The fourth quarter was starting, and the game was getting crazy. In the Cincinnati Bengals defensive huddle, players blocked out the raucous Baltimore crowd and reminded each other that a lot more was at stake than first place.
They were playing for someone special.
Vikki Zimmer, the wife of defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, would bake treats for team and send encouraging notes to players, who dedicated their 17-14 win on Sunday to her memory and her family. She died unexpectedly last week.
"I remember we were in the huddle and a lot of the guys were reminding each other: Remember, let's do this for Zimmer," defensive lineman Domata Peko said. "He's going through a tough time now, and let's do it for him. That helped us push ourselves even more to get this victory."
The Bengals (4-1) took sole possession of first place in the AFC North by beating the Ravens, then gave the game ball to Zimmer in a locker room full of men blinking back tears. A day later, that was still the moment on their minds.
"Very emotional," coach Marvin Lewis said Monday. "Obviously it's a big win on the road in the division, but that was second to the Zimmer family. We know what Mike had to be going through and thinking about in the quiet times prior to the game and I'm sure right afterward, and maybe at times within. So I think it was second to that."
Zimmer found his wife unresponsive when he got home after practice on Thursday night. The death shocked the entire team, especially those who have known the couple for years. Zimmer was the Cowboys' defensive coordinator from 2000-06, moved to Atlanta for a year and joined the Bengals before last season.
Safety Roy Williams was drafted by Dallas in 2002 and got to know Vikki Zimmer's kindness in Dallas.
"She was always sending me notes, making sure I'm OK," Williams said. "She will be missed. When coach (Jay) Hayes called me and told me about coach going into the house and finding her dead, I was in shock. Thursday night and Friday night, I probably got one or two hours of sleep every night. It hit home. It makes you just think about life and how precious it is."
Vikki Zimmer had a tradition of baking treats for the defensive players on Mondays after a victory. Those who weren't watching their weight enjoyed them in Zimmer's presence. Others had to sneak them.
"She made some brownies that had marshmallow frosting on them," Williams said. "I didn't have them when Zim was around, but when he left the room, a couple days later, I had them after the Cleveland game and man, they were still good.
"She'll be missed for many reasons, not just the snacks _ the spirit that she had and the encouraging notes and all the inspirational stuff."
The Bengals let Zimmer decide whether he wanted to coach the game on Sunday or stay in Cincinnati and spend time with his family. Zimmer told the team that his wife would have wanted him to coach, so he was on the flight to Baltimore, accompanied by his father, his son and one of his daughters.
The players were impressed by how Zimmer carried himself.
"I couldn't really imagine how you can go through something like that and be able to come out and make (play) calls and focus in and forget what's happening in your personal life," cornerback Leon Hall said.
The defense played its best game of the season, holding one of the NFL's leading offenses to 257 yards and one touchdown _ Baltimore also scored on Ed Reed's 52-yard interception return. The offense then pulled off its third straight last-minute win, with Carson Palmer throwing a 20-yard touchdown pass to Andre Caldwell with 22 seconds left.
It completed a streak of three straight wins against AFC North opponents, two of them on the road, and put the Bengals alone on top of the division _ a very rare thing. Cincinnati has only one winning record in the last 18 years.
The last time the Bengals started 4-1? The 205 season that ended with an 11-5 record and the only playoff appearance during those 18 years.
"We wanted to win not just for Zimmer, but for ourselves, to help solidify our division _ which we did," Williams said. "It's awesome that we did win because winning makes things a little easier. With the (funeral) services coming up, it makes it a little easier on them."
NOTES: QB Carson Palmer might be limited in practice this week because of a sprained left thumb, suffered in the fourth quarter Sunday. He finished the game by handing off with his right (passing) hand. He's expected to play Sunday against Houston. ... The Bengals will spend the next four weeks at home, with games against Houston, Chicago and Baltimore along with their bye.
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