The Philadelphia Eagles might have a pretty good idea 17 days from now whether they'll be able to win a fifth straight NFC East title.

The defending NFC champions have struggled to a 4-3 record, and suddenly find themselves in danger of becoming the fifth straight Super Bowl loser to follow up with a losing season. They're coming off a 49-21 loss at Denver on Sunday, and they could be without wide receiver Terrell Owens this week because of a sprained ankle.

If they want to send a message to their NFC East foes that they remain the dominant team in the division, now is the time. The Eagles' next three games are against the Washington Redskins on Sunday night at FedEx Field, the Dallas Cowboys in a Monday night game on Nov. 14 at Lincoln Financial Field and the New York Giants on Nov. 20 at Giants Stadium.

"It's pivotal," Eagles tight end L.J. Smith said here Wednesday. "We don't want to make the situation any bigger than it is, but everyone on the team knows what we're about to get into. The Giants are playing great. Dallas is still playing great. We know we're facing some great opponents. It's not a cakewalk at all. We're struggling a little bit. But we've still got playmakers. We have to get everybody healthy and back on the field so we can make that run."

Said defensive tackle Darwin Walker: "Obviously this is a very important three games coming up. Any time you play games within your division, they're very important. We realize that."

Roethlisberger Out

Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger underwent arthroscopic surgery on his right knee and will miss Sunday's game at Green Bay, Coach Bill Cowher announced today.

Roethlisberger had a piece of cartilage removed and is to miss one or two games.

Charlie Batch is scheduled to start in Roethlisberger's place against the Packers. It will be Batch's first NFL start since 2001, when he was with the Detroit Lions.

Roethlisberger suffered what the team originally had called a strained posterior capsule during Monday night's triumph over the Baltimore Ravens.

The Steelers lost the previous game that Roethlisberger missed this season, to the Jacksonville Jaguars after he hurt his left knee in a game against the San Diego Chargers. Tommy Maddox started that game in place of Roethlisberger, who has an 18-1 regular-season record as the Steelers' starter. . . .

Arizona Cardinals Coach Dennis Green indicated that he's going back to Kurt Warner as his starting quarterback, ahead of Josh McCown.

McCown has been the Cardinals' starter for each of their eight wins over the past two seasons. Even so, he has lost the starting job for the third time in a span of 15 games.

Bad Cell Patch For Sherman

Packers Coach Mike Sherman cut short his news conference Wednesday after being interrupted when a media member's cell phone rang. The Packers canceled quarterback Brett Favre's weekly news briefing when the offender would not step forward.

If only Sherman and other team officials were as diligent about punishing on-the-field transgressions, perhaps the club wouldn't be 1-6. At this point, the Packers should distribute hand-written thank-you notes to everyone still willing to show up and listen to what they have to say. . . .

Green Bay released second-year cornerback Joey Thomas, a third-round draft pick last year. Thomas was benched during last Sunday's loss at Cincinnati and had a sideline spat with defensive coordinator Jim Bates. . . .

Bengals wide receiver Chad Johnson usually has a list taped to his locker of the defensive backs who have tried -- and mostly failed -- to cover him this season. This week, leading up to Sunday's game at Baltimore, he replaced it with a list of the Ravens' defensive backs.

But late Tuesday night, Bengals Coach Marvin Lewis interceded and replaced Johnson's revised list with a laminated, further-revised list more to his liking -- a checklist of the things that Johnson needs to do to help the Bengals win. Lewis's list includes watching more tape of the Ravens, finishing his blocks and making a teammate a better player, and Lewis told reporters he would be the one to decide after the game which items get checked off.

Last season, Johnson had 18 catches for 260 yards and two touchdowns in two games against the Ravens. . . .

According to the New Orleans Times-Picayune, Saints owner Tom Benson sent an e-mail to NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue late Sunday saying angrily that he would not attend any more of his team's games in Baton Rouge, La.

Benson called the trip to Baton Rouge a "total disaster" and a "miserable experience" in the e-mail and said he feared for the safety of himself, his family members and his friends, the newspaper reported.

Benson reportedly was involved in two confrontations following the Saints' 21-6 loss to the Miami Dolphins at LSU's Tiger Stadium, lunging at a camera crew and exchanging angry words with a heckling fan. The league has indicated that Benson will not be disciplined for the incidents. It was the first of four games that the Saints are scheduled to play this season in Baton Rouge, and Tagliabue said Sunday that the team perhaps could play games there next season as well before a decision about the franchise's long-term future is made.

The Saints told the Times-Picayune that Benson's e-mail was sent in frustration and his plans for this weekend's game against the Chicago Bears in Baton Rouge were not yet clear. . . .

Detroit quarterback Jeff Garcia sat out Wednesday's practice, and Joey Harrington could reclaim the Lions' starting job if Garcia doesn't practice today. Garcia has started the last two games since returning from a broken leg and severe ankle sprain suffered in the preseason, but aggravated his leg injuries during last Sunday's loss to Chicago in which he threw an interception that was returned for the Bears' winning touchdown in overtime. . . .

Cleveland is sticking with Trent Dilfer as its starting quarterback, ahead of rookie Charlie Frye. . . . Dallas signed offensive tackle Marc Colombo, formerly of the Bears.

Westbrook Deal Coming?

There are rumblings around the league that the Eagles could be close to completing a contract extension with tailback Brian Westbrook that would keep him off the unrestricted free agent market in the spring. He apparently is seeking a deal similar to the five-year, $27.5 million contract that tailback Lamont Jordan signed with the Oakland Raiders last offseason as a free agent.

Westbrook cut off negotiations with the Eagles just before the season started, but there were indications in recent days that the club had a new offer ready for him. Westbrook held out briefly from training camp after signing the one-year, $1.43 million contract tender that the Eagles made to him in restricted free agency in the offseason.

Eagles President Joe Banner and Westbrook's agent, Fletcher Smith, are facing Monday's deadline for teams to complete extensions with players and have a portion of the signing bonus still count against this season's salary cap. . . .

The Eagles hope to have back kicker David Akers this week. He has missed the last four games because of a torn hamstring muscle in his right leg. The left-footed kicker practiced Wednesday and said afterward that he'd made a 46-yard field goal into a breeze. He said he had connected on a 57-yard kick indoors over the weekend, and had gotten enough distance on a 60-yard attempt but had sent it wide.

"I feel good," Akers said. "I'm not feeling any discomfort. My leg feels strong. . . . I want to put the injuries behind me. I don't want to miss any more kicks this year. I felt like I missed enough at the beginning of the year. You're a little apprehensive. You're waiting for this thing to catch. But we started this thing gradually the last few weeks, and I felt like we've progressed pretty quickly."

The Eagles hope to have Akers handle field goals and extra points against the Redskins but they plan to keep Jose Cortez on their roster as a kickoff specialist. The club changed punters Wednesday by placing Dirk Johnson on the injured reserve list and signing rookie Reggie Hodges, a sixth-round draft pick by the Broncos this year out of Ball State. Johnson, like quarterback Donovan McNabb, had been trying to play with a sports hernia. Unlike McNabb, Johnson underwent surgery for the injury, but it didn't work and it's possible that he will have to undergo another operation.

Hodges made 22 punts for the Rams this season and ranks last in the NFL in both punting average (38.0 yards) and net punting average (31.0 yards). . . .

Owens, McNabb (bruised ribs), defensive end Jevon Kearse (sprained shoulder) and middle linebacker Jeremiah Trotter (sore knee) all missed Wednesday's practice. The Eagles seem to expect McNabb, Kearse and Trotter to play Sunday, but they're unsure about Owens. Owens told ESPN that he doesn't want to rush back and his status for the Cowboys game also is uncertain. . . .

Owens re-injured the right ankle that he hurt last season, although not as severely. He was walking around the Eagles' locker room at their practice facility without a noticeable limp Wednesday. Coach Andy Reid listed Owens as doubtful on the official injury report, and said the Eagles were making plans to likely start rookie Reggie Brown in Owens's place. But Reid was not ruling out having Owens available.

"He gets banged up like the other guys get banged up," Reid said. "That happens. I don't worry that much about it. We'll see how he does with it. He's played through most of it and been very effective, so we'll see how he does with this one." . . . Owens does a weekly appearance on a Miami radio show and usually makes time for any ESPN camera crew that comes by, but has continued his season-long policy of not speaking to other reporters. He apparently hasn't stopped reading what's written about him, however. One reporter for a Philadelphia newspaper recently wrote about the cluttered state of his locker. On Wednesday, Owens said to a group of reporters standing in the locker room: "If you all want to talk about my locker, just clean it up for me."

He gave a brief hug to a female ESPN reporter and told her, "I'll get you later, but I don't want none of them to hear."