MINNEAPOLIS — The pre- and post-game meetings between opposing NFL coaches are generally cordial to cold, depending on what they think of each other.
But when Cincinnati Bengals coach Marvin Lewis and Minnesota Vikings coach Mike Zimmer meet on the field of U.S. Bank Stadium on Sunday, it will be truly a meeting of admiration.
“Mike and I have been friends since 1982 or ’83. So we’ve spent a lot of time together — a lot of good times, and a little bit of tough times,” Lewis said this week in advance of the Bengals (5-8) visiting Minnesota.
“I got a chance to spend some time with him a few weeks ago. He’s such a great football coach, but he’s also been a friend forever. … We have a lot of memories together from a long time ago, let alone the recent ones.”
Prior to getting his first head coaching job in Minnesota in 2014, Zimmer spent six years as the defensive coordinator in Cincinnati, at Lewis’ side. This will be the first time Zimmer and Lewis have faced each other in the regular season, but the Vikings (10-3) did win a 2016 preseason game in Cincinnati, and Zimmer still makes his offseason home in northern Kentucky, which is decidedly Bengals’ territory.
And that’s about where the similarities end for these two teams going in vastly different directions recently. Cincinnati lost two in a row, including a 33-7 drubbing at the hands of the Chicago Bears last weekend, and is realistically out of the playoff picture (although mathematically there is a very, very slight chance the Bengals could get in).
Minnesota is also on a losing streak, having fallen in Carolina last weekend, but it was the Vikings’ first loss since Oct. 1. The previous eight-game winning streak has made them all but a lock for Zimmer’s second trip to the playoffs during his four seasons with the team.
The Vikings can clinch the NFC North title with a win, or losses by both Green Bay and Detroit, and they are in a good position for a first-round bye in spite of the loss to the Panthers last week. With NFC-leading Philadelphia suddenly losing quarterback Carson Wentz for the season, there is even some optimism that the Vikings could still catch the Eagles — they’re currently a game back — for the top seed in the conference.
With the Super Bowl set to be played in Minnesota in February, more than one Vikings fan is dreaming of not having to leave the state for the playoffs.
By Sunday it will nearly be a month since the Vikings last played at home (Nov. 19), and Zimmer joked that it seems like two months, but expressed optimism that his team’s banged-up offensive line is getting healthier.
“I feel pretty good. I think we’ll get a lot of them back,” he said on Wednesday. “I think we should get (Pat) Elflein back this week. I think we should get (Mike) Remmers back. There’s a good chance possibility of getting (Riley) Reiff back.”
While the Vikings focus on who will protect starting quarterback Case Keenum, the Bengals starter knows all about Minnesota’s reputation for swarming, hard hitting defense, and is preparing to work under fire on Sunday.
“They’ve had guys that have been around that defense for a while. They know what they’re doing, and they’re good at it,” said Cincinnati quarterback Andy Dalton, anticipating little wiggle room when he throws the ball. “I think they’re physical all over. Even on the back end, they’re physical. There’s a lot of tight coverage. You have to make those contested catches.”
Running the ball doesn’t look to be any easier for the Bengals, who are among the worst teams in the league on the ground, averaging fewer than 80 rushing yards with four rushing touchdowns in 13 games.
With Cincinnati seemingly playing out the string, and the talk increasing that Lewis — who has taken the Bengals to the playoffs seven times in 15 seasons, but has yet to win a postseason game — will be out of a job as season’s end, Zimmer has said that such a transaction would be a “tremendous loss” for the Bengals.
“I guess I owe him a check,” Lewis joked on Wednesday, with a note of acceptance about the temporary nature of coaching in the NFL. “We all realize that when you sign up for these jobs, the thing is it’s not forever. I think we all accept that. But that’s great. I appreciate that support from Mike. We have a lot of good talks.”
They’ll surely have a good talk after Sunday’s game, but only one is expected to be smiling.