Back story

Sunday is supposed to be a nothing game between the Super Bowl champions and a contender that became no more in the time it took the bright leaves of late September to shrivel and die by the last day of October.

But don't tell that to the men who coach and play at 1 p.m. at Paul Brown Stadium. Particularly Bengals wide receiver Chad Ochocinco and Saints head coach Sean Payton. Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, too. The last time he saw the Saints play, he was rooting for them because son Adam was the Saints assistant linebackers coach.

"I hope they lose Sunday," said Mike Zimmer fiercely after Wednesday's practice, seething at the eight-game losing streak.  

The last time the Bengals went to New Orleans was last December, when they buried their star-crossed wide receiver, Chris Henry, killed at 26 in a traffic accident. The last time the Saints came to Cincinnati was two months earlier, when Payton and all his linebackers climbed Mount Adams to Holy Cross Immaculata Church for the funeral of Vikki Zimmer, wife of Mike and mother of Adam.

In a lot of ways, it is always a game of the heart. This one is just on the sleeve.

"I have something again in tribute to Slim," The Ocho said of Henry before he went out to practice Wednesday.

Payton and Zimmer practiced against each other in Dallas as the Cowboys coordinators from 2003-2005 and while they became close admiring their Xs and Os, their wives and kids might have become even closer. Zimmer's girls were in high school and junior high and Payton's kids were preschoolers. Perfect babysitting age. And their homes were just four or five blocks away. If Corri or Marki couldn't babysit Connor and Meagan, Vikki could. Or, "Vikkizimmer," as Connor always called her.

"Professionally we see each other at the combines and league events," Payton said. "But it was a lot more than that and still is. Again, it's something that still saddens us. They were very close friends of us and my wife."

Beth Payton accompanied her husband to Mount Adams that day. So did all the Saints linebackers to be there for their assistant coach, Adam Zimmer. A few months later, they were all celebrating a sweet-and-sour Super Bowl title.

"I remember at the pregame just seeing them on the sidelines and just having a chance to visit briefly right before that game," Payton said. "Here's Mike's son coaching on a Super Bowl team and Mike's daughters, there is their older brother having success."

The Bengals never found that success with Henry, and The Ocho wonders if they might have.

"What's our record without Slim?" he wanted to know.

Since Henry went on injured reserve at the halfway point last season, 6-14. After he died, 3-12. The Ocho is convinced the Bengals would not have those numbers if No. 85 was still with No. 15. If he'd like to know, in the 55 games Henry played for the Bengals, they were 31-23-1. For whatever reason. A total of 21 TDs on 119 catches is one reason. Another may have been just his threat.

"Man, what he could have been," The Ocho said. "He just turned that corner. It's scary."

The Ocho also plans to celebrate another New Orleans life Sunday. Messy Mya, the comedian and rapper killed there last month. But he still finds himself thinking constantly about Henry.

"All the time," he said, scrambling up on his stool to the shelf of his locker to grab his receiver gloves with the No. 15 on the palms. "I have no choice (to think of him) because every time I catch a ball, all my gloves are like that."

When The Ocho scored the touchdown that clinched the AFC North last season on a backward full-gainer with 2:03 left against Kansas City at PBS, he saluted the crowd with an index finger on one hand and an open palm with the other.

"That's because they hadn't made the gloves yet," he said.

There is going to be somebody else watching with one eye Sunday. From Kansas City, Adam Zimmer, now the Chiefs inside linebackers coach. But he'll never forget the sight of those Saints linebackers coming down the aisle of the church to hug him.

"For those guys to take the time to be there for me, it was an awesome feeling," said Adam Zimmer from his Kansas City office Wednesday night. "I always look for my dad's score first. But working for Sean and coaching those guys, I'll have one eye on the scoreboard. I talked to Sean last week and I text some of the players once or twice a week. (Scott) Shanle is my boy. He played for my dad, too, and (Bengals middle linebacker) Dhani Jones used to be in New Orleans."

Until the Saints cut him before he went to training camp in 2007.

So, no, it's not a throwaway game to the men who coach and play it. You just know Jones wants to make the big play. You just know Mike Zimmer relishes matching wits with one of the brightest and most unpredictable offensive minds in the game in Payton.

"He's indiscriminate; he calls what he wants whenever he wants," Mike Zimmer said. "He's very aggressive. He likes to run reverse on third-and-one; he likes to run reverse on the goal line, in the red zone, stuff like that. Very aggressive."

They practiced every day against each other for three years in Dallas, but Zimmer says that won't be much help against Payton.

"They weren't game-planning us when we were practicing against them," Zimmer said. "He's got more weapons now than he had there."

Zimmer is an X-and-O guy. The Ocho plays with X-O-X-O emotion. He talks to Henry's mother every now and then, and actually saw her at a mall a few weeks ago.

"She told me to keep my head up, just keep on going," Ochocinco said. "She's in a happy place. That's cool to hear. If she can be strong that way, I know I can be upbeat."

He thinks in death the guy that perfected the nine route has finally run away from his past.

"You have a couple idiots who bring up the old stuff, the negative," The Ocho said. "He turned that corner; he was doing right, especially on the field. Getting ready to get married, the whole nine yards."

Yes, he wonders what might be if Henry was getting ready to play his hometown team Sunday.

"We'd probably be 12-3," The Ocho said of the last 15 without No. 15.

Maybe that's a bit of a stretch, like one of those Henry red-zone TDs.

But The Ocho believes. And he's got the tribute in mind.

"I might get in trouble but who cares?" he asked.

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