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NFL Week 15 Bengals at Vikings game preview: Oh captain, my captain!

Marvin Lewis’ Bengals travel to Minnesota this weekend to face-off against a familiar coach. However, the two teams

Minnesota Vikings v Detroit Lions Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Once upon a time, the Bengals seemed to have one of the most high-profile stable of coaches they had under their employment. Back in 2012-2013, right in the middle of the team’s five straight postseason berths, Marvin Lewis had Mike Zimmer and Jay Gruden to lean on as coordinators. Heck, he even had Hue Jackson as a position coach in the span.

Fast forward to 2017 and things are much different. Gruden is in Washington for his third season, while Jackson has just one win in almost two full seasons as Cleveland’s head man. Then, there’s Zimmer.

In his third season with the Vikings, Zimmer has compiled 29-16 record, as they are on their way to the second trip to the postseason under his watch. There are a number of things that have been impressive in this three-year run, especially in his first stint as an NFL head coach (long after it was deserved).

Of the many feathers Zim can put in his hat, a pretty solid draft record is one of them. As he did in Cincinnati for six seasons as Lewis’ defensive coordinator, he has molded a number of high picks on that side of the ball to create a formidable unit. The Vikings have the No. 3 overall defense, complete with a No. 5 ranking against the pass and being third against the run.

Another impressive facet of Zimmer’s Twin Cities reign is yet another carryover from his days with the Bengals. Like Lewis, Zimmer has taken on some reclamation projects and squeezed every bit of productivity left in them. Terence Newman is still seeing action at nearly 40 years old, while Emmanuel Lamur and Case Keenum have also been solid additions.

The latter name is probably what has been the most impressive facet to Zimmer’s tenure. The quarterback position has been unsettled for a number of reasons these past three years, none more prominent than that of injury issues.

Teddy Bridgewater looked to be on the path of being “the guy”, but hurt himself in a horrific way shortly before the onset of the 2016 season. Feeling as if they were on the precipice of a Super Bowl, they swung a trade for Sam Bradford.

After an 8-8 campaign last year and a promising start to this season, Bradford was hit with the injury bug yet again. Keenum was pressed into action this year and is en route to the Pro Bowl. In 11 starts, Keenum has thrown for almost 3,000 yards, 18 touchdowns and seven interceptions with a near-67-percent completion rate.

And it’s in that innate ability to get the most out of his players that has Bengals fans both elated for the grizzled coach, but also envious. It’s that trait that seems to be missing from Lewis and this current coaching staff, likely for a wide variety of reasons.

And, after seeing so many promising players walk through the Paul Brown Stadium doors with their potential unfulfilled, one has to wonder just how much weight ZImmer was pulling when he was with the Bengals.

Following a disappointing 2016 season, this year is verging on disaster. In the final year of his current contract, Lewis and the powers-that-be decided that relying on some of their exciting players from this year’s draft, while eschewing big free agency moves would be the way to go.

There has been some promise shown from the 2017 class, particularly in the form of Carl Lawson and Joe Mixon, but the inexplicable waiving of a couple of rookies who could help and the joke that has become the handling of John Ross’ career harkens back to the 1990s. It’s a formula that has bred just five wins this season, without any other predictable ones on the horizon.

Still, given Lewis’ standing at the time Zimmer was getting head coaching looks, the “what ifs” don’t really pertain to this situation. Amidst a nice run to the postseason, there wasn’t a true succession plan in place—but rather, the hope that teams would continue to pass on Zimmer, Gruden and Jackson for top gigs.

What can we say here about the contest itself? Given how this year has played out and the venue, there isn’t much pointing to a Bengals win. Yet, a few short weeks ago, this seemed like a game that would be critical to Cincinnati sneaking into the postseason.

For the casual Bengals fan, there are likely to be some names in the box score in which they might not be familiar. Brian Hill and Jarveon Williams, recently called up to the active roster, will be backing up Giovani Bernard. Joe Mixon will be missing his second straight game with a concussion, while Jeremy Hill is sitting on injured reserve.

We’ll also see names like Brandon Bell in lieu of Vontaze Burfict and Nick Vigil, while safety Shawn Williams might also miss the contest. There is a double-edged sword with this kind of news.

For those faithful to the Bengals, we might actually get to see what this supposedly deep roster with youngsters looks like in actual regular-season contests. However, this is also a clear-cut sign that a team is looking ahead to next year, while making sure to rest some of their best players in an effort to look long-term.

The last time these two teams met back in 2013, Cincinnati trounced the Vikings, 42-14. Ironically, that was with another Lewis protege at the helm of Minnesota in Leslie Frazier. It wouldn’t be surprising to see Zimmer’s squad flip that script on the Bengals on Sunday.

Bengals 16, Vikings 31

AC — Miss you, Zim.