The Cincinnati Bengals will travel to a strange place to see a familiar face Sunday afternoon when they head to Minnesota for the first time since 2009.
Former Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer is in his fourth season as head coach of the Vikings, and he has them sitting in first place in the NFC North at 10-3 and in control of their own fate for a first-round bye.
Minnesota is coming off a 31-24 loss at Carolina that snapped an eight-game winning streak.
The Vikings own one of the best defenses in the league, ranking second against the run, fifth against the pass and third overall. That doesn’t bode well for the Bengals offense, which is 31st in rushing, 28th in passing and 32nd overall.
Minnesota ranks in the middle of the pack in terms of sacks and forcing turnovers, but where they excel is on third down, ranking first in the league by holding opponents to a 27.8 percent conversion rate, best in the NFL.
And even when teams are able to string together enough first downs to drive inside the 20, the Vikings shut them down in the red zone, preventing touchdowns 57.1 percent of the time (20 of 35), which ranks fourth in the league.
Minnesota is led by two-time Pro Bowl defensive end Everson Griffen, whose 13 sacks are one shy of the NFL lead. Griffen plays right defensive end, which means he’ll be working against Bengals left tackle Cedric Ogbuehi, while defensive end Danielle Hunter has six sacks coming off the left edge.
In the secondary, cornerback Trae Waynes (two) and Xavier Rhodes (two) and safeties Andrew Sendejo (two) and Harrison Smith (three) all have multiple interceptions.
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Given Zimmer’s pedigree as a defensive coordinator, the performance on that side of the ball is not unexpected. The bigger surprise has been how the offense has come together despite the loss of starting quarterback Sam Bradford and first-round running back Dalvin Cook, whom the Vikings took with the 41st overall pick that originally belonged to the Bengals before they traded down seven spots and took running back Joe Mixon. And the fourth-round pick Cincinnati got for that trade became wide receiver Josh Malone.
Cook rushed for 354 yards and two touchdowns in four games before tearing his ACL. But Latavius Murray and Jerick McKinnon have combined for 1,046 yards and eight touchdowns to keep the running game ranked eighth in the league with 121.1 yards per game.
And Case Keenum has stepped in for Bradford to have the best season of his career, completing 66.8 percent of his passes with 18 touchdowns against seven interceptions for a passer rating of 96.2.
Adam Thielen, who entered the league as a college free agent out of Minnesota state in 2014, has emerged as one of the leading receivers in the league. He’s tied for in receiving yards (1,161) and seventh in receptions (80).
Meanwhile tight end Cincinnati native Kyle Rudolph leads the Viking in receiving touchdowns (seven) is second in receptions (54).
The Vikings are one of three teams that rank in the top seven in both offense and defense (Pittsburgh and Philadelphia), and the Bengals have never won in Minnesota, going 0-5 with an average margin of defeat of 17.4 points.
Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer was Bengals defensive coordinator from 2008-13 … Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph is from Cincinnati (Elder High School) … Vikings linebacker Emmanuel Lamur entered the NFL with the Bengals as a college free agent and was with the team from 2012-15 … Vikings cornerback Terence Newman was with the Bengals from 2012-14 … Bengals right tackle Andre Smith was with the Vikings in 2016 … Vikings center Pat Elflein played at Ohio State University … Vikings linebacker Eric Wilson played at the University of Cincinnati … Vikings defensive end Ifeadi Odenigbo (practice squad) is from Centerville (Centerville High School) … Vikings linebackers coach Adam Zimmer was on the Bengals’ coaching staff in 2013 … Bengals assistant strength and conditioning coach Jeff Friday was with the Vikings from 1996-98 … Vikings wide receivers coach Darrell Hazell coached at Ohio State from 2004-10 … Bengals special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons coached at the University of Minnesota in 1997 … Bengals assistant linebackers/quality control coach David Lippincott coached at the University of Minnesota from 2003-04.
AFC North Outlook
Baltimore (7-6) at Cleveland (0-13) on Sunday afternoon: The Ravens can eliminate the Bengals from the playoff race with a win while also solidifying their hold on the No. 6 playoff seed.
New England (10-3) at Pittsburgh (11-2) on Sunday afternoon: The Steelers can all but clinch the No. 1 seed in the AFC with a win, while a loss would mean they would need some help to get home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
Bengals at Vikings, 1 p.m., WHIO-TV Ch. 7, Ch. 12, 700, 1530, 102.7, 104.7