So Carson Palmer got his revenge on the Cincinnati Bengals Sunday night. Big deal? Seemed like it. Fighting back after a miserable first quarter in which he threw two bad interceptions, the Arizona Cardinals' quarterback was all daggers the rest of the way. He finished with 317 yards and four touchdowns through the air in a 34-31 victory that left both Super Bowl hopefuls at 8-2.
The final drive was magnificent. After Cincinnati tied it with 1:03 to go, Palmer – operating with no timeouts – hit J.J. Nelson over the middle for 19 yards, Larry Fitzgerald on a crossing route for 18 and then Fitzgerald again over the middle for 20. Chandler Catanzaro won it with a field goal before the Bengals' defenders even had a chance to hike up their pants.
It had to be sweet for Palmer, who finally managed to beat the team that drafted him first overall in 2003.
"No doubt," he said when asked about the added meaning of a win that kept Arizona in the driver's seat in the NFC West. "There's obviously a little extra on the game."
The Bengals first knocked him around following an ugly 4-12 season in 2010, when Palmer requested a trade. Instead, owner and team president Mike Brown left Palmer hanging like a forgotten man. The message: Nobody is bigger than the team, not even a Heisman Trophy winner who'd been to a pair of Pro Bowls. Brown didn't trade Palmer until halfway through the ensuing season. In the meantime, the Bengals drafted quarterback Andy Dalton and handed him the reins.
The salt-in-the-wound second ass-kicking came in 2012, when Palmer seemed to be frittering away his career with the moribund Oakland Raiders. In Palmer's only game against the Bengals prior to Sunday, the Raiders were spanked 34-10 as Dalton delivered one of his finest performances.
So, yeah, score one for Palmer for turning the tables on an organization that has zero postseason victories since 1991. Sunday night was great and all, but here's what should be the obvious reality: It didn't mean much of anything.
Palmer himself – 35 years old, a 13-year veteran – doesn't have a single playoff win on his résumé. He came into the league a can't-miss kid and threatens to leave it without having made an indelible mark. For all his talent, Palmer, to this point, has had a career devoid of meaning and relevance. He's the answer to a pyrrhic question: Who's the best quarterback never to win a postseason game?
Palmer will turn 36 on December 27, the day Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers come calling at University of Phoenix Stadium. By then, home-field advantage in the postseason could be on the line. Even if the 10-0 Carolina Panthers secure that, the Cardinals will want to assure themselves of a home game to start the playoffs. The stakes will be high and the challenges severe down the stretch for a team that will host the Packers (7-3), the Minnesota Vikings (7-3) and the two-time defending NFC champion Seattle Seahawks (5-5) in the final four weeks of the regular season.
But, for the first time in his career, Palmer has the team around him to deal with all that. The Cardinals are near the top of the league's statistical rankings on both sides of the ball, and their offensive skill positions are beyond stacked. Chris Johnson is third in the league in rushing. Fitzgerald, a future Hall of Famer, leads a pass-catching corps that is deep, dynamic and selfless, something Palmer never had in Cincinnati.
For God's sake, these guys – one week after hanging 39 points on the Seahawks in a win at Seattle – just shredded the Bengals' stout defense.
It's simply the best team Arizona has had since the franchise relocated to the desert from St. Louis in 1988. The Cardinals have had a whopping three seasons with double-digit victories since then, topping out at 11 wins a year ago, when Palmer watched a hopeless playoff game against the Carolina Panthers from the sideline with a torn left ACL he'd suffered in November.
You want to talk about a moribund franchise? The St. Louis Cardinals never won more than 11 games – and never won a single playoff game – in 28 seasons. We'll risk offending the old Chicago Cardinals by suggesting this is the best team in franchise history.
And it couldn't have come at a better time for Palmer. Kurt Warner was 37 when he led the Cardinals to Super Bowl XLIII, but that team was 9-7 in the regular season. Tom Brady led last season's New England Patriots to the Promised Land at 37. John Elway went back-to-back with the Denver Broncos at 37 and 38.
Palmer still appears to have plenty of juice left in his arm and in his game. That was evident in Sunday's second quarter when he found Nelson for 23 yards on a third-and-16 before delivering a dime to Darren Fells in the end zone from the 18. Palmer went off in the third quarter, hooking up for beautiful touchdowns to Nelson, John Brown and David Johnson during what had to be the finest 15 minutes of his career.
It was a 21-point explosion that announced to the football world that Carson Palmer is no afterthought. He has all kinds of golden-armed game and a team around him that screams "indelible." This is his chance to write a story we'll all remember.