Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger participated in the Pittsburgh Steelers' practice today, but his availability for Sunday's game at Houston remained in doubt.

He is vowing to play, but he's bothered by a bone bruise in his knee and the Steelers plan to determine his status Sunday.

Tommy Maddox would start against the Texans if Roethlisberger is unable to play. Roethlisberger sat out Wednesday's practice and did little in Thursday's practice.

Roethlisberger has a 14-0 regular-season record as an NFL starter. He took over when Maddox got hurt in the second game of last season, and hasn't relinquished the job since.

Maddox did start the last year's regular-season finale at Buffalo, with Roethlisberger plagued by a rib injury and the Steelers having already wrapped up home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs. But Roethlisberger returned to start the team's two playoff games, including a loss to the New England Patriots in the AFC championship ..... .

Philadelphia Eagles Coach Andy Reid said today that quarterback Donovan McNabb will start Sunday's home opener against the San Francisco 49ers. McNabb suffered a bruised chest during Monday night's loss at Atlanta and sat out Wednesday's practice. But he pledged to play Sunday, and resumed practicing Thursday. . . .

There were suspicions around the league this week that New York Jets quarterback Chad Pennington isn't fully healed from the shoulder injury that plagued him last season.

Pennington underwent offseason surgery for a torn rotator cuff, and the Jets brought him back slowly in training camp and the preseason. But they suffered an embarrassingly one-sided season-opening loss last weekend in Kansas City, and the general manager of one NFL team said this week he'd been told by several scouts who watched that game that Pennington's passes had little or no zip on them.

"He's never exactly had Brett Favre's arm strength," the GM said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he didn't feel comfortable commenting publicly on the health of another club's quarterback. "He's always relied more on touch. But you have to have something on the ball, and he didn't." . . . Speaking of Favre, people around the league are wondering whether the Hall of Fame-bound quarterback might have hung around one season too long. His Green Bay Packers were punch-less on offense in their opening loss at Detroit. Favre now has lost his top receiver, Javon Walker, to a season-ending knee injury after losing two top offensive lineman, guards Marco Rivera and Mike Wahle, to offseason defections.

"That team," a front-office executive from another club said, "might be coming apart."

Favre needs only 65 passing yards Sunday against Cleveland to join Dan Marino and John Elway as the only NFL players with 50,000 career passing yards.

Endgame for Labor Talks

The NFL's labor negotiations have reached their endgame.

Before last week, the deliberations seemed to be going nowhere. But representatives of the league and the NFL Players Association had a positive meeting late last week, and it now appears that the two sides will be able to meet Commissioner Paul Tagliabue's goal of agreeing to an extension of their collective bargaining agreement next month.

Tagliabue has brought two owners seen as compromisers, the Denver Broncos' Pat Bowlen and the Carolina Panthers' Jerry Richardson, into the negotiations. Tagliabue's other task is to try to get the owners to agree concurrently to a plan for increasing the amount of locally generated revenues shared among the 32 clubs . . . .

It was surprising that Eagles linebacker Jeremiah Trotter and Falcons reserve cornerback Kevin Mathis were fined only $5,000 apiece by the league for their pregame scuffle Monday that led to them being ejected. Steelers linebacker Joey Porter and Browns running back William Green had been fined $10,000 each after they were ejected from a game last season for a pregame fight. Seven other players were fined for their roles in the fracas, and Falcons defensive tackle Chad Lavalais was fined $7,500 for launching himself helmet-first on the hit during the game that injured McNabb . . . .

With Mathis on the injured reserve list because of a severe knee injury suffered during Wednesday's practice, the Falcons signed cornerback Christian Morton off the Washington Redskins' practice squad. It's even possible that Morton could play Sunday at Seattle, with Mathis on IR and cornerback and kick returner Allen Rossum plagued by a sore hamstring muscle . . . .

Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer has had four straight games, going back to last season, in which he's had a passer rating over 100 . . . .

When the 49ers beat the St. Louis Rams last weekend, it not only marked the first time since the 2003 season that they'd beaten a team other than the Arizona Cardinals. It also marked the first time since the '03 season that they'd won a game in regulation. The 49ers went 2-14 last season, with both of their victories coming against the Cardinals in overtime. The 49ers' three previous victories, in fact, had come in overtime. Their last win in regulation was Dec. 7, 2003 . . . .

The Packers will retire the jersey number -- 92 -- of late defensive end Reggie White on Sunday. White will be the fifth Packers great to have his number retired, along with Bart Starr, Ray Nitschke, Don Hutson and Tony Canadeo.

Bailey Toughing It Out

Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey practiced Thursday despite a dislocated left shoulder and could play Sunday against San Diego. He never has missed a start in his seven-year NFL career . . . .

Chargers linebacker Shawne Merriman is scheduled to make his NFL debut Sunday in Denver after missing San Diego's season-opening home loss to Dallas because of a sprained knee suffered during the preseason. The University of Maryland linebacker was one of the Chargers' two first-round draft choice in April. The other, Northwestern defensive tackle Luis Castillo, might start Sunday on a defensive line likely to be reshuffled because of a leg injury to end Igor Olshansky.

On offense, left guard Toniu Fonoti is scheduled to play Sunday for the Chargers even after suffering a hairline fracture of his right hand during Wednesday's practice . . . .

Chargers tailback LaDainian Tomlinson has had a rushing touchdown in 13 straight regular-season games. If he gets another Sunday, he'll break the NFL record he now shares with John Riggins and George Rogers. . . .

Patriots Coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady are aiming for their 50th regular-season win together Sunday at Carolina. They're 49-14 in tandem. . . .

Indianapolis quarterback Peyton Manning and wideout Marvin Harrison need 60 yards and three touchdowns to set NFL career records for a passer-receiver tandem. They've combined for 9,479 yards and 83 touchdowns. Buffalo's Jim Kelly and Andre Reed have the yardage record with 9,538, and the 49ers' Steve Young and Jerry Rice hold the touchdown mark with 85. . . .

The Lions plan to sign kicker Remy Hamilton to their practice squad and could promote him to the 53-man roster Saturday as a potential fill-in for Jason Hanson, whose status for Sunday's game at Chicago is in doubt because of a strained hamstring muscle. Hamilton, who has played in the Arena League but never has participated in an NFL regular-season game, was one of four kickers to work out for the Lions this week. . . .

Chiefs defensive tackle Ryan Sims will miss at least six weeks, and perhaps the remainder of the season, because of a severe foot sprain. . . .

The Jets plan to promote defensive end John Abraham to the starting lineup this weekend. He was limited to a part-time role in the opener because he'd just joined the team following a contract dispute.