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QB Palmer declares Bengals the best

GEORGETOWN, Ky. - The pain gnawed away at Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer throughout the offseason.

No, not his surgically repaired left knee damaged on a hit by former Steelers defensive lineman Kimo von Oelhoffen in the 2006 AFC Wild Card playoff game.

Palmer's knee is 100 percent again.

No, the pain that Palmer experienced was the anguish that he and the Bengals can never get last season back.

That last year's 8-8 record was the result of a disappointing three-game losing streak to end the season, turning a potential trip to the playoffs into an early vacation.

All Palmer knows is that he doesn't want to experience that feeling of helplessness again.

"We just realize you can't let up at all. This league's too good,'' Palmer said Monday night following the Bengals' training camp practice at Georgetown College.

Everything was going just swimmingly for the Bengals, who were 8-5 and fresh off a season-high four-game winning streak when they visited the Indianapolis Colts in a Monday Night Football game Dec. 18.

What followed, however, were losses to the Colts (34-16), Denver (24-23) and Steelers (23-17 in overtime) in the season finale that eliminated Cincinnati from the postseason.

Palmer said the Bengals learned their lesson the hard way.

"You've got to play great every week because you can get beat if you're not playing your best,'' Palmer said. "We learned a valuable lesson last year, and hopefully that won't happen this upcoming year.''

Not if Palmer, who became the first Bengal to win MVP honors in the Pro Bowl, has anything to do with it.

Bouncing back from his devastating knee injury, Palmer started every game in becoming the first Cincinnati player to pass for 4,000 yards in a season. He completed 324 of 520 attempts for 28 touchdowns (with only 13 interceptions) and his 4,035-yard total topped Boomer Esiason's 20-year-old team record set in 1986.

"I wasn't sure how much I was going to play, or how much I was going to practice (going into last season),'' Palmer said. "Now I'm cleared to do everything, cleared to go 100 percent. Everything's completely different.''

Not much has changed in the AFC North, which Palmer considers to be the best division in pro football. Not surprisingly, Palmer considers the Bengals the team to beat.

"We expect to win our division and make a run at it,'' Palmer said. "We've got enough players, we've got good coaches and we've got some experience. We feel like we've got as good a chance as anybody at making a run at it.

"Every year it seems like the division gets tougher. In my opinion, it's the best division in football. It's a good thing we're in it because it gets you ready for the long haul of the season and for the playoffs.''

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