** EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. —They watched and waited for years and years, refining their teaching of technique and schemes.
Focusing on their specific duties prepared them for opportunities that seemed so close yet stayed so far away.
Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer and Arizona Head Coach Bruce Arians each had 20 seasons of NFL experience as assistants before they were hired by their respective teams as first-time head coaches.
Zimmer, 59, and Arians, 63, have drawn on their experiences and have made measurable differences for their clubs.
The men will meet for the first time in this capacity but have seen each other plenty, including twice a season from 2008-11 when Zimmer was defensive coordinator at Cincinnati and Arians was offensive coordinator at Pittsburgh.
It was clear in media sessions this week that each has deep respect for the other, the kind reserved for adversaries that sense similar acumen in another person inclined to opposite endeavors. Zimmer wants to keep scoreboards of foes dim; Arians wants to light his team's up.
"I always like going against Bruce. He does a great job," Zimmer said. "They want to run the football and they want to throw touchdowns. They're trying to throw the ball deep and they've got a lot of great weapons."
Arians said during a conference call, "Oh man, I don't respect anybody in this business any more than I respect Zim."
"They're probably one of the most-well-coached defensive football teams and it's been beyond Cincinnati. We go all the way back to when he was at Dallas" (Zimmer coached Cowboys DBs 1994-99, and was defensive coordinator 2000-06).
"He took the double-barrel blitz scheme of Jimmy Johnson and just magnified it into zone schemes and man schemes and is just a great coach," Arians said.
Multiple opponents have mentioned preparing for Zimmer's blitzes since his arrival as Vikings coach and how others have drawn from it and tried to implement it.
Peyton Manning referred to it as "the Zimmer defense."
It and the Vikings (8-4) will face perhaps the most complete test of the season in Arizona's offense without four defensive starters (Harrison Smith, Andrew Sendejo, Anthony Barr and Linval Joseph).
The Cardinals (10-2) rank first in total yards (419.5) and points per game (31.8), Carson Palmer is second in the NFL with a passer rating of 106.3, and has thrown for 3,693 yards (third-most in NFL) and 29 TD passes (second in NFL).
Larry Fitzgerald, a former Vikings ball boy during his youth, is leading a trio of talented receivers that also includes Michael Floyd and John Brown. Fitzgerald has 91 catches for 1,047 yards and seven TDs. Brown has 51 receptions for 817 yards with four scores, and Floyd has 35 catches for 550 yards and five TDs. Plus, rookie running back David Johnson leads the Cardinals with nine TDs (four rushing, four receiving and a 108-yard kickoff return).
"They've got Fitzgerald. He does a great job of blocking and catching," Zimmer said. "He's got 90 something catches, and Brown, they've got a lot of speed at receiver. [Jermaine] Gresham was the tight end in Cincinnati when I was there. Johnson, the back, he had a good game last week, so they're a talented offense. They're a talented football team. It's why they're 10-2."
Gresham is listed as doubtful because of a knee injury, while RB Andre Ellington (toe), CB Jerraud Powers (calf) and DT Frostee Rucker (ankle) have been ruled out for the Cardinals.
Neither coach will have their full roster during Thursday's game, which is set to start at 7:25 p.m. (CT) and air on NFL Network nationally and WCCO in the Twin Cities, but they expect a strong challenge from the other.
A generation of work led them to such a moment. Now they're trying to capitalize on opportunities that were realized because of thinking that bucked the norm used by most NFL Owners and General Managers, wrote Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic:
Neither one has the time nor patience for politics and platitudes. When they did get interviewed for head-coaching jobs, they didn't play games.
*"We're a lot alike," Arians told Somers. "We're going to tell you what's wrong with the organization in the first place, and how we're going to fix it. And a lot of guys don't like to hear that."
To the Cardinals and Vikings, the candor was refreshing.
"We interviewed Mike for a long time," Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman told Somers. "But in the first hour, hour and half, you knew, and ownership knew, this was our guy."
Zimmer has mentioned his blended background of wrestling and football as helping him get off the mat and get back in the mix.
Arians also referenced down times, even crediting them for what became of them.
"I don't think there's anything more preparing than experience, and not just good experiences but failures," Arians said during the conference call. "You learn from failures, and so many of these young guys have never failed, and when they do fail, they don't know how to handle it. I think at our age, we've been through the ringer enough times to know how to handle it."