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Key to the Season: Carson Palmer's return and his health

The final snap that Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer took during a regular season game, was on fourth-and-nine at the Cincinnati 49-yard line, with :25 seconds left in a loss to the Dallas Cowboys (31-22) during the fifth week of the 2008 season. Early in the fourth quarter of that game, the Bengals were only down by a point (16-17). On the ensuing kickoff after an early fourth quarter field goal by Shayne Graham, Rashad Jeanty recovered an on-side kick and the Bengals were driving to take a late lead on the Cowboys, who were often considered favorites to make the playoffs. After two completed passes that went 15 yards, Chris Perry fumbled the football that was recovered by Tank Johnson. After Marion Barber rushed for two yards, Terrell Owens scored on a 57-yard touchdown. Palmer didn't play after this loss, and the Bengals lost the next three to go winless during the first half of the season. We had to wait until the final three games of the season for our team to gain any momentum, offensively and defensively.

Palmer's return is so critical to this team, that associating words to his return and maintaining performances, is too difficult.

Bengals record when Palmer starts: 32-33 .492
Bengals record when Palmer doesn't start: 6-8-1 .433

Before going 0-4 in 2008 on a team that was never really given a chance to win football games, Palmer's winning percentage in games he started for his career was .525. During Training Camp, Palmer took all of his snaps and made good throws with a smelly hand. We expected a lot during the opening preseason game against the New Orleans Saints and, even though he threw an interception, Palmer threw the football well for someone who missed so much time, completing seven of 11 passes for 133 yards passing -- 12.1 yards-per-attempt. Unfortunately, Palmer's preseason was abruptly over when he suffered a mild high ankle sprain. He hasn't thrown a pass in game conditions since.

So my first, and most important key to this NFL season, is based on whether or not Palmer can stay on the field. If he's able to play each weekend, then that just gives our football team a substantial chance to win football games. Yea, he's that critical.