Here's the matchup of Saturday's game (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 9) at Paycor Stadium when Bengals quarterback Jake Browning sees a familiar face in that Vikings secondary he faced during the first three training camps of his career.
Browning, coming off the most accurate games ever by a quarterback in his first three NFL starts since 1950, faces off against old friend Harrison Smith, the vet Vikings safety with the second most interceptions on the active list with 34, one behind Patrick Peterson.
The bad news is Smith doesn't have an interception yet this season in new defensive coordinator Brian Flores' scheme after having five last season. The good news is Browning saw Smith plenty when he broke into the NFL on the Vikings practice squad in 2019 and 2020 and until they cut him after the 2021 training camp.
"He's really good disguising. He can blitz, he can cover, he's all over your eyes and he's played so much football that it's almost like he's a quarterback on defense a little bit," Browning said during his Tuesday news conference. "You can't really fool him on a lot of things and you always have to account for where he is."
He knows Smith is going to be lurking in Flores' eight-man drops behind perpetual blitzing. The Vikings are a rugged crew coming off a bruising 3-0 shutout of the Raiders. They're ninth in allowing net yards per pass and top five in allowing 3.7 yards per rush. The Vikes lead the league with 247 blitzes, which is nearly half the time but also lead the NFL in eight-man drops.
"Maybe this is his zone, but (Smith) sees something that makes him think that 'I'm going to go, I know what's coming,'" Browning said. "And so I remember in practice Kirk (Cousins) just saying he always had to have eyes on him and I feel the same way getting ready for this game. You always have to know where he is and he's made a lot of plays, played a lot of football, and is continuing to play at a high level."
Cousins, the Vikings starting quarterback, is a Browning confidant. They've kept in touch, which would have made for an intriguing matchup, but Cousins is out for the year.
So there's virtually no familiarity for Browning. These Vikes may as well be Bud Grant's Purple People Eaters. Cousins is out and Nick Mullens is in. Browning was signed by the Vikes regime of old friend Mike Zimmer, the head coach and defensive guru for general manager Rick Spielman. Both are gone. The head coach is offensive guru Kevin O'Connell and Flores is his second DC.
"I get where the story is there, but like I said, I've got nothing but great memories there," Browning said. "It was great people there. My girlfriend and I both really enjoyed our time there and felt very well taken care of, great organization to play for and I just keep going back to I really appreciate and have good memories of my time there"
.It's a humongous game for both. They're both 7-6. In the NFC, that gives you the sixth seed. In the AFC, it gives the Bengals 10th place, but a hair within the coveted seventh and last seed.
You don't have to tell Browning it's a big game. He's never played in anything but during his NFL career. It all started in Minnesota, where any practice snaps were gold. Every game is huge when you're looking to jump-start a career. It doesn't matter if it's a preseason game on the roster bubble or a December game on the fringe.
"All these starts are very important for me just building the resume and also for the playoff implications," Browning said. "I've never really had that luxury (of having a job). It's been preseason games. You're in a competition. It's in practice. You only get four reps in practice on the scout team. Those four reps feel very important.
"I think I've kind of gotten used to these games, have playoff implications and all that, but preseason football for me in the last four years I've been fighting for my life. So it doesn't feel a whole lot different."
INJURY UPDATE: In the matchup of arguably the two best wide receivers in the game and inarguably LSU chums and teammates, who would have thought on the week's first injury report that the Vikes' Justin Jefferson (chest) would be limited and the Bengals' Ja'Marr Chase (ankle) didn't practice. Jefferson went to the hospital during Minnesota's win over the Raiders while Chase seemingly got out of his three-catch game unscathed.
Both reports were estimates out of walkthroughs. Special teams backer Joe Bachie (oblique) also didn't work for the Bengals while wide receiver Tyler Boyd (foot/ankle) and cornerback D.J. Turner II (ankle) were limited.
And Browning? He went full and nice guy that he is, he tried to scold someone for asking if he'd been drinking water for the cramps that locked up his throwing forearm for five plays on Sunday. But he couldn't do it. He did bring a bottle of water with him to the news conference.
NEW QB: Mullens is making his first Vikings start and first in the NFL since he threw for 147 yards in Cleveland's 16-14 loss to the Raiders in 2021. It's the 18th start of his career and he's won five. The last one came in November of 2020 when the 49ers beat the Rams at the gun on a Robbie Gould field goal in a game Mullens didn't throw a touchdown but the Niners had a pick-six.
The Bengals got a win over backup Josh Dobbs in Arizona earlier this year and just missed seeing him Saturday when he got benched last Sunday before Mullens (nine of 13, 83 yards) drove the Vikes 13 plays for the winning field goal on the play after the two-minute warning.
Bengals defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo and linebackers coach James Bettcher faced Mullens when he was a rookie and they were working for the Giants on a Monday night in Frisco. The Giants won in the last minute on Eli Manning's three-yard flip to Sterling Shepard, 27-23, as Mullens, a free agent out of Southern Mississippi, went 27 of 39 for 250 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions.
No matter the quarterback, Anarumo is uneasy about the weapons surrounding him. Jefferson is joined by the dangerous wideout Jordan Addison and tight end T.J. Hockenson. Anarumo expects Jefferson to play "and we've got our hands full."
"You go Justin Jefferson, Addison, Hockenson. I mean, it's a daunting task when Kirk Cousins was there and now we've seen what Josh Dobbs can do … They can scare you in so many different ways. You can see why they won as many games as they did last year and when they're all going up to speed, it's pretty impressive."
BOX AND FUN: Browning's family may be more famous than him as CBS kept panning the box of quarterback Joe Burrow Sunday as if Taylor Swift were in there.
Despite his heroics in a playoff run, the unassuming Browning says he can still go out and not get noticed. The classy Burrow, who can't do that, celebrated his 27th birthday by giving Browning his box and the family had fun with that at Sunday dinner.
"That was definitely a topic of conversation, just basically breaking down what everyone did there," Browning said. "I got my one friend in the corner just begging for a high five like this. I got my sister who's high fiving, then randomly breaks into a dance, and I got my girlfriend just jumping up and down, just happy. And you can tell she's just been stressed the entire time up to that point. It's been cool to experience, go through these different experiences with some friends and family and hopefully they were well behaved."
TREY, TREY AND MORE TREY: Anarumo could only shake his head at Pro Bowl sacker Trey Hendrickson's domination of the Colts. Right from the get-go on the first snap when he bull-rushed left tackle Bernard Raimann into the lap of Colts quarterback Gardner Minshew II for the first of his two sacks and five pressures.
"I don't want to ever tie his hand behind his back and say, 'Hey, you've got to rush this way,'" Anarumo said. "(Defensive line coach Marion Hobby) does a great job with those guys and they know how they have to rush different guys. But he just walked the kid right back to the quarterback and that was one thing that Minshew didn't handle well was the pressure right in his face. He'd get antsy.
"So I said, 'Hey, just keep bull-rushing this guy for some time here before we (change), and he was able to just move him off the spot some, and it was a great way to start the game."
Anarumo knows what he's got. The man has 13.5 sacks, could have 16.5 if not for penalties, and probably deserves another one from Sunday when he forced Minshew's interception. His next sack breaks his own Bengals record of 14. How good is he? He's got a half-sack more than Myles Garrett.
"He's that guy. Whatever a great pass rusher looks like, Trey has all of the qualities of a great rusher," Anarumo said. "He's powerful. He can run right down the middle of you, he can beat you off the edge with speed and he's nimble enough to work the games and stuff. That's what the great ones do. And they're ball aware so that it's always not just sacks, it's sack fumble. He is coming over the top and getting those balls out."
His only mistake Sunday was also huge. A late hit on Minshew on third-and-15. Anarumo jumped him, but Hendrickson knew it and, even better, atoned.
"I let him know that, they go score. We're off the field. So he knows he can't do that," Anarumo said. "But I gave him a big hug at the end of the game. Said you made up for it."