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Mike Zimmer's defense carries Cincinnati Bengals; 32 questions

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 Cincinnati managed to accomplish this without two key players -- cornerback Leon Hall and defensive end Michael Johnson -- was even more impressive.

"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."

For the Bengals, the snuffing of the Patriots' powerful attack was essential. Regarded by many (myself included) as a trendy Super Bowl pick, Cincinnati had been underwhelming in 2013, bracketing victories over the Steelers and Packers with defeats to the Bears and Browns.

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:

1) Denver Broncos: Who'll throw more touchdown passes against the Jaguars next Sunday: Peyton Manning or Brock Osweiler?

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?

3) New Orleans Saints: Who emerged from exile with more pent-up brilliance: Tupac Shakur following his 1995 prison term or Sean Payton after his season-long suspension?

On NFL Network
NFL Replay
will re-air the Indianapolis Colts' 34-28 win over the Seattle Seahawks from Week 5 on Tuesday, Oct. 8 at 3:30 p.m. ET.

4) Kansas City Chiefs: When Jamaal Charles busts a long run at Arrowhead Stadium, should they play the iconic end of the Beatles' "Helter Skelter"over the sound system?

5) Indianapolis Colts: How scary is it that Andrew Luck has engineered fourth-quarter comebacks in 3/7ths of his NFL games?

6) San Francisco 49ers: Is it possible that there's actually one sound argument for continuing the government shutdown -- and will Tea Party extremists find a way to blame President Obama for "Donte Hitner"?

8) New England Patriots: How much did the Pats miss Vince Wilfork on that pivotal fourth-and-goal play -- and how much more brutal will the big man's loss be if fellow defensive tackle Tommy Kelly's knee injury turns out to be significant?

On NFL Network
NFL Replay
will re-air the New Orleans Saints' 26-18 win over the Chicago Bears from Week 5 on Tuesday, Oct. 8 at 2 p.m. ET.

9) Chicago Bears: Will Alshon Jeffery supplant Brandon Marshall as Jay Cutler's top target -- and if so, will Marshall remain as magnanimous toward his fellow receiver as he was Sunday?

10) Green Bay Packers: When Morgan Burnett said after Sunday's victory over Detroit that kicker Mason Crosby is "money all of the time," was he embellishing as much as Trent in "Swingers"?

11) Baltimore Ravens: Is it fair to say the Ravens' defense has its Sizzleback?

12) Detroit Lions: When Jim Schwartz insisted that the story of the team's 22-9 defeat to the Packers was "not whether Calvin (Johnson) played or not," did he at least supply a sarcasm font?

13) Miami Dolphins: Which Joe Philbin decision down the stretch of Sunday's 26-23 defeat to the Ravens was more ill-advised: calling for a first-down spike with 1:01 to go, or rushing rookie Caleb Sturgis onto the field to attempt a 57-yard field goal three plays later?

On NFL Network
NFL Replay will re-air a special 3.5-hour version of the Denver Broncos' 51-48 win over the Dallas Cowboys from Week 5 on Wednesday, Oct. 9 at 9 p.m. ET.

14) Dallas Cowboys: OK, Jason Hatcher -- after Sunday, am I allowed to think for 30 seconds that you're scared of Peyton Manning?

16) Atlanta Falcons: How crazy is it that this team entered Monday night's game against the Jets trailing New Orleans by 3.5 games in the NFC South -- and how far gone does that NFC Championship Game appearance seem?

17) Houston Texans: When Matt Schaub vowed to "cut it loose" following last week's rough outing, was that a promise or a threat?

18) Tennessee Titans: What was more depressing to Titans fans: Ryan Fitzpatrick's shaky performance in Sunday's defeat to the Chiefs, or the report that Tennessee inquired about JaMarcus Russell's availability?

19) Arizona Cardinals: When Cardinals general manager Steve Keim said that recently traded left tackle Levi Brown "was not living up to our expectations," how could he not have been comparing him to Adrian Peterson?

20) New York Jets: Could Santonio Holmes throw himself under a bus, or does he only practice that skill on his teammates?

23) Philadelphia Eagles: Hey, LeSean McCoy -- how do you reallyfeel about Knowshon Moreno, and can we get fellow running backs Marshawn Lynch and Rashaan Salaam to weigh in, too?

24) San Diego Chargers: Given that Eric Weddle told CBS' Dan Fouts he plans to grow out his beard until the Chargers win the Super Bowl, can we expect the safety to join a certain Texas power trio at the conclusion of his NFL career?

25) St. Louis Rams: Was Sam Bradford inordinately fired up before Sunday's game against the Jags because Blaine Gabbert was in town, or did it just seem that way?

26) Oakland Raiders:Josh*who*?

27) Carolina Panthers: If Cam Newton is, in fact, the key to saving Ron Rivera's job, should we start speculating as to which team will hire Rivera as its defensive coordinator in 2014?

28) Washington Redskins: Are the winds of change blowing in the nation's capital -- and will Daniel Snyder end up red-faced when all is said and done?

29) Pittsburgh Steelers: How 'bout those Pirates?

30) Tampa Bay Buccaneers: After I tweeted that Greg Schiano was in Stage One of the NFL Power Abuse Program last Wednesday, how brutal would it have been if the NFL Players Association had launched an investigation?

31) New York Giants: How odd is it that David Wilson suffered a neck injury in the end zone Sunday and it didn't occur on this play?

32) Jacksonville Jaguars: Yo, Ozzie -- I don't suppose there's any chance you'd consider rescinding that Eugene Monroe trade, is there?

Follow Michael Silver on Twitter @MikeSilver.

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