Zimmer, Vikings clinch division at expense of Lewis, Bengals
MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Mike Zimmer has a second NFC North title in his fourth year in Minnesota, with the Vikings just a few wins away from becoming the first team in history to play in a home-stadium Super Bowl.
Zimmer’s mentor, Marvin Lewis, is simply winding down a wince-inducing season that could be the last of his 15 years as head coach of the Cincinnati Bengals.
In this matchup of close friends, the Vikings weren’t even challenged by the banged-up Bengals.
Eric Kendricks had an interception return for a touchdown , Case Keenum passed for 236 yards and two scores, and the Vikings clinched the division crown with a 34-7 victory over the depleted and disinterested Bengals on Sunday.
“We’ve got that out of the way, and now he have to go for that second thing, to win an NFC championship,” cornerback Xavier Rhodes said.
Looming after that, of course, would be that big game the Vikings have never won in the franchise’s 57 seasons.
“The Super Bowl is in their home stadium,” an envious-sounding Bengals defensive end Carlos Dunlap said. “They’ve got everything they want in front of them.”
Guaranteeing at least one January game under the noise-trapping, translucent roof of U.S. Bank Stadium was a big step for the Vikings (11-3), who also control the second seed in the NFC that comes with a handy first-round bye. They’re behind Philadelphia (12-2), which holds the tiebreaker.
“We understand that this isn’t the ultimate goal, and we have a lot more to accomplish,” said Brian Robison, who had two of three sacks of Andy Dalton.
The Bengals (5-9) have nothing left to play for but pride, and even that has been missing lately. They lost 33-7 at home to Chicago last week.
“I realize we have some younger guys, some newer guys on defense, but we’ve got to find a way to get them in position to play winning football,” said Lewis, whose list of missing starters grew immediately longer when left tackle Cedric Ogbuehi and free safety George Iloka departed in the first quarter with shoulder injuries.
The game was preceded by an ESPN report that Lewis will not return to the team next season. He denied that’s true afterward, though with an expiring contract there’s no promise that the Bengals will want him to come back for 2018.
“I have not made any decisions about anything,” Lewis said, “as I’ve told you how many times?”
Here are some other key developments from the game:
TEDDY! TEDDY! TEDDY!: The margin for Minnesota was so comfortable that Teddy Bridgewater replaced Keenum at quarterback early in the fourth quarter. It was his first game action in nearly 16 months since a massive knee injury requiring an arduous rehabilitation that didn’t end until he returned to the active roster Nov. 8. The last time Bridgewater appeared in a non-exhibition was Jan. 10, 2016, almost two full years ago when the Vikings lost to Seattle in the playoffs.
The fans began rhythmically shouting for Bridgewater a few minutes before he walked slowly on the field for the first time since Aug. 28, 2016.
“I might have been one of the guys trying to start the ‘Teddy’ chant there,” Keenum said. “I couldn’t be more excited for him.”
Bridgewater’s first pass was intercepted when the ball bounced off Jerick McKinnon’s hands in a crowd and into the arms of Bengals strong safety Shawn Williams. His other throw was dropped by Michael Floyd.
“I tried to make sure that I stayed as even-keeled as possible,” Bridgewater said. “I had to actually tune out the crowd so that I could hear the play call, for one, but it was a great experience.”
ANOTHER SUBSTITUTION: The interception by Williams gave the Bengals the ball at the Minnesota 23, the only time all game they crossed their opponent’s 40-yard line. That put them in position for a short touchdown run by Giovani Bernard and saved them from a second shutout this season. A.J. McCarron replaced Dalton on that drive, raising the question whether the fourth-year backup would take over for the final two games for an extended audition.
Lewis, however, said he won’t consider turning the job over to McCarron the rest of the way despite the Bengals being out of contention.
FORMER PUPILS: Zimmer was up against a bunch of coaches and players he’s still close to, but the holdovers on the Bengals’ defense were also eager to try to beat their former defensive coordinator. Geno Atkins had two sacks in the first quarter, but there wasn’t much else to be satisfied with.
“I had every intention on my mind to come in here and beat Zim,” Dunlap said. “It doesn’t matter what we were playing for, it was the fact that I was playing against him. We didn’t accomplish anything close to that.”
CASE IS CRISP: Keenum didn’t face much resistance with such an injury-ravaged Bengals defense, but he completed 20 of 23 passes for 236 yards and touchdowns to Stefon Diggs and Kyle Rudolph . Running back Jerick McKinnon had seven receptions for 114 yards. Keenum was beaming afterward, the gray NFC North champions hat he was given on the field immediately after the game still affixed to his head.
“It feels awesome,” said Keenum, who took over for the injured Sam Bradford after the season opener. “This is uncharted territory for me, so I don’t take it lightly. I think we’ve got a special group of guys.”