Foxborough, Mass. - It's no secret that the recent play of Carson Palmer has been impressive for the Cincinnati Bengals. When the Bengals took the Southern California quarterback with the first overall choice in the 2003 NFL Draft, they probably envisioned performances such as the ones Palmer posted in last week's win over the Baltimore Ravens as the eventual light at the end of their quarterback tunnel.
Palmer, who turns 25 later this month, has now started exactly 12 NFL games after head coach Marvin Lewis handed him the reigns to the Cincinnati offense in his second season. Through the first seven games this season, Palmer looked every bit the part of a first-year starting quarterback. He completed just 55.1 percent of his passes, threw five touchdown passes and 10 interceptions, and had carried a 62.6 quarterback ranking. Not coincidentally, the Bengals had a 2-5 record.
After struggling through the early portions of the season, Palmer has turned it on, and the improvement has shown in the Bengals' 4-1 record over the last five games. Palmer has a 94.9 quarterback rating over that span, averaging 245.4 yards per game while throwing 11 touchdowns and seven interceptions.
"It's tough to really say exactly where I am," Palmer told the New England media Wednesday. "I think I've learned a number of things over the season, but still have a really long way to go to where I need to be, to be comfortable and be the quarterback that I need to be."
The signature game of Palmer's young career came in last week's 27-26 comeback win over Baltimore. He led the Bengals back from a 20-3 deficit on the road, the second biggest comeback in franchise history on the road. Palmer posted season highs in passer rating (127.1), yards (382), completions (29) and completion percentage (80.6) against a Ravens defense that had led the NFL with a cumulative opponent rating of 62.0. It was the same Ravens' defense that limited Patriots quarterback Tom Brady to 15-of-30 passing for 172 yards and no touchdowns in blustery conditions the previous week.
The performance, which earned him AFC Player of the Week honors, is a not-so-subtle sign that Palmer is starting to feel more comfortable and is improving his game management.
"I really think he has continued to grow," Lewis said Wednesday in a conference call. "He has continued to gain the confidence that people will be where they are supposed to be. I think, playing quarterback, the main thing is to be in sync with everybody else and be coordinated. I think we have seen that in his development."
The biggest difference between Palmer earlier in the season and the Palmer on display last Sunday is his ability to avoid mistakes. He hasn't been making the typical rookie mistakes of throwing the key interception or making the wrong decision late in games.
"He's much improved," linebacker Don Davis said. "He's playing very well, which is indicative of their record. He's a young kid, but he has a rocket of an arm and is a good athlete so it's going to be a challenge for us."
A big part of Palmer's production is in the hands - literally - of his trio of receivers. Chad Johnson (6-1, 192), T.J. Houshmandzadeh (6-1, 197_and Kelly Washington (6-3, 218), have the size and physicality to pose problems for a Patriots secondary that could be without its top three cornerbacks for the fifth straight week.
Johnson and Hashmandzadeh - who has been starting since Peter Warrick went on injured reserve - had a record-setting day in the win over Baltimore, combining for the most catches (20) and yards (332) by any two receivers in a game in franchise history. Hashmandzadeh posted career highs in catches (10) and yards (171), while Johnson finished with a career-high in yardage (161) and tied his career best with 10 receptions. Including Cincinnati's 58-48 win over Cleveland the previous week, Johnson now has 20 receptions for 278 yards and three touchdowns in his last two games.
"You're facing a Pro Bowler in Chad Johnson," safety Rodney Harrison said. "He's gone against the best, and he's beaten the best. So he's really a concern. He's a Pro Bowler and [the other receivers] aren't. He's got the hands, he's got the speed, he's a great route runner, he's tough, he's very athletic and he's just consistent. He's very tough in terms of match ups."
Johnson, who emerged among receivers to led the AFC with 1,355 yards last season, leads the conference again this season with 1,071 yards and is ranked third in the NFL with 75 receptions. He's on pace to tie the franchise record with 100 receptions, and top his own record he set last season with 1,428 yards.
"I think his love for the game," Palmer said when asked what makes Johnson a special talent. "He is a very electric player and he is explosive, fast and has great hands and all of that. But, he just really loves the game. He loves to work on his game. He is always doing something extra. [He watches] film on Marvin Harrison, Terrell Owens or a number of different guys and [he] is trying to learn and better himself. It makes it easy on a quarterback when you have a guy who really wants to be great and really wants to work on his game."
Clearly, no win was bigger for the Bengals than the late rally against Baltimore. But for the improving Palmer, the Patriots present a new barometer of just how far their improvement has gone this season.
"It's defiantly a huge meter stick to really see where we are," Palmer said. "We've beat some good teams, but the Patriots are the Patriots. Everyone is trying to knock them off. They've done a great job staying where they have. It's tough to get to the top, but it's even tougher to stay on top. They've done a great job staying on top. Obviously it would be very sweet to beat them."