers would give them a two-game lead over the Vikings in what figures to be a three-team race in the NFC North. That’s because they beat Minnesota the opening week.

Buffalo (5-3) at New England (5-3): These two teams are tied with the Jets for first in the AFC East, with surprising Miami just a game behind.

But the Bills have lost three of four and are without a bunch of injured players: safety Donte Whitner is out with a separated shoulder, joining defensive end Aaron Schobel and wide receiver Josh Reed on the sidelines. And quarterback Trent Edwards is not playing as well as he was before sustaining a concussion in Arizona. He has thrown four interceptions in losses to the Dolphins and Jets.

Seattle (2-6) at Miami (4-4): The Dolphins may have benefited as much from the Brett Favre trade as the Jets. That’s because New York let Chad Pennington go and he signed with Miami, giving the Dolphins the best quarterback they’ve had since Dan Marino retired nine years ago. That’s one reason a team that was 1-15 last season can think of winning the AFC East.

St. Louis (2-6) at N.Y. Jets (5-3): This is the kind of game the Jets historically lose - just when their fans are getting hope, they get beaten by a team they should beat. Favre obviously helps, but he also leads the NFL in interceptions with 12, including one last week in Buffalo that made their win closer than it should have been.

New Orleans (4-4) at Atlanta (5-3): The Falcons are the most pleasant surprise of the first half, led by rookie quarterback Matt Ryan, free agent running back Michael Turner and defensive star John Abraham, who led a defense that held Oakland to 77 yards of offense last week.

Carolina (6-2) at Oakland (2-6): The Panthers have quietly been putting themselves in position for a first-round playoff bye and maybe more. They play the Giants in the Meadowlands, and New York’s tough schedule could cost it enough games to give the Panthers home-field advantage in the NFC playoffs.

Kansas City (1-7) at San Diego (3-5): The Chiefs are the best one-win team in the NFL, which means they are better than the Bengals and winless Lions. At least they are young and (supposedly) building.

Jacksonville (3-5) at Detroit (0-8): Daunte Culpepper might start for the Lions at quarterback after a day or two of practice because Dan Orlovsky has an injured thumb on his throwing hand.

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