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‘The Bus’ Can Still Handle Steeler Load

Times Staff Writer

The Times’ rating scale for this week’s games:

**** -- Don’t miss a down.

*** -- Could be good.

** -- Who let the dogs out?

* -- Stupor Bowl.

When it comes to running the football, a lot of NFL teams have double vision.

Chicago, Denver, Cleveland, Dallas and St. Louis are among the teams who have successfully leaned on two or more running backs to carry the load this season, either because of injuries or merely for a change of pace.

The latest back to step out of the shadows was Pittsburgh’s Jerome Bettis, who filled in for an injured Duce Staley and gained 149 yards in 33 carries to spark a victory over Philadelphia.

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Bettis, 32, will be called on frequently Sunday when the Steelers play at Cleveland.

“My job as the relief pitcher and the backup,” Bettis said, “is when he goes down, to go in there and not have a drop-off. They pay you to go out there and produce.”

*** Baltimore (5-3) at New York Jets (6-2), Sunday, 10 a.m. -- The Jets haven’t lost two in a row this season, and now’s not the time to start. They’re coming off a 22-17 loss to Buffalo and won’t have quarterback Chad Pennington for two to four weeks while he heals from a shoulder injury. Expect them to keep the ball on the ground to take pressure off backup Quincy Carter. The Ravens want to run Jamal Lewis more too.

** Seattle (5-3) at St. Louis (4-4), Sunday, 10 a.m. -- The first time these teams met this season things got nasty. After the Rams won in overtime, receiver Isaac Bruce ripped off his helmet in celebration and threw it to the turf -- just in time for Seattle safety Ken Hamlin to kick it about 20 yards across the field.

** Tampa Bay (3-5) at Atlanta (6-2), Sunday, 10 a.m. -- Having bounced back from their 0-4 start, the Buccaneers are getting great play out of Brian Griese, who has had a passer rating higher than 100 in three of his four games. Michael Pittman ran for three touchdowns against Kansas City last Sunday. The Falcons, who rank third in rushing, are going for their second 7-2 start in franchise history.

**** Pittsburgh (7-1) at Cleveland (3-5), Sunday, 10 a.m. -- The Steelers, football’s hottest team after consecutive victories over the previously undefeated Patriots and Eagles, will try to avoid a letdown against the Browns. This is the AFC’s oldest rivalry, and it’s usually a hard-fought one. Cleveland is 3-1 at home, where Jeff Garcia has thrown for seven touchdowns and run for two.

*** Houston (4-4) at Indianapolis (5-3), Sunday, 10 a.m. -- The Texans don’t look like an expansion team anymore. They’ve won four of six and are 2-0 in the AFC South. The Colts earned an emotional Monday night victory over Minnesota, and history doesn’t favor Monday winners the following Sunday. Peyton Manning is red hot, though, with nine touchdown passes and one interception in his last two games.

** Detroit (4-4) at Jacksonville (5-3), Sunday, 10 a.m. -- With Byron Leftwich out, Jacksonville’s quarterback is David Garrard, who has one start in his 2 1/2 seasons. Expect Fred Taylor to get a lot of carries. The Lions, coming off a loss to the Redskins, are looking to regain their early-season form. That means getting the ball to sensational rookie receiver Roy Williams, who has five touchdown catches.

** Kansas City (3-5) at New Orleans (3-5), Sunday, 10 a.m. -- Trent Green has had a 100-plus passer rating in four consecutive games and has able targets in Tony Gonzalez and Eddie Kennison, both of whom rolled up more than 100 yards in receptions last Sunday. The Saints are hoping to regroup after a 43-17 thrashing in San Diego.

** Chicago (3-5) at Tennessee (3-5), Sunday, 10 a.m. -- Chicago running back Thomas Jones is taking the heat off rookie quarterback Craig Krenzel, who is 2-0 as a starter. The Titans want to regain the edge at home they once had. They have won six of seven against NFC opponents.

** Cincinnati (3-5) at Washington (3-5), Sunday, 1 p.m. -- After a few rough weeks, Carson Palmer looked pretty good in a 26-3 rout of the Cowboys last Sunday. He had a 94.8 passer rating and ran for a touchdown. Redskin running back Clinton Portis ranks third in the conference with 961 yards from scrimmage.

**** Minnesota (5-3) at Green Bay (4-4), Sunday, 1:15 p.m. -- Despite consecutive losses, the Vikings have the league’s most prolific offense. With Randy Moss on the sideline nursing a hamstring pull, those yardage numbers are coming down. The Packers, riding a three-game winning streak, are fresh after a week off. Brett Favre has thrown a touchdown pass in 33 consecutive games.

** New York Giants (5-3) at Arizona (3-5), Sunday, 1:15 p.m. -- The Giants, coming off a humiliating loss to Chicago, are looking for their fourth consecutive road victory for the first time since 2000. They’ll do so without starting defensive ends Michael Strahan and Keith Washington, both out for the season. The Cardinals have an improved defense that forces a lot of turnovers.

* Carolina (1-7) at San Francisco (1-7), Sunday, 1:15 p.m. -- This game takes place at Monster Park and, appropriately, it should be hideous. The injury-plagued Panthers are the latest Super Bowl loser to hit the skids the following season. The 49ers are just hoping quarterback Tim Rattay’s aching right arm will hold up.

** Buffalo (3-5) at New England (7-1), Sunday, 5:30 p.m. -- The Bills, who have won three of four games, are starting to come to life. Willis McGahee has rushed for at least 100 yards in each victory. Even though the Patriots are riddled with injuries, they’re still a strong Super Bowl contender. They have won 15 consecutive games at Gillette Stadium.

** Philadelphia (7-1) at Dallas (3-5), Monday, 6 p.m. -- New England roared back after losing to Pittsburgh, and the Eagles want to do the same thing. Donovan McNabb, coming off a rare lousy game, has won four of five starts against the Cowboys. Dallas has accepted the torch from the 2003 Raiders to become “the dumbest team in America.” Said safety Roy Williams: “We do stupid things that lose games.”


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