CINCINNATI — The Bengals are back to break-even as they get ready for a reunion that they'd rather not even discuss.
Carson Palmer will be back in town this weekend.
The franchise quarterback led the Bengals to a pair of playoff appearances before giving up on the team and demanding a trade. After several months of bitter standoff, the Bengals (5-5) finally obliged, sending him to the Oakland Raiders during the 2010 season for draft picks.
He'll get a chance at Paul Brown Stadium on Sunday to derail the Bengals' two-game push back into playoff contention.
As far as coach Marvin Lewis is concerned, it's more like: Carson who?
"Just like any other player who was here," Lewis said on Monday, trying to cut off the discussion. "Now he's not here, so our job is to beat the Oakland Raiders and Carson Palmer on Sunday. "He no longer plays here, so I think we no longer need to spend any time speaking about it."
The front office would like fans to get more wrapped up in the get-together. The Bengals failed to sell out their 31-13 win over the defending Super Bowl-champion New York Giants two weeks ago and have plenty of unsold seats for Palmer's return.
A lot will be on the line for Cincinnati, which got back into playoff contention with a 28-6 win in Kansas City on Sunday. The Bengals still trail first-place Baltimore by three games in the AFC North, but they're only one game behind Pittsburgh (6-4) and Indianapolis (6-4) in the wild card chase.
Cincinnati emerged from a four-game losing streak by putting together its best games of the season back-to-back.
"We're playing the way we should've been playing all year," linebacker Thomas Howard said. "I'm really excited about how we're playing on defense. Our offense is putting points on the board. This is Bengal football as you've been seeing the last two weeks, and I expect more of it."
Expect a lot more talk about Palmer, too.
He was the first overall pick in 2003, Lewis' first season trying to revive the franchise. He took over the starting job a year later and led the Bengals to the AFC North title in 2005. He tore up his left knee on the first pass of a playoff loss to Pittsburgh.
The Bengals reached the playoffs again as division champions in 2009, but lost to the New York Jets in the first round. After a fall to 4-12 the next year, Palmer decided he wanted out. Owner Mike Brown adamantly refused to trade him, and Palmer never came back to town, choosing to hold out.
The Bengals were playing so well under rookie quarterback Andy Dalton that they traded Palmer to the Raiders six games into the 2011 season, getting a first-round pick as part of the deal. Dalton led the Bengals to the playoffs as a 9-7 wild card last season, but they lost to the Texans in the opening round.
Cincinnati hasn't won a playoff game since 1990, going 0-3 in the playoffs. The Bengals have had only three winning records in those 21 years.
With Palmer staying away from the team before the trade in 2011, Dalton was able to avoid drama while becoming the new face of the franchise.
"The only time that Carson was brought up was when y'all were bringing it up," Dalton said Monday. "It wasn't really talked about in the locker room."
Dalton reached the Pro Bowl as a rookie by completing 58 percent of his throws for 3,398 yards with 20 touchdowns and 13 interceptions, a passer rating of 80.4. In 10 games this season, he has completed 64 percent for 2,559 yards with 20 touchdowns, 11 interceptions and a 92.7 passer rating that ranks 11th in the league.
In the last two games, Dalton has thrown six touchdown passes without an interception. He threw at least one interception in each of the first eight games.
"That was the biggest thing that was bothering me this year — the turnovers," Dalton said. "I've got 11 interceptions. That's not what you want. So it's been an emphasis."
Lewis said CB Terence Newman, who left the game with a concussion, is expected to practice this week. Lewis' called A.J. Green's one-hand touchdown catch "kind of Houdini-ish." Green reached out with his left hand, grabbed the ball, then got both feet down while falling. He's caught a TD pass in nine straight games, one shy of Carl Pickens' franchise record.