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Dungy returns to helm

Tony Dungy hugged his players and his assistant coaches, and thanked the public for its support after returning to Indianapolis yesterday. Then, he went back to work.

One week after leaving the Colts to mourn the death of son James, the coach ran practices and team meetings and announced he would coach Sunday's regular-season finale vs. Arizona.

''It was the right time to come back," he explained somberly after the Colts' afternoon workout. ''I talked about it with my wife, and we went through the grieving process and now we're starting with the healing process."

Dungy's return culminated a draining week in which football has been secondary to life and death for the Colts.

He left the team Dec. 22 when his 18-year-old son was found dead in a Tampa-area apartment. A preliminary autopsy called the death an apparent suicide.

Team president Bill Polian and owner Jim Irsay urged Dungy to stay with his family as long as needed while assistant head coach Jim Caldwell filled in. On Tuesday, about 200 Colts players, coaches, and team officials flew to Tampa for the funeral, their first opportunity to meet with Dungy since the tragedy.

Yesterday's surprise excited everyone. A locker room that had been quieter than normal during Dungy's absence suddenly became reinvigorated. The Colts also appeared to walk off the field with more pep, and after practice, Polian and Dungy even laughed.

''It's great to have him back," Polian said. ''It's been a long ordeal for him and his family, and I think it will be a long, long time before they have a sense of peace and consolation."

Palmer staying put

The Bengals reworked and extended quarterback Carson Palmer's contract, giving themselves more salary cap flexibility and a chance to keep their franchise quarterback through 2014. They added six years to a deal that still had three to go, providing Palmer with a chance to make $118.75 million in salary and bonuses over the next nine years. He very well could spend the rest of his career in stripes . . . Jim Fassel will return as the Ravens' offensive coordinator next year unless he receives a head coaching position with another NFL team. ''We're going to be very supportive of Jim's looking and hopefully being able to procure a head coaching job. I think Jim would be outstanding," coach Brian Billick said . . . Jacksonville quarterback Byron Leftwich, mending from a broken left ankle suffered Nov. 27, practiced yesterday and said he hopes to be ready when the Jaguars open the playoffs Jan. 7 or 8. His status for Sunday's final regular-season game with Tennessee remains a question . . . The Raiders placed Charles Woodson on injured reserve, ending the four-time Pro Bowl cornerback's season and possibly signaling the end of his career in Oakland. Woodson has not played since breaking his right leg in an Oct. 23 win over Buffalo . . . The New Orleans Saints have waited all season for a visit from commissioner Paul Tagliabue. The meeting comes today, two days before their hurricane-plagued season ends . . . The ratings for ''Monday Night Football" this season were the program's lowest in its 36-year run on ABC, down 2 percent from a year ago. The 17 weekly telecasts were watched in an average 10.8 percent of the 110.2 million US homes with televisions, according to Nielsen Media Research Inc. The program switches to ESPN next season.

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