The New Orleans Saints are being embraced by their temporary home town, San Antonio.

Sunday's game against the Atlanta Falcons at the 65,000-seat Alamodome is sold out. That means the crowd probably will be even louder and more supportive than the gathering for the Saints' first game in San Antonio 12 days ago, when the team's players and coaches credited the boisterous fan support they received as being a key factor in a 19-7 triumph over the Buffalo Bills. There were about 6,000 unsold seats for that game, mostly in the upper deck and the corners of the stadium.

The Saints need all the support they can get at this point. They're coming off a 52-3 loss at Green Bay last Sunday that dropped their record to 2-3, and they lost tailback Deuce McAllister for the remainder of the season when he suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee during that game.

This will be the first time since they were displaced from New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina that the Saints will play a second game in the same city. Their last seven games, going back to the preseason, were played in seven different cities.

After Sunday, the Saints will not play in San Antonio again until their final home game of the regular season, against the Detroit Lions on Dec. 24. In between, they'll play four home games at LSU's Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge, La., beginning Oct. 30 against the Miami Dolphins.

Bruschi's Status To Be Determined Soon

Speculation is running rampant in the Boston area that linebacker Tedy Bruschi will return to the New England Patriots in the coming weeks. It had been thought that Bruschi would sit out the season after suffering a mild stroke in February and reportedly undergoing surgery to repair a hole in his heart that might have caused the stroke.

Bruschi is on the Patriots' physically-unable-to-perform list, meaning that he has a three-week window to begin practicing. If he begins practicing, the Patriots then would have an additional three weeks to decide whether to place him on the active roster or on the injured reserve list, ending his season. Bruschi is eligible to practice beginning Monday.

It appears that he's interested in playing this season but the issue still is under debate among his doctors and Patriots officials. The Patriots, who will take a 3-2 record into Sunday's game at Denver, have a bye next week before returning to play the Bills at home on Oct. 30. Bruschi, if he does return, would be eligible to play in the Buffalo game.

Penalties Up

Penalties are up around the league. There have been an average 15.8 accepted penalties per NFL game this season, up from 14.5 per contest through the first five weeks of last season.

Last weekend's games were particularly flag-filled, with the Baltimore Ravens being penalized 21 times and the Dolphins 18 times. The Pittsburgh Steelers and San Diego Chargers totaled 20 penalties in the Monday night game. League officials, though, say it's too early in the season to worry about whether a trend is developing.

Roethlisberger Improving

The condition of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's bruised and hyperextended left knee is said to be improving. He didn't participate in the Steelers' practice Thursday but he did some running. If Roethlisberger doesn't practice today, however, he probably won't start Sunday's game against the Jacksonville Jaguars at Heinz Field.

If Roethlisberger is sidelined, Coach Bill Cowher will have to choose between backup quarterback Tommy Maddox and third-stringer Charlie Batch. Maddox is coming off a calf injury but practiced Wednesday and Thursday. Batch filled in after Roethlisberger was hurt Monday night in San Diego, handing off three times before a game-winning field goal.

Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward didn't practice Wednesday or Thursday because of his lingering hamstring injury. He played with the injury Monday night and had six catches for 83 yards. . . .

Jaguars tailback Fred Taylor was limited in Thursday's practice by a sore ankle, and his status for the Pittsburgh game is unclear. . . .

Falcons quarterback Michael Vick practiced for a second day in a row. He missed last Sunday's loss to the Patriots because of a sprained medial collateral ligament in his right knee, but it seems increasingly likely that he will return to the lineup this weekend in San Antonio. . . .

Chicago Bears rookie tailback Cedric Benson could make his first NFL start Sunday against the Minnesota Vikings, with Thomas Jones plagued by an ailing right knee. Benson, the fourth overall selection in the draft in April, has only 65 rushing yards this season after being the final first-round pick league-wide to sign a contract. . . .

Carolina tailback Stephen Davis practiced Thursday after sitting out Wednesday because of a sore knee. It appears likely that he will play Sunday at Detroit. . . .

The Lions still are toying with the notion of bolstering their depleted wideout corps by having cornerback R.W. McQuarters play some receiver Sunday. The club might know after today's practice whether wide receiver Roy Williams, who's bothered by a strained quadriceps muscle, will be able to play against the Panthers.