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Carson Palmer, Cardinals prove their might in win over Bengals

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- There was never any doubt in Bruce Arians' mind that the Arizona Cardinals would run the two-minute offense after the Cincinnati Bengals had tied the game. He had seen Carson Palmer settle down after pressing so hard to beat the team he bitterly left that he threw two early interceptions and nearly a third in the first half. He had looked Palmer in the eye at halftime with a command: "You've got to step up your play."

Palmer had, finishing with four touchdown passes to four different receivers on the night. When it was not enough and the score was knotted at 31-31 with under two minutes remaining in a game that had been played at such a high level by two well-balanced, well-coached teams that it could legitimately be considered a possible Super Bowl preview, Arians went with what he knew best.

"Any other coach would have taken his chances in overtime," Tyrann Mathieu said with a laugh. "Not our coach. I'm looking and thinking, 'I hope somebody is open. I hope somebody catches these balls.' "

Oh, they did. It took just three precision passes -- of 19, 18 and 20 yards -- a spike and a kneel down, plus one preposterous foul when the Bengals were called for simulating the snap count -- and the Cardinals had their chip-shot field goal and a 34-31 victory.

Entering the game, the Cardinals were the only team in the NFL with a top-10 offense and defense -- in fact, their offense was No. 1 and their defense No. 3. But it was the second week in a row Arizona and Palmer had to rally in the fourth quarter in a game of the week. If there was a message to be delivered by the Cardinals, even after coming from behind to beat the Seahawks last week, it was finally sent Sunday night: At 8-2, and with speed to burn, Arizona will be a force that can upend the NFC and perhaps more in the playoffs.

But first, there was the matter of the Bengals, the team that drafted Palmer. The team that he forced his way out of when he and owner Mike Brown disagreed about the direction of the franchise. The one that defined the boundaries between a stubborn owner and an equally stubborn franchise player. Palmer had been candid during the week before the game that there were residuals of that split lingering within him. After the game, Palmer, who completed 20 of his 31 passes for 317 yards and four touchdowns, tried to downplay the significance of beating Cincinnati, but his teammates knew better.

"You could see Carson, he wanted to be on them fast," John Brown said. "It took some time for him to calm down. He was revved up. He was more serious than anything. He wasn't cracking too many smiles this week."

He had been out of sync early in the game, throwing those three awful passes that kept the Cardinals in neutral until halftime. But after Arians spoke to him, Palmer settled in for a sizzling third quarter, in which his deep passes -- the beauty and accuracy of which has never been better -- hit their speedy targets. A 64-yard touchdown to J.J. Nelson that felt like the catalyst for the entire second half. An 18-yard touchdown to Brown. A 36-yard completion to Nelson on third-and-14. A 16-yard touchdown to David Johnson.

Now that the playoff projections are viable, the Cardinals present a potentially difficult matchup even for the likes of the New England Patriots because of the quality of their depth. The Cards are so deep at skill positions -- and so fast at them, too -- that it is nearly impossible to have them all active. But Arians expects the younger ones -- like the rookie Nelson, who drew gasps when he ran 4.28 in the 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine -- to start carrying more of a load now.

"I like speed," Arians said. "I like speed that comes in any kind of package. It is nice when it is 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds. If it's a buck fifty-eight and it's still fast, you don't have to be big to catch it over your shoulder. I have always liked fast little guys that are quick and can take the top off the coverage."

Their effect was devastating Sunday. Mathieu said when he lined up against them in training camp, he did so 15 yards off the receiver. The Cardinals could see the same wariness in the Bengals' defense, particularly one that now has a banged-up secondary.

"They were scared," Brown said. "They were bailing out."

That probably will land on a bulletin board somewhere, perhaps if there is a February rematch.

But on Sunday night, as Arians strolled jovially through the locker room, holding a cup and fist-bumping his players, the owner Michael Bidwill by his side, it was left to Palmer, who was so cool in the huddle during the two-minute drive that he gave no motivational pep talk, to gently tap the brakes on a team whose aggression and speed are finally starting to attract notice.

"It's two big wins, but we're just past the halfway point," Palmer said. "Bruce will tell us we haven't done anything yet. That's coming."

It's not hard to imagine that bigger wins might be, too.

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.

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