So many things had to happen for Carson Palmer to get out of Cincinnati.
Another team that was a midseason contender had to find itself suddenly needing a quarterback. Oakland's Jason Campbell broke his collarbone shortly before the trade deadline last season, setting a complex sequence in motion.
Someone needed to have a high opinion of Palmer's ability coming off a 4-12 season in Cincinnati. Raiders coach Hue Jackson knew him as well as anyone, having scouted him in high school.
The price had to be high. The Raiders satisfied the requirement by offering a first-round pick and a conditional second-rounder, persuading stubborn Bengals owner Mike Brown to reconsider.
One thing left. The Bengals had to be certain that rookie Andy Dalton — taken in the second round to replace Palmer — was up to it.
Dalton became the final piece in the very difficult fit.
"It's great to show that they had the confidence in me to do something like that," Dalton said.
Dalton is playing well again as the Bengals (5-5) brace for Palmer's first return to town since the trade. They've played their best games of the season back to back, giving themselves a second chance to get into the playoff chase on Sunday.
He threw for 20 touchdowns as a rookie, when the Bengals reached the playoffs with a 9-7 mark. He's already matched that total while completing a higher percentage of his throws. After 11 interceptions in the first eight games, he has none in the last two.
"He's done a lot more this year than he had last year," offensive coordinator Jay Gruden said. "We're giving him a lot more options at the line of scrimmage to make those changes. In the plays we don't change, he's done a good job of executing and not forcing the ball into the coverage.
"Early in the season, he had 11 picks early and hasn't thrown one in two games — knock on wood — and his decision making has been outstanding."
By contrast, the Raiders (3-7) are all but out of it despite Palmer's impressive season. He has thrown for 300 yards in each of the last three games, topping 3,000 yards for the season already. The problem is the Raiders have given up the most points in the NFL, forcing Palmer to throw a lot.
"Teams have hit some big plays on them," Dalton said. "They have given up a lot of points. Our big thing is we've just got to come out and play our game.
"So for us, when we get our chances, we've got to hit them. That's kind of going to be the emphasis."
The focus at Paul Brown Stadium will be on Palmer, with the subplots abounding.
The coach that wanted him so badly in Oakland last year wound up getting fired after an 8-8 finish. Jackson was hired back by the Bengals as an assistant coach. This week, he's been part of the planning to stop Palmer.
"He's playing great," Jackson said. "I think they have a really good player. I said that when he came to Oakland, and I still feel that way now."
The Bengals used the first-round pick from Oakland, 17th overall, to get cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick. He missed all of preseason and the first seven games with a knee injury, but has been getting a lot more plays in the secondary the last two games.
Palmer will be lining up against the player the Bengals got in exchange for him.
"I don't know anything about him," Kirkpatrick said. "I never met him. From what I hear, he's a good guy. I'm just going to go out there and just try to do whatever I can to help my team win."
Don't forget the fans.
Palmer was one of the city's most popular athletes after he led the Bengals to the playoffs in 2005, their first postseason appearance since 1990. He tore up his left knee on his first pass in a playoff loss to Pittsburgh.
He got them back to the playoffs in 2009, when they lost to the Jets in the first round. That was followed by the 4-12 season that left Palmer emotionally spent. With no significant change in sight in the front office, he decided it was time to go and demanded a trade from one of the NFL's least-successful franchises.
Some fans shared his frustrations and understood. Others thought he was quitting. On Sunday, they'll get their first chance to express their feelings directly to Palmer.
"I expect it to be loud and extremely electric," Palmer said. "I'm not exactly expecting a welcome back."
The fans have been expressing their frustrations with Brown again this season. They failed to sell out a win over the Giants two weeks ago, and a lot of tickets were left for the Raiders game, which will be blacked out locally.
Palmer's homecoming didn't generate much talk in the Cincinnati locker room, either.
"It's not really about that," safety Chris Crocker said. "If they were coming in here and they were 7-3, it would be a different story. But we feel that we're a better team, on paper and on the football field. So we've got to go out there and prove it."
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