It could be clear by the end of the week whether the league and the NFL Players Association are within striking distance of agreeing to an extension of their labor deal.

Representatives of the two sides are scheduled to meet today and Friday. These negotiations have been unusually contentious for a sport that has achieved long-standing labor peace under Commissioner Paul Tagliabue and union chief Gene Upshaw, but the tenor of the talks seemed to change when Tagliabue recently added two owners viewed as compromisers, the Denver Broncos' Pat Bowlen and the Carolina Panthers' Jerry Richardson, to the league's bargaining committee.

"I think that reshaping the [committee] the way I did and getting Pat Bowlen and Jerry Richardson to become directly involved the way that Dan Rooney and Wellington Mara were in past negotiations is a real positive," Tagliabue said this week. "It shows that we are serious and determined to reach out across the table, and hopefully that will be the beginning of a deal."

Another bargaining session tentatively is scheduled for next week, barring an agreement.

Upshaw has been seeking significant changes to the system that has helped to make the NFL the nation's most prosperous and popular sports league, wanting to expand the pool of revenues from which the players are paid. Upshaw has been seeking to set the salary cap at 63 percent of the league's total football revenues, while the league has been offering 57 percent.

The labor deal keeps the current salary-cap system in place through the 2006 season, then would expire after a 2007 season that would be played without a salary cap if there's no extension of the collective bargaining agreement in place by then. Upshaw has said he doesn't think a salary cap ever could be put back in place if there's a season played without one.

This would be the fifth extension of the current labor deal. Tagliabue has been aiming to complete a deal by next month. While the negotiations with the union are proceeding, he's also attempting to get the owners to agree to a plan for the 32 NFL teams to increase the amount of locally generated revenues they share with each other.

Lions Audition George, King

Out-of-work quarterbacks Jeff George and Shaun King auditioned for the Detroit Lions on Tuesday, although neither was immediately signed.

The Lions have only two healthy quarterbacks, starter Joey Harrington and rookie Dan Orlovsky, on their roster. Jeff Garcia is recovering from a broken leg and a severely sprained ankle suffered during the preseason. The Lions have kept Garcia on the 53-man roster so that he'll be eligible to play for them when he's healthy later in the season.

When the club signed Garcia in the offseason after he was released by the Cleveland Browns, it was thought that Coach Steve Mariucci might turn to the veteran early in the season if Harrington faltered. Garcia was a three-time Pro Bowl selection while playing for Mariucci in San Francisco. But with Garcia hurt, Mariucci now has nowhere to turn with Harrington coming off a five-interception outing in last Sunday's embarrassingly inept 38-6 loss at Chicago.

George was signed by the Bears last season but didn't get into a game. King, the former Tampa Bay starter, was with the Arizona Cardinals last season, and even was the team's starter temporarily when Coach Dennis Green began a midseason round of quarterback juggling. But he was released by the Cardinals in the offseason. . . .

Tailback Quentin Griffin also was among the players who worked out for Lions officials Tuesday, but he re-signed with the Broncos later in the day. Denver released Griffin, a starter early last season, just before this season began. . . .

The Jacksonville Jaguars, as they'd feared, lost safety Donovin Darius to a season-ending knee injury suffered during Sunday's loss at Indianapolis. An MRI exam confirmed that Darius suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament. He'll be replaced by Deke Cooper in the Jaguars' lineup, but the loss is a significant blow to the Jacksonville defense. . . .

The Philadelphia Eagles signed kicker Todd France to the practice squad as a potential fill-in for David Akers, who's bothered by a strained hamstring muscle. Linebacker Mark Simoneau converted an extra point during last Sunday's triumph over the San Francisco 49ers, and tight end Mike Bartrum served as a temporary kickoff specialist before Akers returned to finish the game. . . .

Tailback Curtis Martin sat out the New York Jets' practice today because of his ailing right knee. Coach Herman Edwards said he's uncertain if Martin will be able to play Sunday against the Jaguars. But Martin is as tough as any player in the league. He last missed a game in 1998. The reigning NFL rushing champion injured the knee during last weekend's victory over the Miami Dolphins. An MRI exam showed no ligament tears, according to the Jets. . . .

The winless Houston Texans fired offensive coordinator Chris Palmer this week, and now they're revamping their defense by benching linebacker Jason Babin and cornerback Phillip Buchanon. Shantee Orr takes over at outside linebacker for Babin, a first-round draft pick last year, and Demarcus Faggins starts at cornerback ahead of Buchanon, a former first-round choice by Oakland who was obtained in an offseason trade that sent second- and third-round selections to the Raiders. . . .

Seattle placed wide receiver Alex Bannister, a special-teams standout, on the injured reserve list because of a broken collarbone and signed cornerback and kick returner Jimmy Williams.

Haslett Intensifies Criticism

Saints Coach Jim Haslett intensified his criticism Tuesday of Tagliabue's decision to move Monday's game -- the first scheduled home game of the season for Haslett's club -- to Giants Stadium. The Saints, who officially were listed as the home team in the game, gave a sloppy performance and lost to the Giants, 27-10.

"It wasn't a home game," Haslett said during a news briefing Tuesday. "I look up at the scoreboard and there are signs: 'Let's go Giants.' The referees, when they flipped the coin, asked us if we wanted heads or tails, so they had no idea who the home team or the away team was. The crowd noise we had to deal with -- I have never had to do a silent [snap] count at home.

"The whole thing was a great cause, and I think the NFL did a great job of raising money for the Gulf Coast. But really, the whole thing was bull because they could have done that anywhere. They could have played that game anywhere. They could have played that game in Baton Rouge or in San Antonio and did the same thing. I commend the league for what they were trying to do. But to play it in the Giants' home stadium and give them another home game and to put us in the situation where we could not hear . . . that is not the reason we lost the game, but it is bull."

Haslett previously had criticized the decision, but not as forcefully. Tagliabue said during an interview on the field before the game Monday that competitive concerns were "inconsequential" compared to the cause to which the NFL was attempting to contribute with its fundraising efforts tied to having the game in New York. Tagliabue said he would pay no attention to any complaints about the competitive advantage that the Giants had Monday night.

The Saints are based in San Antonio this season and will split their remaining seven home games between there and Baton Rouge, La. The league insisted that the team play the majority of its home games in Louisiana, so four of the games are scheduled at LSU in Baton Rouge. This weekend, however, the Saints face another road trip, with a game at Minnesota scheduled for Sunday. Haslett said he's uncertain how his club will react.

"I don't think anybody has ever traveled to 13 games [in a season], so I don't know," Haslett said. "I think that is a question that is going to be answered in January or February. I really don't know. Hopefully we handle it a little better than [Monday] because we didn't handle it very well." . . . Haslett said the knee injury suffered by Saints kick returner Michael Lewis during Monday's game is serious and could be season-ending.

Telethon Raises $5 Million

The telethon conducted from Times Square on Monday while the New Orleans Saints and New York Giants were playing at Giants Stadium raised about $5 million for relief efforts in the Gulf Coast region. . . .

The Dallas Cowboys' loss Monday night to the Washington Redskins was the first defeat for a Bill Parcells-coached team when leading by at least 13 points in the fourth quarter. Parcells's teams had been 77-0 in such situations.