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SALARY OF RAVENS' LEWIS SOARS TO NEW HEIGHTS

Ray Lewis, the leading tackler in the NFL last season, now has something else to brag about -- a new contract that makes him the highest-paid linebacker in the league.

Lewis on Thursday signed a four-year, $26 million contract extension with the Baltimore Ravens that includes a $7 million signing bonus. He had two years left on his current five-year contract and therefore is committed to the Ravens through the year 2004.

"We did this in recognition of Ray's enormous talents," Ravens owner Art Modell said. "He's the best linebacker I've seen since I've been an owner in this league, and I've seen plenty of fine players at that position."

After being credited with 210 tackles, four sacks and an interception last year, Lewis made the Pro Bowl and won the John Mackey Award as the best linebacker in the AFC. He leads the Ravens in tackles this season with 79 despite missing 11 quarters over three games with a dislocated elbow.

"It's a relief to get it done," Lewis, 23, said. "Now I don't have to worry about contract talk for a long time and I don't have to hear about how I'm being underpaid."

The 6-foot-1, 240-pound Lewis was in the third season of a $5 million deal he signed as the 26th overall pick in the 1996 NFL draft. The extension boosted him past Pittsburgh's Levon Kirkland and San Diego's Junior Seau to the top of the salary charts among NFL linebackers.

Packers GM doubts Holmgren will stay

MILWAUKEE -- Chances that Green Bay Packers coach Mike Holmgren will be back next season aren't good, general manager Ron Wolf says.

Wolf told WTMJ-TV in Milwaukee he thought the chances of Holmgren returning as head coach were 20 percent to 80 percent.

He made his remarks Thursday during the taping of the television station's show "Sunday Night."

Wolf said he expects Holmgren to be considering other offers by the end of the year.

"I think the pressure may be such that he may be forced to go out an explore one of these other jobs," Wolf said. "But it's our job with the Green Bay Packers to do everything in our power to try to retain him and we will do that."

Stenstrom should start Sunday

LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- If the Chicago Bears can't have their No. 1 quarterback this weekend against the Atlanta Falcons, at least they'll have their No. 2.

A day after sitting out practice with sore chest muscles, Steve Stenstrom was back running the Bears offense Thursday. Barring any other problems, he will start Sunday, coach Dave Wannstedt said.

"He did most of it and that was encouraging," Wannstedt said.

Starting tailback Edgar Bennett, who had back spasms Wednesday, also practiced Thursday and will start, Wannstedt said.

The news about starting quarterback Erik Kramer wasn't as encouraging. Kramer, who's been nursing tendinitis and a possible tear in the rotator cuff of his throwing shoulder for the past three weeks, didn't practice Thursday. Rookie Moses Moreno will be the reserve for Sunday's game.

Wounded Broncos may return

DENVER -- Even without starting quarterback John Elway, starting fullback Howard Griffith and starting wide receiver Ed McCaffrey, the Denver Broncos had no trouble beating the Kansas City Chiefs.

They may not have to repeat the feat at home Sunday against the Oakland Raiders.

Elway, who sat out Monday night's game at Kansas City with a rib injury, practiced Wednesday and Thursday and is on schedule to return Sunday.

"He looked pretty good," Broncos coach Mike Shanahan said. "I'm not really sure how he feels right now or how he's going to feel (Friday), but he practiced well."

Backup quarterback Bubby Brister has started four games and played most of a fifth in place of Elway. He has thrown for 331 fewer yards than Elway, but has one more touchdown pass and a better rating (100.2 to 97.7).

Griffith, the lead blocker for NFL rushing leader Terrell Davis, also completed Thursday's two-hour workout and said he expects to play, just two weeks after tearing the medial collateral ligament in his left knee.

McCaffrey strained his right hamstring in the first quarter of the Kansas City game and remains questionable. He has not practiced this week, but hopes to test the hamstring Friday.

"What you can do on Friday is usually a pretty good sign of what you're going to be able to do on Sunday," McCaffrey said. "But if I can't do much (Friday) and Sunday I feel good, I would want to play. Obviously coach Shanahan has the ultimate, final say on that."

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