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For Dungy, the time is right to return

Two days after burying his son, Tony Dungy rejoined the Indianapolis Colts on Thursday, hugging his players and assistant coaches and thanking the public for its support while he dealt with his personal tragedy.

"It was the right time to come back," he said following an 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 left the team Dec. 22 when his 18-year-old son, James, died. A preliminary autopsy report indicated the teen took his own life, but the exact cause of death won't be released until a toxicology examination is completed in four to six weeks.

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, players, coaches and team officials flew to Tampa for the funeral, the first time they had seen their coach since he left to be with his family.

His return surprised and excited everyone, as did his announcement that he would coach Sunday's regular-season finale in Arizona.

The Colts appeared to walk off the field with more pep, and after practice, Polian and Dungy even shared a laugh.

"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. But I hope this is one place he can find some peace and consolation."

Dungy said he spent Wednesday with his family at the Tampa Zoo. He said he discussed the decision with his wife, Lauren, and flew back to Indianapolis late Wednesday night with his other teenage son, Eric. At about 7:45 a.m. -- his usual arrival time -- Dungy walked into the team complex, where he was greeted with embraces, handshakes and condolences.

"It was like a sigh of relief. He gave everyone a big hug," linebacker David Thornton said. "He didn't have a chance to do that the other day when we came down. But he hugged everyone. He was so excited to be back with his family, his football family. Everyone is so happy for him. We're still supporting him."

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Palmer's contract extended

CINCINNATI -- Soon after he arrived from Southern California in 2003, quarterback Carson Palmer decided he had found the perfect place to settle down and spend a career.

Now, there's no reason to leave.

The Cincinnati Bengals reworked and extended Palmer's contract Thursday, 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.

"Hopefully this is the last place I'll end up playing," Palmer said. "That's so rare in this league these days. It's so rare to see a person have a 5-, 8-, 10-, 12-year career in one place. And I feel very fortunate that it looks like that's going to be my future."

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Around the league

This season's "Monday Night Football" ratings 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 U.S. homes with televisions, according to Nielsen Media Research Inc. Last season's average rating was 11 percent, down from 11.5 percent in 2003. The program switches to ESPN next season.

Jacksonville quarterback Byron Leftwich, out since breaking his ankle Nov. 27 against Arizona, practiced Wednesday and Thursday 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.

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