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As Bengals and Vikings square off, coordinators take center stage

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When Cincinnati faces Minnesota Sunday, there will be multiple storylines: Can the Bengals really roll with the Big Boys? Can the Vikings bounce back from the thrashing they took last week in Arizona? Will Brett Favre return to the interception miser he's been most of this season or will he revert to the guy who starts throwing picks in droves?

Will Chad Ochocinco blow his own horn and the Vikings' horn (and maybe draw a six-figure fine) if he scores?

Lost amid all that, not to mention the playoff scenarios, will be two guys calling defenses who could be -- arguably should be -- serving as first-time head coaches next season: Vikings defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier and Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer.

Lombardi: Credit Zimmer
The difference in this Bengals team and any that I've seen before during my years in the league is their physicality.

They're more physical than they've ever been up front, even without a big-name defensive lineman. They just have a lot of really good players who are strong, physical, play hard and are fundamentally sound. I think that's a tribute to Mike Zimmer and his ability to get everyone to buy in. Defense is about a team concept and everyone taking care of their own responsibility. The Bengals have done that really well, and you can't push them around.

In the secondary, the Bengals have two corners who can really cover. It's a strength they've built around. Their pass rush is unique in the sense that they push the pocket. No one gets deeper than the QB, which is the worst place to be in football.

-- Michael Lombardi

While Mike Shanahan and Bill Cowher are the hot names (Mike Holmgren is going to be a GM or president and, from everything I've heard, in Seattle), there will be too many other openings for them to fill. Buffalo, Washington and Carolina seem certain for turnover; Houston and Cleveland seem like near certainties, too. Dallas, Chicago, Oakland and Tampa Bay could be in play as well, although all those coaches could seemingly save their jobs with decent finishes. And there always seems to be a surprise.

Frazier, who has interviewed for jobs the past few seasons, should get more interviews this season and possibly, finally get his chance. He has assistant head coach in his title to make sure any change in job status isn't a lateral move. He'll be a head coach somewhere else or he'll be doing what he's doing with recently extended Minnesota coach Brad Childress.

Like a lot of prospects, Frazier's paid his dues and has a solid resume, strengthening it after taking over for Mike Tomlin in Minnesota. Now, with middle linebacker E.J. Henderson out for the season and a physical unit in Cincinnati coming to town, Frazier can showcase himself by getting his players to rebound from the 30-17 loss in Arizona last week by stifling the Bengals running game and not allowing Ochocinco to go loco on his secondary.

Zimmer, a Bill Parcells disciple and longtime Cowboys defensive coach and coordinator who has turned the Bengals defense into a physical, disciplined unit, would certainly seem to be on the coach-hiring grid, too. Not only has Zimmer turned the Bengals into the No. 1 scoring defense in the NFL (15.6 points allowed per game); his players would do anything for him.

We all saw how he handled the unexpected death of his wife earlier this season, mourning in silence but also drawing strength from the players and coaches who often draw it from him. The video of him receiving the game ball against Baltimore just days after her death was one of the most captivating snapshots of humanity we've seen in years. Any owner who has seen how the stern Zimmer handled himself under the circumstances of this season should have no fear of how he'd deal with a four-game losing streak or a knuckle-headed player.

Since both Frazier and Zimmer have been around a while, they also could assemble solid staffs, which is so key to a first-time head coach. Frazier is a branch of the Andy Reid, Tony Dungy, and Marvin Lewis coaching trees, while Zimmer's ties to Parcells could allow him a vast array of familiar assistants from which to choose.

Other coordinators/assistants who could emerge on some short lists include: Miami assistant head coach/secondary Todd Bowles (who worked with Zimmer in Dallas), who is a desired up-and-comer; and Packers assistant head coach Winston Moss, a behind-the-scenes guy who carries much cache' with players. Former head coaches and current defensive coordinators Gregg Williams (Saints) and Mike Nolan (49ers) will generate some interest, but the trend isn't to look at guys who've had chances unless they had substantial success.

And though he may have lost some of his luster, Cowboys offensive coordinator Jason Garrett still is highly respected by a lot of football decision makers in the league and if he is offered a job elsewhere, he might finally bolt, having seen his star fade some while remaining as Dallas's OC when he had other opportunities. Cardinals assistant head coach/run-game coordinator Russ Grimm might also get his chance to be a head coach as well.

Ryan's Tryin'

When reports surfaced that Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan was going to miss the rest of the season with a turf toe injury this week, my alarm went off. First, because that's not what I'd been told for days. Second, I know Ryan and his sense of competitiveness. That is something we as reporters often forget about when blasting news to the world about a player's injury status.

My hunch seems to be on target, for the most part. Ryan might not play this week against the visiting NFC South champion New Orleans Saints, but he is going to try -- and this is where the Falcons are going to find themselves in a tough spot. Ryan, from what I'm told, has been aggressively treating and rehabilitating the injury, which is a bad one, but not totally limiting because there were no dislocations of bones.

He is going to push the rehab -- and the team is going to push him -- to see how much he can stand and to see if there are any adverse effects from his testing of the injury. Ryan is trying a supportive, protective orthotic in his shoe to see if he can play through the injury. In other words, if he can walk fast or drop back quickly enough to avoid problems, he's going to give it a shot.

Even though the Falcons have to win out to have an outside shot at the playoffs, management and the coaching staff better be careful with Ryan. First off, his presence doesn't guarantee a win against the Saints. He lost to them a few weeks ago when the Falcons were playing much better than they are now. Secondly, if he re-injures his foot and can't play the rest of the season, then what was really accomplished?

Plus, Ryan is going to be the franchise for years to come. There really is no such thing as a long-term plan in the NFL since things change so frequently, but if his career were to get sidetracked because of a potentially debilitating injury that didn't properly heal, the regret would hurt a lot worse than not making the playoffs this season.

At the same time, if Ryan is cleared and shows up to play, that could inspire other hurt players to step up. It could also motivate players who need a little extra push to play over their heads. This could be a tough decision that might go down to game time.

In a side note, don't expect to see Michael Turner in the backfield for another week.

Man of Troy

The disclosure by Steelers safety Troy Polamalu that he might not return this season because of a sprained PCL in his knee (the same injury Jets QB Mark Sanchez has) can't be welcome news to a defense that is struggling on the back end without him. Pittsburgh is a franchise that, for decades, seems to be able to overcome the loss of players because it has re-stocked the well so thoroughly, but the drop-off without Polamalu -- the Steelers have won just one of the seven games he's missed this season with separate knee injuries to his left knee -- has been remarkable.

The bad part for the Steelers is that the low-profile Polamalu wasn't updating his shaky return status for dramatic effect. I spoke with a former teammate this week who said the eclectic Polamalu is the type of guy who will try every remedy, treatment and consult with every person possible to get back on the field and he's sure Polamalu has. If Pittsburgh's shaky secondary is going to get better, it is going to have to come from some of the players who haven't been handling their business, because the remedy doesn't look like it's coming in the form of Polamalu.

Unusual suspects

One of the quietest developments in the NFL has been Green Bay's ascension to the top of the league in overall defense (273.5 yards allowed per game). The Packers are settling into the 3-4 and have overcome the losses of cornerback Al Harris and linebacker Aaron Kampman without flinching. Green Bay's 31 takeaways are second only to the Saints (36). Opportunistic defenses often are the most effective in the playoffs. Keep an eye on the Pack.

And speaking of quiet developments, has anyone heard any Packers complaining about the defensive scheme lately?

Must-see matchups

-- Tennessee's Chris Johnson might go for 250-plus against St. Louis' poor-tackling defense, but the Rams' Steven Jackson (that's right, Michael Lombardi) will throw up some yards of his own in a losing effort to make this an entertaining game.

-- Though it won't score any fantasy points, what about Broncos super stud LT Ryan Clady against Colts DE Dwight Freeney? Two of the most athletic players at their positions squaring off for four quarters. This is what football is about.

-- As much focus as there will be on Tony Romo, his counterpart Sunday, Philip Rivers of the Chargers, could emerge as the star of the show. Other than Peyton Manning and Drew Brees, there isn't a better QB in the NFL at the moment (I'm with you on this, Lombardi).

Final thought

What would be better, seeing Justin Tuck and Flozell Adams try to talk things out in the Octagon or watching the Vikings and Packers meet for the third time in the playoffs?

Wyche's winners:

Steelers will beat Cleveland, but it won't be pretty and could prompt even more concern for the defending champs; Saints end Atlanta's playoff hopes; Ravens put it on Detroit; Green Bay escapes Chicago; hard to keep rolling with Houston but I think the Texans will beat Seattle; Jacksonville keeps things interesting with a victory over Miami; Bills over Chiefs; Vikes Ocho-Seis (86) the Bengals; Pats glad to be back at home and defeat Carolina; Jets over the Bucs in the ugliest game of the weekend; Titans roll the Rams; Bruce Gradkowski wins three of four as the Raiders handle the visiting Redskins; Chargers make things uneasy in Big D with a victory over the 'Boys; Philly wounds the Giants' playoff chances; the Cards put the NFC West out of its misery with a win over the 49ers.

Upset of the week:

Broncos end the Colts' run by a nose.

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