Posted: 1:20 a.m.
The Bengals were there at the creation of the Brett Favre legend and have surfaced at certain curious intervals of his career. But never have they played him in a bigger game this late in the season when they hook up with the 40-year-old MVP candidate Sunday in Minneapolis as the AFC North leaders at 9-3 take on his 10-2 Vikings needing a victory to win their second division title in five years.
The Bengals' own iconic cowboy figure, Pro Bowl nose tackle Tim Krumrie, made the legend possible when he broke the ankle of Packers quarterback Don Majkowski in a 1992 game at Lambeau Field and brought the 22-year-old Favre off the bench. When he engineered a Favrian finish to beat Dave Shula's 2-0 Bengals, he never went back to the bench.
But current Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer helped end two of Favre's seasons while coaching in Dallas.
The Bengals current secondary coach, Kevin Coyle, oversaw the worst game of Favre's career when he threw a career-high five interceptions in Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati's 21-14 victory in 2005.
And current Bengals defensive lineman Jon Fanene almost put Favre back on the bench 16 years later when he gave him a crushing hit with his arm fully extended as he tried to throw the ball during the Bengals' loss to the Jets last Oct. 12 in the Meadowlands.
But there is only admiration on an active roster where the youngest player (Michael Johnson) was in preschool when Favre came off the bench in '92 and the oldest player (Bobbie Williams) saw Favre's 20th fourth-quarter comeback when he was a rookie in Philadelphia in 2000.
"I'm excited. I grew up watching Brett Favre since I started being a fan of the NFL," said Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer, born a good 10 years after Favre and has admired him from a distance and doesn't know him. "He can throw it. He's smart. He's got a good arm. He's accurate. Everything."
Since the latter part of Favre's career is draped in misinformation, Fanene didn't realize how big that hit was until months later, when the New York media called to ask him about delivering a blow that injured one of the NFL's most famous arms.
"It was the third quarter. I beat a guy with a one-on-one move. Came around the corner," Fanene recalled Monday. "I hit him in the shoulder and he was down for a little bit. He played hurt the whole way. He was looking at the person that did this. And he looked at me. The look on his face told me he was mad. He was kind of mad.
"It was a clean hit. There was no flag, no penalty. Nothing. I was just doing my job. He's a tough guy. Forty-year-old guy playing. He's still got it. I give a lot of respect and credit to this guy. Hall of Fame guy."
Rich Cimini of The New York Daily News was the first to speculate that the Fanene hit had damaged Favre after watching what he did in the next game against Oakland.
Only two of Favre's 34 pass attempts in regulation traveled more than 20 yards in the air, Cimini wrote, and when the Raiders stacked the line of scrimmage in the overtime daring Favre to throw and Favre responded by dinking and dunking in an eventual loss, the obvious conclusion was that Favre's arm was hurting.
When Favre later admitted early this season once he was in Minnesota that he had suffered a partially torn bicep tendon, Cimini was vindicated. At the very least, Fanene's hit seemed to be a big part of the wear and tear that has gnawed at Favre for 283 straight games.
"I admire him a lot," Fanene said. "He's a tough guy. He didn't come out of the game. I'm not surprised at anything he does right now. He's 40 years old and still playing. Growing up in American Samoa, he was a guy I loved watching. Brett Favre. For the Niners, Steve Young and Joe Montana. It's a blessing for me to be in the league to see guys I wanted to be like."
Zimmer broke into the NFL as a secondary coach with the Cowboys in 1994 and 1995 and in both seasons Dallas knocked Favre's Packers out of the playoffs, the last time in the NFC title game. After glimpsing what he's doing this season Monday morning, Zimmer said, "He looks like he's 20."
Indeed, Favre has turned the clock back with 26 touchdown passes to just five interceptions and a passer rating (108.5) not far off the supersonic 111.3 of Drew Brees. Backed by a Pro Bowl running back in head coach Brad Childress' West Coast offense on The Metrodome's fast track, Favre has been reborn.
Zimmer has coached against Favre nine times, losing both times as a coordinator with an overall 6-3 record, Last year the Bengals held Favre to 189 passing yards, but their offense could only get 171 total in a 26-14 loss to the Jets.
Favre's numbers against Zimmer defenses: 85.8 passer rating on 339 attempts, 204 completions, 2,174 yards, 17 TDs, 8 INTs.
"We can't be undisciplined this week at all," Zimmer said, "because he can look that way and throw it this way."
His best quality?
"He's a hell of a winner, great competitor," Zimmer said. "He's got a strong arm. He's a little street ballish. He's got no fear. With his arm strength, even at his age, as that's what is the (biggest) concern."
Zimmer says there is no question that Favre has more talent than what the Jets put around him last year and while he's not sure if these Viking are more potent than those Packers, he thinks the Minnesota offense is on a par with the Green Bay glory days of wide receivers Sterling Sharpe, Robert Brooks and Antonio Freeman, tight end Mark Chmura and running back Dorsey Levens. Now there are wide receivers Sidney Rice, Percy Harvin and Bernard Berrian, tight end Visanthe Shiancoe, and running back Adrian Peterson.
"They're becoming a throwing team and I can see why when watching his tape," said Zimmer of an offense that has already jacked up 403 passes this season while Peterson averages 22 carries per game.
"He's got really good skilled receivers. His tight end is playing well. His offensive line is excellent," said Zimmer, who thinks that line might be better than what he had in Green Bay. "His four receivers are pretty dangerous ... I think their team is built for a dome. It looks like they're built for speed. He gets the ball in really tight areas and it allows them to run."
You can talk about the matchup pitting the ancient gunslinger against one of the young guns who is 1-0 against him in Palmer.
Or the Mel Kiper Jr., matchup of running backs with the No. 4 pick in the 2005 draft, the Bengals' Cedric Benson vs. Peterson, the No. 7 pick in '07.
Or wide receiver Chad Ochocinco, 90 yards shy of his seventh 1,000-yard season, going against Vikings third-year phenom Sidney Rice enjoying his first 1,000-yard season with 1,036 already.
But check out the matchup of these dominating defenses.
The Bengals replaced the Vikings with the NFL's best third-down percentage this week, but Minnesota is still tied for third. The Bengals have the league's top scoring defense, the Vikings are tied for ninth. The Bengals have moved to fourth overall in defense and second against the run behind only Pittsburgh. The Vikes are ninth in defense, and third against the run.
But the Bengals are going against a top five offense and Zimmer isn't happy with the way his team tackled Sunday against Lions running back Kevin Smith after warning them they had to be sure to get him down because of his low-slung elusiveness.
"We were in the right spots, but we missed the tackles," Zimmer said.
Still, the Bengals gave Smith just 75 yards on 16 carries, the eighth straight game they've held a team to less than 100 yards. Now they go against Peterson's three 100-yard games.
"If we're not on key against Brett Favre, he will hurt our team," Fanene said. "We can't miss tackles, we have to stay in our pass rush lanes, we're going to have to play better than we did (Sunday). We have to focus during the week so it's easier on Sunday."
But Fanene has been playing well since he moved into the starting lineup Oct. 25 when NFL sack leader Antwan Odom suffered a season-ending torn Achilles. Fanene, a seventh-rounder in 2005 plagued by injuries and backup roles who had just one career sack coming into the season, has emerged into a solid starter with five sacks and Sunday's game-breaking play.
With the Bengals trailing, 7-0, early in the second quarter, Fanene plucked Michael Johnson's tipped pass out of the air and returned his first NFL interception for his first NFL touchdown from 45 yards out. The play jump-started a lackluster effort, but it couldn't keep him awake for the Sunday night highlights.
"I heard from a lot of friends and family and even some of my teammates who told me it got the momentum for us," Fanene said. "My wife watched (the highlights), but I went to bed. I was tired."
The unassuming Fanene is playing out what defensive line coach Jay Hayes is always preaching.
"He's doing well. He's given us some productive snaps," Hayes said. "It just goes to show you if you stay at it, do the right things, do what you're told and just work hard, good things can happen to you."
Fanene said he plans to approach Favre after Sunday's game.
"I want to let him know he was one of my role models and in the game of football he's one of the best," he said. "I'm there to make plays, get pressure on him and try to get a victory Sunday."
With the Bengals and Favre, expect the unexpected.