Howard nearing the top of his game

Oakland Raiders linebacker Thomas Howard hasn't reached the top of his profession yet, but he's getting close.

Even Peyton Manning says so.

After the Indianapolis Colts had survived a 21-14 scare from the Oakland Raiders Sunday, Manning sought out the second-year linebacker from Texas-El Paso who had given him so much trouble.

"People appreciate when you go out there and play well," Thomas Howard said. "One thing that sticks with you is when guys you've been watching for years come up and say, 'Hey, you're playing well. Keep it up.' When Peyton Manning, a guy like that speaks to you, it's going to stay with you awhile."

Howard broke up a fourth-and-goal pass in the end zone intended for Ben Utecht, a play which preceded a 99-yard, 20-play touchdown drive for the Raiders.

Later, Howard intercepted a Manning pass when the quarterback was pressured into a duck by Derrick Burgess.

It was Howard's sixth interception of the season, giving him the NFL lead among linebackers. He had four in his first four games and then has had two in the past three games.

The other players with six or more are all defensive backs -- San Diego corner Antonio Cromartie (10), St. Louis safety O.J. Atogwe (seven), Seattle corner Marcus Trufant (seven), Baltimore safety Ed Reed (six) and New England corner Asante Samuel (six).

Two of Howard's interceptions this season have been returned for touchdowns, a 44-yarder against Denver and a 66-yard return against San Diego. Howard's 172 return yards on his interceptions is second only to Arizona corner Roderick Hood, who has 196 yards on four interceptions.

Raiders coach Lane Kiffin said Howard's performance against Indianapolis went beyond the two standout plays.

"I thought he played fabulous, his best game since I've been here by far," Kiffin said. "He tackled well, handled his assignments, ran to the ball, played like a big-time player. He played like a big-time player and hopefully we can build on that and keep him playing that way in the future."

Howard is listed at 6-feet-3, 240-pounds but looks as if he weighs less. He occasionally has trouble disengaging from a blocker but attempts to make up for it with speed and athleticism.

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