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Win could be turning point for Palmer

We usually term it a "coming of age game" but, call it what you will, every quarterback who proceeds to stardom in the NFL certainly needs one.

Years from now, if his career has advanced to the point where people speak of him in superlatives, Carson Palmer will look back on Sunday's clutch performance at Baltimore and, perhaps, regard the game, or at least the fourth quarter of the stirring 27-26 victory at Baltimore as a personally galvanizing moment.

Forget that the comeback win allowed the Bengals, after a 1-4 start to the season, to climb back to .500, or that it came over a bitter rival. That Palmer was able to rally his team in the fourth quarter, and then steal away a win with a brilliantly executed hurry-up drive in the closing minutes, was what counted most.

In the fourth quarter, the second-year veteran, whose sporadic play has at times mirrored that of the Bengals in general, enjoyed a "perfect" period in terms of quarterback rating. He hit 10 of 12 passes for 200 yards and three touchdowns. His only incomplete attempts in the stanza were a couple of "spikes" to kill the clock on the final possession. Every completion but one was for double-digit yardage. In order: 13 yards, 32, 11, 12, 24, 34, nine, 32, 11 and 22. And, in the Baltimore secondary, it wasn't as if Palmer was facing a passive unit that just sack back and permitted him to operate with impunity. Making the final drive even that more impressive was that it began with Palmer suffering an eight-yard sack by end Anthony Weaver.

There was certainly no hint, through three quarters, that Palmer was capable of such rousing play. He had been, typically, sporadic with his accuracy. And while his 182 passing yards were acceptable, Palmer hadn't gotten Cincinnati into the end zone.

All of that changed, though, in the fourth quarter. He regularly hooked up with Chad Johnson (10 catches, 161 yards, two touchdowns) and T.J. Houshmandzadeh (10 for 171 yards and one score), threw the ball well vertically, seemed to consistently have coordinator Bob Bratkowski dialing up solid plays for him. Bratkowski has occasionally been criticized this season for not better insulating the first-year starter with a better run game and play selection. But give the veteran coordinator credit for designing a passing game which, despite Palmer's weak yards-per-attempt number (6.22 yards), usually goes vertical in an era of east-west throws.

In the final drive, after it appeared that Palmer's performance would be squandered as the Ravens assumed a 26-24 edge on a Matt Stover field goal, the Bengals made huge plays because Palmer made big-time throws. Clearly, it was a moment upon which to build.

At 6-6, unfortunately, Cincinnati has little chance of making the playoffs in a crowded AFC field. And, even with Sunday's results, it is clear the Bengals need another speed receiver (no disrespect intended for Houshmandzadeh, who now has 14 catches for 250 yards and three touchdowns the last two outings) to pair with the brash Johnson.

Maybe Palmer will regress again, revert to the quarterback who had more interceptions than touchdown passes until Sunday, and whose efficiency rating was a modest 70.1. But if he stays in ascent, and uses Sunday's fourth quarter as positive reinforcement, the victory could serve as a career springboard.

Coaching them up
As has been the case the past few seasons, there are an abundance of legitimate coach of the year candidates for 2004. Bill Belichick. Andy Reid. Bill Cowher. Jim Mora. Marty Schottenheimer. But the man who is perhaps doing the best coaching job in the league at this moment, John Fox of Carolina, certainly deserves a shout-out.

Fox won't win the award. Heck, his team might not even make the playoffs, not after a 1-7 start marred by so many injuries. But the fact that the prideful Panthers and their coach didn't long ago throw in the towel on this season -- and, Lord knows, they had justification for doing so -- truly is remarkable.

Fox suggested, following Sunday's 33-21 victory at New Orleans, that the Panthers have "become a new football team." We hate to disagree with a guy whom we are lauding but, in winning for the fourth straight time and remaining on the fringes of playoff contention, Carolina has persevered because it hasn't changed its MO very much at all. Indeed, at a time when some teams are just chameleons, the Panthers retain the same formula that drove them to a Super Bowl berth only a year ago. The difference is that they are making plays now.

Quarterback Jake Delhomme, so error prone just a month ago (seven touchdown passes offset by eight interceptions during an ugly six-game losing skein), has thrown for eight scores and just two pickoffs in the four wins. Nick Goings, basically the team's No. 4 tailback, has strung together three straight 100-yard outings, including an impressive 36-carry, 122-yard game on Sunday afternoon. Aging wideout Muhsin Muhammad (10 catches for 179 yards on Sunday) has resurrected his career. Defensive end Julius Peppers has become both a force and a leader.

But it all starts with Fox, a sort of human rudder for the Panthers, and he certainly has righted the ship. The Panthers still play sound football, run the ball, count on winning close games. And, oh, yeah, they still count on kicker John Kasay, too, who hammered home six field goals in the Superdome.

This is a team that, because of 14 injuries and the loss of its top two tailbacks, most explosive wide receiver and best defensive tackle in the league, lost its already skinny margin for error. But it has persevered and, for that, Fox deserves a nod.


QBs in Tampa
Think about this: Had quarterback Jeff Garcia signed with Tampa Bay this spring, as he came close to doing following his release by San Francisco for cap considerations, would the Bucs be in the playoffs? As it is, Tampa Bay is on the fringes of contention, after its lopsided victory over Atlanta on Sunday afternoon, sitting at 5-7 along with four other NFC franchises, only a game off the pace for the conference's final wild-card spot. Much of that is attributable to the play of quarterback Brian Griese, who is making himself a lot of money with his performance as the starter over the last seven contests.

Unfortunately for Griese, coach Jon Gruden and the Bucs, the surge probably came too late. But follow us here: Isn't Garica, despite a miserable season in Cleveland, sort of a Griese clone? OK, not a perfect identical twin, but a reasonable facsimile. And if Garcia had signed with Tampa Bay in the spring, instead of jumping at a better offer from the Browns (remember how Garcia's father had proclaimed to one media outlet that his son was headed to the Bucs?), he would almost certainly have been the starter, since Gruden preferred him over incumbent Brad Johnson. Not until Gruden benched Johnson, and until second-year veteran Chris Simms was injured, did he turn to Griese.

Had Garcia been in camp, though, Gruden would have made sure he bumped Johnson from the top of the depth chart by the beginning of the year. Again, remember, Garcia is hardly as bad as the Browns have made him appear. The Bucs, who stumbled out of the gate mostly because of a spotty offense, might well have bolted from the chute. Certainly, their tough defense remains playoff caliber.

As for Griese, well, he has been both patron to and beneficiary of the improved offense. With Sunday's win, he has thrown for 13 touchdowns and just six interceptions, has an efficiency rating of over 100 and is back on the NFL radar screen. Because of a fat roster bonus due next March, the Bucs will be hard-pressed to keep Griese around, but they need to try. He is, it seems, the perfect mentor for Simms, in whom Gruden still possesses great faith for the future. Should the Bucs be forced to release Griese, he will have a pretty healthy market as an unrestricted free agent, given his recent performance.

There's no telling, with a new football regime coming in Cleveland soon, where Garcia's future lies. But things could have been different for both had Garcia accepted Tampa Bay's offer in the spring.


Bledsoe's future?
It's quite a ticklish predicament the Buffalo Bills have created for themselves with a late-season surge in which the team has won six of its last eight games after an 0-4 start. Key to the rally, of course, has been the improved performance of quarterback Drew Bledsoe, who in Sunday's 42-32 victory at Miami, tossed four touchdown passes.

But here's the knotty question the resurgent Bills must ask themselves in the offseason: Has Bledsoe truly grasped the Mike Mularkey Method sufficiently to have turned things around? Or is his recent play, in which he has "managed" games much better than he has for the past two seasons, just a tease? Should the Bills, suddenly back to .500 and playing about as well as anyone in the NFL, save for the three "power" teams at the top of the ESPN.com rankings, count on Bledsoe for 2005? Or is it time to begin preparing J.P. Losman, who might have replaced Bledsoe at mid-season, were he not still recovering from the broken leg he suffered in camp?

Some people in the league feel the Bledsoe epiphany is the best thing for the Bills and others feel it only delays a necessary transition. There is no doubt that, with some terrific coaching, Bledsoe has improved. Yet as recently as last week, in a lopsided win at Seattle, he still threw three interceptions.

There are pieces in place for the Bills to be a pretty good team in 2005, even with the presence of New England and the New York Jets in the division. The defense is top-rate and coordinator Jerry Gray is now starting to draw attention. Eric Moulds remains a quality wideout and first-rounder Lee Evans, who had a pair of touchdown receptions on Sunday, is coming on. Tailback Willis McGahee, with 23 carries and 91 yards on Sunday, is a workhorse and, despite not getting into the lineup until well into the season, is on pace for 1,000 yards.

Even right offensive tackle Mike Williams, labeled a first-round "bust" in September, is playing up to his lofty draft status.

Yet the big question hanging over the Bills, even as they seem to have come up with a lot of answers of late, is what to do with Bledsoe in 2005. The resolution of that question is likely the key to the Bills' immediate future.


Young Lions roar
Ever since the Detroit Lions promoted Martin Mayhew to assistant general manager a few months ago -- a notable feat for many reasons, not the least of which is the fact that the team does not list a primary general manager among its front office staff -- there have been rumors that president/CEO Matt Millen has been making plans to exit the organization.

For the record, and for now, we don't buy into those rumors. But if there is some substance to them, and Millen departs within the next year or so to spend more time with his family, the often-criticized team president will have left the barn considerably better stocked than when he arrived on the scene.

Sure, there is still some question of whether Joey Harrington is truly a franchise-type player. But, remember, the selection of Harrington with the third overall pick in the 2002 draft was a split decision, in part made by ownership, which needed a high-profile player to help sell its new stadium. Millen has presided, since then, over two very solid drafts. Particularly if star-crossed wide receiver Charles Rogers, who has sustained a season-ending broken collarbone in each of his first two NFL campaigns, can ever stay in one piece.

Take a gander at the Lions' haul from the 2004 draft: First-rounder Roy Williams was the most accomplished and most explosive of the rookie wide receivers until a sprained ankle began to dog him. Tailback Kevin Jones, who rushed for 196 yards on Sunday, looks like the remedy to a moribund running game. Second-round linebacker Teddy Lehman, who has started every game in place of injured second-year veteran Boss Bailey, is a keeper. And fifth-round linebacker Alex Lewis, who had seven tackles on Sunday, is a terrific situational player.

It is an '04 draft that, for whatever reason, has been ignored. It is also, as Sunday demonstrated, another step forward for a Detroit team that should contend for a playoff berth soon, if Harrington can gain some level of consistency.

Punts
If Chris Mortensen is correct, and New Orleans owner Tom Benson is thinking about retaining Jim Haslett, one has to wonder if the Saints coach will be relieved or repulsed by the specter of another season with the franchise. Haslett has taken a beating emotionally this season and has handled the losses with far more pain than his players. ... Over the last two weeks, the Cleveland Browns surrendered 100 points, a 58-48 loss to Cincinnati last week and Sunday's 42-15 walloping by New England. ... Pats erstwhile "nickel" defender Troy Brown, better known as a wide receiver, copped his second interception of the season on Sunday. That's as many interceptions as noted cornerbacks Sam Madison (Miami), Charles Woodson (Oakland), Ahmed Plummer (San Francisco), Mike McKenzie (New Orleans), Gary Baxter (Baltimore) and Donnie Abraham (New York Jets) have combined. ... With eight carries, the Falcons' Michael Vick on Sunday became the second quarterback in league history to post a pair of 100-rush seasons in his career. He's got 107 carries now in 2004 and had 113 in 2002. The only other quarterback to accomplish the feat was Randall Cunningham, during his stint in Philadelphia, with 104 rushes in 1989 and 118 in 1990. Vick is on pace now for 143 rushes. That would be the most in history for a quarterback in a season. Playing a 14-game schedule in 1972, Bobby Douglass of Chicago had 141 rushes. Vick is also on pace for 1,053 yards and would be the first quarterback to ever rush for 1,000 yards. ... Tampa Bay safety Dwight Smith had an interception against the Falcons in Sunday's victory. No big deal there, it seems, since nine of his 11 career thefts have come versus Atlanta. ... With his 21-yard interception return on Sunday, Ravens free safety Ed Reed now has 311 return yards on pickoffs. That's the second-most in NFL history, trailing only the 349 yards San Diego defensive back Charlie McNeil had in 1961. Obviously, Reed's yardage is the most since the NFL-AFL merger of 1970. ... New Tampa Bay kicker Jay Taylor, whose only professional experience before Sunday had come in the Arena Football League, nailed his first two field goal tries, of 50 and 30 yards. The man he replaced, Martin Gramatica, had converted just two of his past nine attempts. ... The woeful New Orleans defense has not held an opponent under 20 points all season. ... Miami has now had eight turnovers returned for touchdowns against it. ... Buffalo has scored 117 points in the last three games. ... Indianapolis is now on pace to score 575 points, which would break the record of 556 points by the Vikings in 1998. The Colts need to average 31.5 points in their final four games to set a new record.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.