The Indianapolis Colts hope they got their 10-day break at just the right time. They may need every healthy body to hold off charging Jacksonville in the AFC South.
``We aren't as sharp as we need to be because we haven't been together and haven't been practicing as much and as well as we need to,'' says coach Tony Dungy, whose Super Bowl champions have been without a raft of important players. The notable absentees include Marvin Harrison, their best wide receiver, and starting offensive tackles Tony Ugoh and Ryan Diem.
So after being off since Thanksgiving, the Colts go into Sunday's game at 9-2, just a game ahead of the 8-3 Jaguars. The Jags have won three straight and four of five in a division Indianapolis considers its property - the Colts have won it for four straight seasons.
Jacksonville's success has been due in part to the return of David Garrard, who sprained his left ankle in the first meeting with Indy, a 29-7 Colts victory on Oct. 22. He been back for two games, throwing three TD passes in wins over San Diego and Buffalo and continuing a remarkable mistake-free run. Garrard has yet to throw an interception this season in 209 attempts.
``He's stepped up to the challenge and he's come up big in big situations. He's gained confidence, he's become more mature and he's become a big-time leader,'' wide receiver Ernest Wilford says of his quarterback.
That's the way the Jaguars operate - safety first. They run the ball with Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew, who have combined for 1,287 yards rushing this season, then depend on a stingy defense to hold down the opposition.
A win for Jacksonville would put it in a flat tie with Indianapolis because it would mean the Jaguars split their two games with the Colts. That would leave a battle for the division title in the last four games, and Indianapolis seems to have a slightly easier schedule.
But the Colts also are playing for a first-round bye; top seed in the AFC seems unreachable because they are two games behind unbeaten New England and lost to the Patriots. They also are a game ahead of Pittsburgh for the second seed, which would give them that week off in the playoffs.
One consolation if they don't get the week off: Indianapolis was third seeded last year and still won the Super Bowl by beating Kansas City, Baltimore and New England in the AFC playoffs and Chicago for the championship.
Dungy seems optimistic with the Colts close to a playoff berth, which they could clinch with a victory and a combination of other outcomes.
``I think our team really feels like we're sitting at 9-2 and we haven't probably played our best football maybe since the Jacksonville game,'' he said.
This Jacksonville game might be even more important.
The weekend started Thursday night with Green Bay at Dallas, two 10-1 teams vying for the top seed in the NFC.
In other games Sunday, the New York Jets are at Miami; Houston at Tennessee; Detroit at Minnesota; Buffalo at Washington; Atlanta at St. Louis; San Diego at Kansas City; Seattle at Philadelphia; San Francisco at Carolina; Denver at Oakland; Cleveland at Arizona; the New York Giants at Chicago; Tampa Bay at New Orleans; and Cincinnati at Pittsburgh.
New England is at Baltimore on Monday night.
New England (11-0) at Baltimore (4-7) (Monday night)
When the schedule came out, this looked like a featured game. Indeed, the Ravens' record of 13-3 last season was better than the Patriots' 12-4. Now it looks like a minor speed bump for New England against a team that has lost five straight and has scored 14 points or less in four of those five.
``We expect to win every week,'' says Bill Belichick. `` I'm not saying we expect to win every game, but each week we prepare for the game, we expect to win that game.''
The Patriots almost didn't win last week, edging Philadelphia 31-28 when Asante Samuel intercepted a pass in the end zone. That was only their second victory by less than 17 points.

Buffalo (5-6) at Washington (5-6)
This game takes on special meaning because of the death this week of Redskins safety Sean Taylor, shot by an intruder in his Miami home.
The Redskins, one of six 5-6 NFC teams a game out of a playoff spot, will honor Taylor with a patch on their jerseys and No. 21 on their helmets, something the league also is allowing players on other teams to do if they choose. ``All of us here are going to work together, go forward together, and I think each person here has to deal with it in his own way,'' coach Joe Gibbs said. ``I don't know how we'll deal with it, except we'll all do it together.''

Cincinnati (4-7) at Pittsburgh (8-3)
Another nationally televised game on a pitch that was so waterlogged last Monday night that Pittsburgh could barely eke out a 3-0 win over winless Miami. At least there are no high school games at Heinz Field this weekend and if it doesn't rain, the Steelers think they can make it playable by Sunday night.
The Bengals are likely out of the playoff race, but Chad Johnson ended his eight-game touchdown drought with three scores in the 35-6 win over Tennessee.
The game is more important to Pittsburgh, whose one-game lead over Cleveland in the AFC North is actually bigger because it beat the Browns twice. The Steelers also could get a first-round playoff bye if Indianapolis falters.

New York Jets (2-9) at Miami (0-11)
This might be the Dolphins' best chance for a win this season against a team that beat them 31-28 at the Meadowlands on Sept. 23. That was one of six three-point losses for the Dolphins, who actually are favored by a point.
The Jets' other win came over Pittsburgh at home in overtime two weeks ago, four days before they were blown out 34-3 in Dallas on Thanksgiving.

Seattle (7-4) at Philadelphia (5-6)
The Eagles lost in New England but gained respect by coming closer to the Patriots than anyone this season. A.J. Feeley had three TD passes and three interceptions in the 31-28 loss, but Donovan McNabb could be back at quarterback this week. Or maybe not. ``I feel a lot closer, but you have to be smart about the whole situation,'' said McNabb, who has ankle and thumb injuries.
The Seahawks, much better at home than on the road, escaped with a 24-19 win in St. Louis when Gus Frerotte, the Rams' backup QB, fumbled a fourth-down snap at the 1-yard line. That was the Seahawks' third straight victory and gave them a two-game lead in the NFC West.

New York Giants (7-4) at Chicago (5-6)
The NFC champion Bears, counted out two weeks ago, could move within a game of the Giants, who lead the NFC wild-card race. They got two TD returns from Devin Hester last week, his fourth and fifth of the season, in an overtime win over Denver.
Both teams are offensively challenged and both have maligned quarterbacks: Rex Grossman and Eli Manning. Manning threw four interceptions, three of them returned for touchdowns, in the Giants' 41-17 loss to Minnesota last week. The probably will kick away from Hester and let the league's leading pass rush loose on Grossman.

Detroit (6-5) at Minnesota (5-6)
The Lions have lost to the Cardinals, Giants and Packers since they were 6-2, endangering the prospects for their first playoff spot since 1999. They haven't had more than six wins since going 9-7 in 2000 and they are starting to look and sound like the team that was 24-72 from 2001-2006.
The Vikings hope to have Adrian Peterson back after a knee injury. The rookie still leads the NFL with 1,081 yards rushing. Minnesota won both games he missed to get into that bunch of 5-6 NFC teams.

Tampa Bay (7-4) at New Orleans (5-6)
The streaky Saints can pull within a game of the Bucs in the NFC South. And if they can't catch the Bucs, they still are in that pack of wild-card contenders.
Their task might be easier if Jeff Garcia's balky back keeps him out and Bruce Gradkowski or Luke McCown have to start for Tampa Bay. The Bucs were outgained 316-15 in the second half by Washington last week but won because they had six takeaways to none for the Redskins.

San Diego (6-5) at Kansas City (4-7)
The Chargers, who lost to the Chiefs at home on Sept. 30, seem to have taken control of the AFC West because the rest of the division is self-destructing. That includes the Chiefs, who have lost four straight without Larry Johnson, out with a foot injury.
Coach Herm Edwards declined last week to go for a tying 41-yard field goal against Oakland because he didn't think Dave Rayner could make it. Then he cut Rayner and signed 43-year-old John Carney. Rayner was signed because fifth-round pick Justin Medlock couldn't make it and Lawrence Tynes was traded.

Cleveland (7-4) at Arizona (5-6)
Despite allowing a league-high 311 points, the Browns would be the AFC's second wild-card team if the season ended now, a fitting reason to put Romeo Crennel high on a list of coach of the year candidates.
The Cardinals are in contention, too, although they blew last week's game to San Francisco by mismanaging the play clock and missing an easy field goal in overtime. They also have put Pro Bowl safety Adrian Wilson on injured reserve, the third defensive starter lost for the season.

Houston (5-6) at Tennessee (6-5)
It's no coincidence the Titans have lost three straight without DT Albert Haynesworth, who is a question mark for this one. Tennessee had not allowed more than 99 yards rushing with Haynesworth; it has given up an average of 160 without him and been outscored 97-39.
If the Texans win this game, they might have a shot at their first .500 season since entering the NFL in 2002. But it will be tough: Tampa Bay, Indianapolis and Jacksonville all remain on the schedule.

Denver (5-6) at Oakland (3-8)
By blowing last week's game in Chicago, the Broncos dropped a game behind the Chargers in the AFC West. Wide receiver Javon Walker came back, two months after knee surgery, but they may be down to fullback Cecil Sapp, their fifth option, at running back.
Oakland doesn't have that problem. Justin Fargas is averaging 4.8 yards a carry after rushing for 139 yards in the 20-17 win over Kansas City that ended a 17-game division losing streak, the longest of its kind since the 1970 merger of the AFL and NFL.

San Francisco (3-8) at Carolina (4-7)
Speaking of streaks, the Panthers have one of the strangest: seven straight home losses, five this season. Vinny Testaverde is expected back at quarterback after missing last week's loss in New Orleans when he woke up Sunday with a sore back, a malady common to 44-year-olds playing tackle football.
The 49ers ended an eight-game losing streak in overtime in Arizona; two of their three wins are over the Cardinals. They finally got Frank Gore in 2006 form with 116 yards rushing and 98 receiving on 11 catches.

Atlanta (3-8) at St. Louis (2-9)
The Rams had their two-game winning streak ended last week when Gus Frerotte fumbled a snap on fourth down at the 1-yard-line against Seattle in the final seconds. The Falcons had a two-game winning streak before Bobby Petrino benched Joey Harrington for Byron Leftwich two games ago against Tampa Bay. Since then, they've been outscored 62-20 even though Harrington was back last week and continues to start.

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