Preview: Vikings look to clinch NFC North title against Bengals
MINNEAPOLIS — Mike Zimmer was about ready to be done with his quest to become an NFL head coach, discouraged after so many fruitless interviews.
Though he didn’t want to lose his esteemed defensive coordinator, Marvin Lewis encouraged Zimmer to stick with it.
Finally, Zimmer was hired in Minnesota in 2014. Lewis remains in charge in Cincinnati, with the second-longest tenure in the league at 15 seasons.
If the double-digit-favored Vikings (10-3) beat the Bengals (5-8) on Sunday, they’ll clinch their second NFC North title in three years. Lewis has an expiring contract, bound for a second straight absence from the postseason, and an 0-7 career record in the playoffs. Now it’s Zimmer who’s doing the encouraging.
“He’s a heck of a coach. He does unbelievable things in the community. I learned a lot from him. I’m happy for him,” Zimmer said. “In my opinion he should be able to stay there as long as he wants.”
Lewis expressed his appreciation this week for the support from his former lieutenant. He reflected on the advice he gave Zimmer almost four years ago, before the Vikings came after him.
“They obviously made a great decision,” Lewis said, “and those that haven’t wish they had.”
The Bengals still run the same type of gap-control, press-coverage defense with unpredictable blitzes by linebackers, cornerbacks and safeties to supplement a strong front four. The holdovers from 2013 and earlier have been reflecting on the, uh, colorful language, savvy strategy and astute teaching that Zimmer was responsible for over six seasons with Cincinnati.
“He got the job done,” safety George Iloka said. “You respected it because he was consistent in how he coached the five-time Pro Bowler to the rookies.”
Defensive coordinator Paul Guenther, the linebackers coach when Zimmer departed, is still close to his former mentor and attended his daughter’s wedding this summer.
“Everything I’ve learned under him I’ve carried over,” Guenther said. “It will be a special game, obviously.”
Here are some other key angles to follow for the game:
WILL THEY SHOW UP? The Bengals were suffering from an emotional hangover from their 23-20 loss on Dec. 4 to bitter rival Pittsburgh when they were drubbed 33-7 at Paul Brown Stadium by a Chicago team that’s just 4-9 this year . Players acknowledged they emerged without much energy and described their worst home loss since 2008 as embarrassing and shocking. The question now is if they can muster some positive emotion to compete with a likely playoff-bound foe.
“Especially being on the road, you’ve got to bring your own energy,” quarterback Andy Dalton said. “For us, it’s the expectation. We can’t have another game like we had last week. So I think there shouldn’t be any problem with that.”
HOLDING THE LINE: The Vikings finished their game at Carolina last week with only one starting offensive lineman, right guard Joe Berger, in his usual place because of injuries. With right tackle Mike Remmers missing for a fifth straight contest, Rashod Hill again took his spot until a sprained ankle forced left tackle Riley Reiff out in the third quarter and Hill to switch sides, with four-position backup Jeremiah Sirles taking over the right side.
The 6-foot-6, 303-pound Hill, plucked off Jacksonville’s practice squad midway through last season, has been a good find for a Vikings team that badly needed depth at both tackle spots after the injury-ravaged mess in 2016. This week, with Reiff’s status iffy, Hill has been preparing to play on the left side.
“The right has their own set of plays and the left has their own set of plays, so it will be a lot easier for me this week,” Hill said.
ON THE DEFENSIVE: The Bengals were without six defensive starters against the Bears because of injuries, including cornerbacks Dre Kirkpatrick and Adam Jones, linebacker Vontaze Burfict, and standout defensive tackle Geno Atkins. That contributed to the end of their club-record streak of 22 consecutive games holding opponents under 30 points. They’re still hurting this week heading to Minnesota, a place where the Bengals have never been victorious in five previous visits. Burfict and Kirkpatrick were among five defensive players held out of practice Wednesday.
“Do I expect the learning curve to go up? Hopefully,” Guenther said. “I’m not used to giving up 30 points. There are no excuses about who’s in the game.”
NO HARD FEELINGS: When the Bengals and Vikings held joint practices during the 2016 preseason prior to an exhibition game between the two teams, Jones and Kirkpatrick were jawing in one-on-one drills against the Minnesota receivers. They condescendingly balked when they saw Adam Thielen line up , nudging the backups forward to cover him instead. Thielen, who broke out last season and has risen even higher in 2017 with 80 catches and 1,161 yards to rank third in the NFL in both categories, might not get the opportunity Sunday to prove Jones and Kirkpatrick wrong given their health.
“That was a long time ago, and I don’t think they meant anything by anything,” Thielen said. “Obviously you want to play their best corners, so I’d love for those guys to play.”
CINCINNATI (5-8) at MINNESOTA (10-3)
Sunday, 1 p.m. ET, CBS
OPENING LINE — Vikings by 10
RECORD VS. SPREAD –Cincinnati 7-6, Minnesota 9-4
SERIES RECORD — Tied 6-6
LAST MEETING –Bengals beat Vikings 42-14, Dec. 22, 2013
LAST WEEK — Bengals lost to Bears 33-7; Vikings lost to Panthers 31-24
AP PRO32 RANKING — Bengals No. 23, Vikings No. 4
BENGALS OFFENSE — OVERALL (32), RUSH (31), PASS (26)
BENGALS DEFENSE — OVERALL (19), RUSH (32), PASS (8)
VIKINGS OFFENSE — OVERALL (7), RUSH (8), PASS (10)
VIKINGS DEFENSE — OVERALL (3), RUSH (2), PASS (5)
STREAKS, STATS AND NOTES — Bengals have never won in five all-time trips to Minnesota. Vikings were division champions in four of those seasons: 1977, 1989, 1998, 2009. … Vikings coach Mike Zimmer was defensive coordinator for Bengals under current coach Marvin Lewis from 2008-2013. Bengals and Vikings held joint practices prior to exhibition game in 2016, but this will be first regular-season matchup for Zimmer against former team. … Lewis has never lost to any former assistant, going 6-0-1. … Combined record of teams Bengals have beaten, counting Browns twice, is 14-51. Defeat would ensure for Bengals back-to-back losing seasons for first time since 2007-08. …. Cincinnati had streak of 22 straight games allowing less than 30 points end vs. Bears. It was longest run in club history and longest active in NFL. Bengals were missing five defensive starters vs. Bears. … Andy Dalton had tipped pass picked off in third quarter vs. Bears, his first interception in seven games since Oct. 22 vs. Steelers. His streak of 193 passes without pick was personal best and second in Bengals history to Neil O’Donnell’s 238 consecutive attempts in 1998. … Dalton has 22 career 300-yard passing games, one shy of Boomer Esiason’s club mark. … WR A.J. Green has 31 career 100-yard receiving games, tied with Chad Johnson for Bengals record. … Bengals LB Carl Lawson leads all NFL rookies with 7 1/2 sacks, two shy of Carlos Dunlap’s franchise rookie record from 2010. … Vikings can clinch NFC North for second time in three years with win or loss by Packers and Lions. … Vikings are 10-4 in regular season at home since U.S. Bank Stadium opened. … Combined record of teams Vikings have lost to is 27-12. … Vikings have 11 scoring drives of 80-plus yards, after just four of those last season. … Vikings WR Adam Thielen is second in league with 30 third-down catches and 23 first-down conversions. … Vikings still lead league in third-down defense (27.8 percent conversion rate) despite allowing all four TDs vs. Panthers on third downs last week. … Vikings’ defense still leads NFL in fewest 10-plus-yard runs allowed (17), though Jonathan Stewart (60 yards) and Cam Newton (62 yards) had big gains on ground for Panthers last week. … Fantasy Tip: Vikings WR Stefon Diggs has played in four home games this season, accumulating four of his five TDs and 394 of 694 yards on season.