Mike Zimmer paced along the Paul Brown Stadium sideline in the middle of a monsoon, at one with the elements, enjoying every drop. Minutes from completing a masterpiece and closing out a crucial victory over one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time, the Cincinnati Bengals' drenched defensive coordinator did the coaching equivalent of a rain dance while resisting the urge to protect himself from the heavy precipitation.
"I get superstitious," Zimmer explained Sunday night from the warm, cozy confines of his Cincinnati-area home. "We were playing so good, I didn't want to put a jacket on, even though I'd brought one out there with me. That last drive, I was like, 'Please rain. Please rain. Keep raining.' I was soaked. And by the time it was over, I was like a wet rat."
As Zimmer retreated to the Bengals' locker room following the 13-6 victory over Tom Brady and the previously undefeated New England Patriots, the first thing he did was shed his waterlogged wardrobe and throw on some sweats. When he emerged from the coaches' dressing area to watch Bengals coach Marvin Lewis address the team, Zimmer got a nice surprise: The game ball, the first one he'd been presented since almost exactly four years ago, when his wife, Vikki, died suddenly three days before a game.
To say Sunday's gesture by Lewis was well-received would be a vast understatement. As the tough, blunt and exceedingly popular Zimmer blurted out, "How 'bout that touchdown passing streak?" -- a reference to Cincinnati snapping Brady's 52-game string of having thrown at least one scoring pass, two shy of Drew Brees' NFL record -- the room reverberated with a roar from his grateful charges.
"Everyone cheered, and it was well-deserved for sure," said veteran Terence Newman, whose career has been rejuvenated since he reunited with Zimmer, the defensive coordinator during the cornerback's prime years with the Dallas Cowboys. "He has so much confidence in his guys, and to see all the hours he put in for us pay off (with a performance of) that magnitude is amazing. The secondary knows that our defensive linemen are as good as they come and our coordinator is the best in the business, so we just have to try and give them time to do what they do."
On Sunday, the Bengals (3-2) worked that formula to near-perfection, smothering Brady in the pocket with four sacks, eight quarterback hits and near-constant pressure. Cincinnati also negated New England's running game, made a valiant goal-line stand that limited the Patriots to a fourth-quarter field goal, and forced two turnovers, including Adam Jones' game-clinching interception of Brady (18-for-38, 197 yards) on the Bengals' 3-yard line with 16 seconds remaining.
The Patriots (4-1) gained just 248 yards, converted 1 of 12 third downs and were held without an offensive touchdown for the first time in more than four years.
"That was one of the greatest defensive performances I've ever seen -- by a defense, and by a coordinator without all his players," said Bengals running backs coach/special assistant to the head coach Hue Jackson, Zimmer's close friend and longtime colleague. "Mike Zimmer, let me tell you, he's second to none. We're talking about Tom Brady, and I just cannot begin to tell you what a great performance it was.
"We tease each other, because he has a saying: His job is to spoil dreams. He's a dream-spoiler -- and that's exactly what he did today."
The 17-6 loss in Cleveland was particularly galling. With third-year quarterback Andy Dalton and the offense struggling, a trend that would continue against New England, Zimmer rode his players hard last week, imploring them to help the team avoid a 2-3 start.
"I got on 'em pretty good," Zimmer said last Thursday. "I don't like being average. Hopefully, (the loss to the Browns) brought us back to reality a little bit."
Zimmer did his part by coming up with a plan that put his players in position to succeed. Convinced that the Patriots were intent on running the ball, he flooded the middle with constant pressure, ultimately turning New England one-dimensional.
"I changed up the pressures," Zimmer explained after the triumph. "I think they wanted to run. The first two times they ran play-action, we sacked him. That made it tough for them."
Hall, the Bengals' top cover corner, was sidelined by a hamstring injury; Zimmer nonetheless trusted veterans Jones and Newman to play mostly man coverage on the outside. Safety Chris Crocker, re-signed by the team just 11 days earlier after not having played since last season, was left to patrol the middle as a nickel back. As the Patriots flooded the area with slot receivers Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman, Zimmer had to roll some help Crocker's way.
Zimmer did make one dramatic adjustment, just as the rain was falling hardest and the Patriots were threatening to tie the score. After New England took over at its own 35 with 1:48 remaining, Brady -- with the help of two untimely defensive penalties -- drove the Patriots to the Cincinnati 27 with 26 seconds to go.
One play earlier, Zimmer had tweaked his alignment, switching from a single-high coverage to a double zone.
"The corners had been playing man, and (the Patriots) were running pick routes, which were hard on that coverage," Zimmer later explained. "So I put the corners in the flat, where they could jam the receivers and pass the route (off to the safeties)."
The result was that Brady, under pressure, lofted a flailing pass that was surrounded by Bengals defenders -- and ultimately gathered by Jones as he fell backward onto the turf, setting off a huge celebration.
The only suspense that remained was Lewis' awarding of the game ball to Zimmer, a perennial head-coaching candidate still waiting for his big break. In the meantime, he'll continue spoiling dreams on behalf of the suddenly revived Bengals, who moved into a three-way tie with the Browns and Ravens for first place in the AFC North.
They also moved up considerably on our weekly, inquisition-laced NFL tower of power:
2) Seattle Seahawks: Doesn't Jon Ryan look like he should be playing right wing for Man U -- and when Richard Sherman texted me to say "our punter runs 4.4" after Ryan closed on Colts safety Delano Howell on Sunday, do any of you believe he was exaggerating?
15) Cleveland Browns: When Rob Chudzinski told deposed starter Brandon Weeden last Monday that "these things have a way of working themselves out," was the coach being clairvoyant?