METAIRIE, La. (AP) – Reggie Bush returned to practice Wednesday, ahead of schedule after learning only two weeks ago he had a torn left knee ligament.

Whether the New Orleans Saints truly expect Bush to play on Sunday is another matter.

“I guess you guys have to wait and see,” a grinning Bush said coyly. “I can’t give that away yet.”

Even if Bush ends up missing his third straight game when the Saints host Philadelphia on Sunday, there could be some advantage to getting Bush back on the practice field: it gives the Eagles something else to worry about.

“He may or may not play, but they have to prepare as if he’s going to play,” said Saints running back Aaron Stecker, who has been starting – and thriving – since Bush went down. “If they don’t prepare for it and all of a sudden he shows up and plays, then they’re just looking at themselves, saying, ‘Why didn’t we prepare?’

“I’m going to prepare the same way, as if I’m going to get the majority of the carries,” Stecker continued. “And if he plays, he plays.”

Coach Sean Payton normally avoids divulging information about hobbled players’ status before NFL rules require him to do so, which would have been the first scheduled practice report Wednesday. Instead, Payton volunteered on Monday that Bush intended to practice this week in the hope of playing against the Eagles.

Eagles coach Andy Reid wasn’t inclined to bet Bush’s return to practice was nothing more than a smoke screen.

“Whether he comes back or not, I don’t know. If he does, we’ll be ready,” Reid said. “If he doesn’t, Aaron is playing very good football right now, so we have to make sure we study him also.”

The Saints discovered on Dec. 6 that Bush had a partial posterior cruciate ligament tear that would not require surgery, but would likely require about a month of rehabilitation. At the time, the Saints were 5-7.

New Orleans (7-7) has since won two straight games over Atlanta and Arizona, keeping the Saints one game behind Minnesota (8-6) for the final NFC wild-card playoff spot with two games to go.

Surprisingly, the Saints have had two of their best games of the year running the ball since Bush joined Deuce McAllister on the sidelines.

Stecker rushed for 100 yards at Atlanta and 95 yards at home against the Cardinals. He also had 46 yards receiving against Arizona.

Payton said if Bush returns Sunday, Stecker would likely remain a key part of the offense.

“One encouraging thing is we’ve been able to run the ball in these last two games and it’s given us some balance, which is something we’ve been looking for,” Payton said. “Aaron’s done a good job. We’ve done a good job up front. So each week, depending on which team we’re playing and what we’re seeing defensively, we’ll try to do what’s best to score points.”

Bush wore a knee brace and his participation in practice was limited, though he appeared to run well while taking handoffs during the portion of practice reporters were permitted to watch.

Bush began wearing a brace in midseason when the same knee first started bothering him. He played through pain for several weeks, then an MRI several days after a loss to Tampa Bay on Dec. 2 indicated that injury had gotten worse.

Last week, however, the Saints decided against placing Bush on injured reserve, hoping he may return to the field to help the Saints in the playoffs, should they advance that far. Bush then said last week he thought he might return for the Saints’ last regular-season game in Chicago.

Bush said when he does come back, it won’t be in a limited role.

“If I’m going to play … I’m not just going to go in there and go half, because if that’s the case I wouldn’t play,” he said. “Whenever the time comes for me to play, I’m planning on giving it my all.”

Payton said the Saints intend to be careful with Bush and won’t play him if there appears to be a risk of worsening the injury.

“He can be a big factor for us if he’s healthy,” Payton said. “So we’ll kind of take it day to day and then probably make a game-time decision based on how he’s feeling.”

AP-ES-12-19-07 1858EST

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