The Bengals lost another game to an elite team Sunday, but if they continue to take their cue from their young Pro Bowl-bound quarterback, then they are standing tall in the pocket with bright days ahead after a taut, tight game with the best team in football.
"It was just a draining game," Palmer said after sapping the NFL's fourth-best defense for 335 yards. "Every game is a learning experience. I think the thing we know is we can stay with the best of them. If we don't make mistakes, we can beat them."
As is his custom, Palmer took the blame, flogging himself for his fourth-quarter interception. Never mind that it was just his sixth of the year against 20 touchdown passes following two more Sunday. Never mind that despite how well Peyton Manning played Sunday, Palmer still leads him in the passer rating race, 105.6-104.6.
Wide receiver Chad Johnson agreed. "We can play with the best," but not, he noted with eight penalties and going 0-for-2 on fourth down.
Palmer hinted he thought wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh was interfered with on a fourth-and-four from the Colts 45 with 4:22 left in a game the Bengals trailed, 45-34.
But, "stupid" he muttered about a third-and-12 pass he had chucked moments earlier into the arms of rookie cornerback Marlin Jackson intended for rookie receiver Chris Henry in a crowd at the Colts 38 with 11 minutes left in the game.
It was still a one-touchdown game at that point, and Palmer said he should have known the Colts defense would never let him complete that pass, and that he should have taken the shorter check-down pass and allowed the Bengals to punt. Instead, the Colts got the killing field goal with a drive robbing 4:40 off the clock.
Even though this was not a game of check-downs, Palmer said, "I should have taken it."
If there was any play that signified Palmer is still learning while Manning enjoys his prime that was it. Palmer is smart enough to know it.
"They're running the offense everyone wants to run," Palmer said. "Everything they have, they can do at the line of scrimmage. We're not there yet; I'm not there yet. ... The amount of plays they run is very small, but they run them so well. It's fun to watch them; I hope one day we're in that same position. I don't have enough experience yet to run the whole game from the line of scrimmage. I've got a lot to learn."
Palmer is concerned about his offensive line. Right tackle Willie Anderson hurt his kneecap on the first play (the same knee that had surgery this past offseason), took a painkiller at the half, and is to have an MRI Monday. Right guard Bobbie Williams left for a series with a rib injury, and is also to have an MRI, and left tackle Levi Jones missed some practice time last week with a knee that got rolled up in Baltimore.
But the group held the NFL's leading sackers to just one and that didn't come until 1:45 left when NFL sack leader Robert Mathis dumped Palmer. Despite the injury, Anderson showed why he's a Pro Bowler, taking on Mathis one-on-one the whole day. Jones was just as brilliant in shutting down last year's NFL sack champion Dwight Freeney. At times he had help from tight end Reggie Kelly in what Palmer called a performance that shocked him.
"The line was unbelievable," Palmer said. "Those guys won't get blocked like that again all year."
Again, Palmer flogged himself.
"I left those guys hanging," he said, but Anderson jumped to his defense.
"If you give him time, you know what he can do," Anderson said. "When he says stuff like that, it makes you want to play hurt, do what Bobbie did and come back out of the locker room and protect him."