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Imagine the Mike Zimmer era, except twice as long, with more disappointment and more squandered opportunities.

That’s where the Bengals were at before the Zac Taylor-Joe Burrow partnership that has vaulted them to the top of the AFC and become a Patrick Mahomes kryptonite in the process.

If the Vikings are looking for inspiration from either of the two Super Bowl teams, they don’t have to stretch their imagination to see a bit of themselves in the Bengals, or at least where the Bengals were three years ago.

To review, the Bengals reached the playoffs six times in seven years during the peak of the Marvin Lewis era, which ended up being a lengthy 16-year run with seven playoff appearances overall — two times longer than Zimmer’s extended run with the Vikings. Zimmer was a fixture, of course, on some of those Bengals teams, coordinating a sustainable defense that helped Carson Palmer and Andy Dalton reach the playoffs four out of Zimmer’s six years with the team, but Lewis’s offense routinely collapsed during playoff time, scoring 12.9 points per game in Lewis’s seven straight playoff losses.

The eventual collapse of those Bengals mirrored Zimmer’s demise in Minnesota. Cincinnati’s defense began cratering after a run of five straight playoff appearances from 2011-15, and without a quarterback capable of raising the team’s ceiling, the Bengals were doomed for purgatory with three straight seasons of six or seven wins. By 2018, their defense ranked last in yards allowed, and Lewis was summarily dismissed while Dalton continued collecting big checks.

Cincinnati’s playoff victory drought was at 28 years by the time Lewis was fired, so yeah… the Vikings could be worse off.

But also, who wouldn’t want to be Cincinnati right now? Following in the footsteps of the Colts with Andrew Luck, the Bills with Josh Allen or the Panthers with Cam Newton, the Bengals bottomed out and cashed in their chips on the right quarterback. Now Bengals fans are guzzling Skyline Chili and booking their tickets for SoFi Stadium in less than two weeks.

It took Cincinnati two dismal seasons to ramp up for their Super Bowl run in Year 3 of Zac Taylor’s tenure. Here’s a look into how the Bengals managed their rebuild and whether the Vikings could duplicate their effort.

Year 1: Bottoming out

Sometimes the best way to tank passively in the NFL is to do nothing, and the Bengals did just that — quite successfully. The Bengals approached the first year with Zac Taylor without any apparent intentions to compete.

Andy Dalton was kept on as the starter despite his recent decline, and he wouldn’t have his best weapon in A.J. Green due to an ankle injury. Cincinnati rolled with Tyler Boyd, Auden Tate and Alex Erickson as their top receivers, and their anonymous offensive line finished 27th in pass blocking and 31st in run blocking.

On defense, the Bengals’ top pieces from the previous regime were the aging Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap, who weren’t enough to avoid having a league-worst rush defense. Cincinnati did almost nothing in free agency or the draft to help their ailing defense, which finished 25th in points allowed.

Dalton ended up having his worst season, the Bengals lost their first 11 games, finished 2-14 and secured the first overall pick. And that’s how you land Joe Burrow.

If the Vikings duplicated…

…all they’d have to do is keep on Kirk Cousins at his current salary, as unorthodox as that might be. Minnesota would then have no choice but to decimate their roster by subtracting key veterans and spending little in free agency. They could take a swing at a rookie QB in the first round, let him learn behind Cousins for a year and hit free agency with a boatload of cash to spend once Cousins’ deal expires. It doesn’t seem likely Minnesota would be bad enough to land the No. 1 pick with their still-talented offensive core, but they could be looking at another top 10 pick the following year.

In reality, it seems unreasonable that the Vikings would allow Cousins to walk without getting value for him. While a trade seems more likely than the scenario above, there’s always the possibility of an extension in the next few months followed by a trade after the 2022 season.

Year 2: The right QB but a bad roster

The Bengals got their guy in Burrow, cut Andy Dalton and started building up the talent around their rookie, but that takes time.

Free agency was more active as they signed NT D.J. Reeder, CB Trae Waynes and S Vonn Bell to larger contracts while parting ways with veterans Cordy Glenn, John Miller and Dre Kirkpatrick to keep their cap situation healthy. In the draft they found Burrow a mainstay wide receiver in Tee Higgins but not much else, and the offensive line continued to be a problem.

Plus, Burrow was still a rookie who took too many sacks and struggled on third down. After a slow start to the season he picked up a statement win over the Tennessee Titans before tearing his ACL weeks later and missing the rest of the year. In retrospect, Burrow’s injury — while serious — might have been the difference in securing the Bengals’ draft position for the following season, where he would find the second of his two mainstay receivers.

If the Vikings duplicated…

…they’d have their potential quarterback of the future taking over for Cousins in 2023 and get him the weapons he needs. In theory, the next Vikings QB could still have Justin Jefferson, Adam Thielen and Dalvin Cook at that point, but filling up an offense with elite receivers is unquestionably a good idea.

Most of Minnesota’s young talent, though, is presently on the offensive side of the ball, so Kwesi Adofo-Mensah and the next head coach would be wise to hammer the defensive side of the ball in the next couple drafts. They could use a repeat of 2015 when the Vikings found a starting corner, linebacker and defensive end with their first three picks.

Year 3: Winning time

This is where the Bengals’ combination of good drafting and smart free agent signings paid off.

Their offensive line improved thanks to draft picks Jonah Williams (first round, 2019) and Jackson Carman (second round, 2021), who got much better as the season progressed, while former Viking Riley Reiff was stout at right tackle. The defense got beefed up with signings Trey Hendrickson, Chidobe Awuzie, Mike Hilton and Eli Apple. And the offense got a remarkable lift from sixth overall pick Ja’Marr Chase, who is a superstar on the Justin Jefferson trajectory. Fifth-round rookie kicker Evan McPherson also turned in one of the great rookie kicker campaigns of all time and won the Bengals a pair of playoff games.

All of this, and the Bengals are far from over-committed. In fact, they have the fourth-most cap space (over $56 million) entering the offseason, poised to challenge in a stacked AFC for years to come.

Cincinnati has a star quarterback they don’t have to re-up for two more years. The Bengals’ window is just opening.

If the Vikings duplicated…

It’s hard to fast forward three seasons down the road, but the Vikings will have to be savvier than they have been. That means maximizing their free agency dollar by finding mid-level talents that might be able to start for multiple years, keeping the offense’s cupboard stocked with weapons and using the draft to develop foundational pieces.

But it all starts with finding the right quarterback. Maybe that doesn’t mean going 2-15 for one year, but it puts tons of weight on Adofo-Mensah and his new head coach to make the correct choice.

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