AP Sports Writer
CINCINNATI — Marvin Lewis watched the final Sunday night game of the regular season, rooting for yet another one of his former coordinators to get a division title.
When Vikings coach Mike Zimmer got a sideline dousing as time ran out, his former boss smiled.
That makes three division champions with ties to Cincinnati.
Lewis is in the playoffs with his AFC North champion Bengals for the seventh time, looking for his first postseason win as they get ready to host the Steelers on Saturday night.
His two former coordinators — Zimmer and Jay Gruden — also have division champions in the postseason.
Zimmer is in his second season as head coach of the Vikings. Gruden also is in his second season with the Redskins. The three of them stay in touch by text messages and offered congratulations as they locked down their titles.
“It’s just fun and I’m happy for them,” said Lewis, who is in his 13th season in Cincinnati.
“They obviously both did such a great job here for us and the team. And they’re still a part of this team. They’re part of where this team is, and how it’s gotten where it is.”
Zimmer fashioned one of the league’s best defenses during his stint as coordinator in Cincinnati from 2008-13. Gruden developed quarterback Andy Dalton as offensive coordinator from 2011-13, helping the Bengals reach the playoffs all three seasons.
Lewis gives his coordinators a lot of leeway. For instance, they’re allowed to do media interviews whenever they wish, as opposed to many other teams that limit their availability.
And they have ties that go back a long way. Lewis and Zimmer have known each other since the 1980s when they were coaching in college. Lewis also was a defensive coordinator, so the two of them shared ideas and philosophies.
When they moved up to head coaching jobs, Zimmer and Gruden followed Lewis’ lead in running a team.
“I learned a lot from Marvin,” Zimmer said. “We do a lot of things that he still implements. A lot of things I do with the team are very similar. And Marvin and I have been close for a long time.
“We sat in defensive meetings almost all of the time and talked about a lot of different things, but I still talk to him a lot about things that happen during the season, about how he handles things.”
Lewis has less familiarity with Gruden — he knew his brother Jon better. Gruden came to Cincinnati and refined a West Coast offense that fit Dalton’s style.
The Bengals reached the playoffs during the 2011 season — the first of their five straight appearances — even though Dalton and receiver A.J. Green were rookies.
The Redskins won the NFC East this season while using rookies at right guard, running back, outside linebacker and defensive back. Gruden already had experience at counting on newcomers.
“In Cincinnati, developing young players is very, very important,” Gruden said. “We were forced to do that in Cincinnati. I think we had eight or nine rookies playing in my time there, and we had to get them ready to play.”
Bengals players aren’t surprised that Zimmer and Gruden have succeeded so quickly.
“I think it says something about the professionalism of those guys and how we do things here,” left tackle Andrew Whitworth said. “I think they’d say they definitely had a great time here, and this is a winning place and they carried some of that with them.”
The Bengals expect to lose another coordinator after this season, with Hue Jackson getting a lot of interest for how the offense has excelled.
“Marvin has been the Pied Piper for the coaches that have left here and went on to have good careers,” Jackson said. “I think it’s because of the environment Marvin creates. He lets guys coach. He lets guys grow. Guys have a chance to ascend.”
AP Pro Football Writers Dave Campbell in Eden Prairie, Minn., and Howard Fendrich in Ashburn, Va., contributed to this report.