From talks in front of a mediator to arguments before an appeals court, the NFL's labor dispute has reached a critical stage.

The league and its players completed 3 straight days of not-so-secret talks yesterday. Now they head to court in St. Louis for a ruling that could prove pivotal in the nearly 3-month lockout.

And while three judges from the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals consider whether to allow the lockout to continue, further talks between NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, several owners, NFLPA chief DeMaurice Smith and some of his players might be held elsewhere.

Training camps, meanwhile, normally would open in about 7 weeks. This, of course, is no normal year for pro football.

Ben Leber, one of 10 plaintiffs on the still-pending antitrust lawsuit against the league, said the players haven't discussed a specific drop-dead date for reaching an agreement to ensure the on-time start of training camps. But he said it's necessary to have one in order to reach a deal.

"Both sides have a day, whether they want to make it public or not," Leber said. "The biggest challenge is going to lie with whose day is going to come up first. Once it got to this point, I think it was just a good guess based on most corporate labor disputes that nothing was going to get done until the 11th hour. Now it depends on which 11th hour gets here first."

Goodell and owners Jerry Jones, Robert Kraft and John Mara were among those joined in a Chicago suburb by Smith and a group of players, including NFLPA president Kevin Mawae, before U.S. Magistrate Judge Arthur Boylan. Both sides issued statements saying they would honor a court-ordered confidentiality agreement. Boylan then canceled mediation sessions scheduled for Tuesday and Wednesday in Minneapolis.

A person with knowledge of the talks told the Associated Press that the term "settlement negotiations" doesn't necessarily mean an agreement is near.

"They know that they have to move fast. We all know that training camps open in mid-July," said Jay Krupin of the Washington-based firm EpsteinBeckerGreen. "I wouldn't be surprised if some of their clerks are already starting writing their opinion."

Noteworthy

* Add the Buffalo Bills coaching staff to others around the league, including the Eagles, in distancing themselves from the NFL Coaches Association's decision to side with players in the NFL labor dispute. Offensive coordinator Curtis Modkins says the entire Bills staff supports team owner Ralph Wilson.

* The father of Chicago Bears defensive end Julius Peppers has lost his law enforcement job after being charged in North Carolina with felony possession of cocaine.