Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
20 Oct 2005
by Mike Tanier
For the Cincinnati Bengals, it can be one of the most important games in franchise history.
The Bengals host the Steelers on Sunday. A win puts them firmly in control of the AFC North. They would have the inside track, not just to a playoff berth, but a possible home game or two in the postseason.
You know all of this: Sunday's Steelers-Bengals matchup is receiving the full hype treatment. But the hype is justified for Bengals fans who have waited 15 years for a winning season. Sunday's contest is one of the most significant Bengals games ever.
The 14th most significant game, to be exact.
Most fans think of the Bengals as one of the league's all-time doormats. They earned that reputation in the 1990s and 2000s. The typical Bengals season begins badly, then deteriorates. The team often starts the year 0-4 or 1-4. Sometimes, they rally late in the year to finish near .500. More often, they sputter to a 5-11 or 4-12 finish. Games with playoff implications are rare; battles for first place are even rarer.
But the Bengals weren't always horrible. They were a winning team throughout the mid-1970s. They reached the Super Bowl twice in the 1980s. So they've played many crucial games: Super Bowls, playoff games, late-season battles for the division lead. Does Sunday's matchup with the Steelers really rank among the franchise's most important games from yesteryear?
To find out, I combed through 36 seasons of Bengals history, picking out the franchise's most important games. By "important," I mean important to contemporary observers; Ken Anderson's first career start was certainly a significant event in retrospect, but it didn't mean that much to the fans in the stands. I searched through newspaper and Sporting News archives to find the games that mattered most to the Bengals and their orange-and-black faithful when they were played, then ranked them according to my own highly subjective criteria.
Some of the rankings may be controversial. Regular season games often rank ahead of playoff games: a fight for the division lead may mean more to a team six years removed from the postseason than a Wild Card berth means to a team that recently reached the Super Bowl. Added weight was given to games against the Bengals' rivals in Cleveland and Pittsburgh. And some games on the list, like the 1976 loss to the Steelers, seem trivial thirty years later.
Sunday's game may also look trivial in a few years. But right now, it's a potential turning point in franchise history, and it merits a place on the Bengals' all-time Top Twenty.
The Bengals provided the canvas on which Joe Montana painted his masterpieces. In 1982, Montana was the brash young passer who threw for one touchdown and ran for another as the Niners jumped out to a 20-0 halftime lead. In 1989, he was the living legend who coolly orchestrated two fourth-quarter touchdown drives to overcome a ten-point deficit.
Ironically, Montana rose to stardom under the guidance of Bill Walsh, a longtime Bengals assistant who developed a unique short-passing offense while working for Paul Brown. Brown stymied Walsh's career development in Cincinnati; when other teams tried to interview the up-and-coming assistant, Brown would give him a bad reference. Walsh could have been the Bengals' head coach; instead, he was their tormentor.
The Bengals may have been two-time Super Bowl losers, but they were also two-time Super Bowl participants. There are plenty of franchises that have accomplished less.
This was the greatest game in Bengals history; Cincinnati Enquirer readers voted it the most memorable game in team history in a 1997 poll. The temperature was minus-9 degrees. The wind chill made it feel like minus-59. Bengals coach Forrest Gregg told players to "look at this game like you are going to the dentist. It's going to hurt." Many players responded by donning short sleeves for the game; some fans risked their health by going topless. Many felt that all the bare skin gave the Bengals a psychological advantage over a team accustomed to the California sunshine.
Dan Fouts struggled in the frozen conditions, throwing two interceptions, while Ken Anderson was an efficient 14-of-22 for 161 yards and two TDs. An early Jim Breech field goal and a fumble by then-Charger James Brooks helped the Bengals to a 10-point first quarter lead, and the defense did the rest.
The 1988 Bengals may have been one-year wonders, but they were wonderful, thanks to Sam Wyche's innovative coaching and a dance craze known as the Ickey Shuffle. Fullback Ickey Woods' one-yard plunge in the first quarter started the scoring, but the Bengals didn't put the game away until Wyche called a fake punt on 4th-and-4 from the Bengals' own 33-yard line in the fourth quarter. Woods scored a few plays later, and the Bengals reached the Super Bowl for the second time in seven years. The team would reach the postseason just once in the next 16 years.
The Bengals-Browns rivalry was still very personal in 1970. The Browns had fired Paul Brown just eight years earlier, and his longtime understudy Blanton Collier was still the head coach in Cleveland. So when his Bengals rebounded from 1-6 start and needed one last win to wrest the AFC Central away from Cleveland, Paul Brown's team responded with a blowout of the hapless Patriots. The Bengals rolled to a 38-0 halftime lead under backup QB Sam Wyche in front of a record crowd at Riverfront Stadium. The Bengals reached the playoffs in just their third year of existence; at the time, they were considered a model expansion franchise.
The Bengals fell behind 21-3 to the eventual Super Bowl champs but cut the score to 21-16 by halftime, thanks in part to an interception return touchdown by safety Neal Craig. Unfortunately, that was the only touchdown the Bengals would score, while the Dolphins churned out 241 rushing yards.
"Our guys were ready, but it was no match at all," Paul Brown said after the game. "They just defeated us in every aspect. I would say it was about as thorough a throttling job on our offense as we've seen this year."
The Bengals clung to a seven-point lead with three minutes left in the game as the Bills drove down the field. Facing 4th-and-3 at the Bengals 20-yard line, Buffalo QB Joe Ferguson called a timeout. He had 90 seconds to confer with coaches, select a play, and snap the ball. Unfortunately, he took 91.
The Bills took too long to make substitutions, and the noise from the jacked-up Riverfront Stadium crowd caused confusion at the line of scrimmage. Ferguson appeared to complete a five-yard pass, but the play was whistled dead. The Bills couldn't convert after the delay of game penalty, and the Bengals won their first postseason game.
The Bengals entered the game 9-2. The Steelers had lost four of their first five games but were coming on strong, having beaten their last six opponents (including the Bengals in Cincinnati) by a combined score of 164-25. Heavy snows and 20-degree temperatures helped the Steel Curtain to shut down the Bengals, but Bill Johnson's team clung to a 3-0 lead in the third quarter, until Steelers DE Dwight White recovered a fumble by RB Booby Clark at the Bengals' 24-yard line. Franco Harris punched in the winning touchdown a few plays later.
A loss to Oakland the following week essentially knocked the Bengals out of the playoffs. "We had our chance.We were up by two games with three to play â€“ that's all you can ask for." Ken Anderson said at season's end. The Bengals were a .500 or better team every year from 1972 through 1977, but they were never able to break through in an AFC dominated by the Steelers, Raiders, and Dolphins.
Johnnie Unitas' Colts dominated the Bengals on a cold, wet day at Memorial Stadium in Baltimore. The Bengals' lone field goal attempt was blocked, Unitas threw two touchdown passes, and the Colts ran for 170 yards. Just reaching the playoffs was an accomplishment for the Bengals, who had only won seven games in their first two seasons before winning seven straight at the end of the 1970 season.
The Bengals rebounded from a 4-11 record in 1987 to start the 1988 season 6-0. Late in the season, they needed a victory over the 11-1 Bills, not just to stay two games up on the AFC Central competition, but to prove they were a legitimate contender.
The Bengals won going away. Ickey Woods rushed for 129 yards and three touchdowns. James Brooks added 93 yards and one touchdown. "It is far and away the best offense we have seen." Bills coach Marv Levy said of the Bengals. "They're the best offensive team we've played," added DT Fred Smerlas. "They can maul you with powerful people."
A few weeks later, the Bengals and Bills would meet again in the AFC championship game. The Bengals had home field advantage thanks to this victory.
The 1990 Bengals started the season 3-0, then lost seven of their next 11 contests before winning their final two games to win the AFC Central. They beat up the Oilers in the opening round of the playoffs, but they were clearly no match for the 12-4 Raiders. Bo Jackson rushed for 77 yards on six carries before suffering the hip injury that ended his career. Marcus Allen added 140 rushing yards.
The Bengals, just two seasons removed from a Super Bowl were clearly a team in decline. Their defense had collapsed. Wyche's antics had grown stale (he barred female journalists from the locker room during the season in the wake of the Lisa Olsen scandal). A rebuilding phase was clearly on the horizon.
But no one could have guessed that 15 years would pass before the Bengals would play another important football game.
The 11-3 Bengals were just a Wild Card team in 1975, thanks to a certain Curtain that was draped over the AFC Central. The Raiders held a 31-14 lead early in the fourth quarter thanks to three Ken Stabler touchdowns, but Ken Anderson rallied with late touchdown passes to Charlie Joiner and Isaac Curtis. The Bengals got the ball back with 4:19 left to play, but Ted Hendricks sacked Anderson to set up a 4th-and-long that the Bengals couldn't convert. The Bengals wouldn't reach the playoffs again until 1981
The 9-7 Seahawks were just a speed bump on the road to the Super Bowl in 1988. The Bengals scored three first half touchdowns on short runs by Ickey Woods and Stanley Wilson, then nursed their lead through the second half. The Seahawks rushed for just 22 yards in the game; the Bengals rushed for 254.
The Bengals have what it takes to win. They have Carson Palmer, already the third best quarterback in team history. (Want to argue Jeff Blake? Virgil Carter? Be my guest). They have very good backs and receivers. The line is solid. The defense is soft at times, but Marv Lewis builds smart, turnover-happy units, and the young Bengals defenders are getting the job done. The Bengals are on magazine covers. They're near the top of the power rankings.
But they need a meaningful win to prove that they've arrived. The 1999 Rams won lots of games and scored a ton of points, but they needed to sweep the 49ers to climb out of the novelty bin. The Bengals are in the same jam: they have to prove something to opponents, and to themselves.
They get a chance to prove their point on Sunday.
Before the 1970's Steelers became THE 1970's STEELERS, the AFC Central was often a three-way battle between the Steelers, Bengals, and Browns. Entering Week 13, the three teams were officially tied for the division lead -- the Bengals and Steelers at 8-4, the Browns at 7-3-2. Ken Anderson hit Isaac Curtis for touchdown passes of 9, 70, and 20 yards, while the Bengals sacked Browns QB Mike Phipps five times in a win that gave the Bengals a tiebreaker advantage over its division foes. A victory against the hapless Oilers a week later earned the team the AFC Central crown.
The Browns, not the Bengals, looked like paper tigers entering this game: they led the AFC Central thanks to five games decided by a field goal or less. The Bengals were just a game behind them, had beaten the Browns early in the year, and boasted the highest-scoring offense in the league. The previous week, the Bengals set a franchise record by racking up 584 yards in a 31-7 rout of the Patriots.
So naturally they came out flat, turned the ball over three times, and entered the red zone just once. "We lost the coin toss, and it went downhill from there," Cris Collinsworth said after the game.
The Browns would go on to give up The Drive and The Fumble in the playoffs. The Bengals would get some redemption two years later.
The Bengals entered the final week of the 2003 season with an 8-7 record and a shot at the AFC North title. But they couldn't beat the Browns in Cincinnati, as Lee Suggs rushed for 186 yards and two touchdowns. Even if they had won, the Bengals would still have been shut out of the playoffs, as a Ravens victory that week clinched the division. Still, the final game of Marv Lewis' inaugural season was the most important Bengals game of 21st century. Until Sunday.
The Bengals were just 6-7 entering this game, but the Browns led the AFC Central at 7-6. It was the first time the Cowboys ever traveled to Cincinnati, and they were quickly ambushed. Bengals defensive tackle Ross Browner tackled Danny White in the end zone to start the scoring, and the Bengals led 22-0 by the end of the first quarter. The Bengals led 43-10 after three quarters, with Boomer Esiason throwing three touchdown passes.
The Browns lost to the Seahawks that week, knotting the teams at 7-7, but the Bengals ended the season with two straight road losses. Still, the game had major playoff implications at the time, and Eagles and Redskins fans aren't the only people who like seeing the Cowboys get beaten. "Football's royalty came to town for the first time, and we kicked their butts," Bengals fan Susan Grote reminisced in the Cincinnati Enquirer over a decade later.
The 1982 Bengals may have been better than the 1981 Super Bowl team in the regular season; Ken Anderson completed over 70% of his passes, and the defense was among the best in football. But nothing worked against the Jets: Anderson threw three interceptions, and the defense surrendered 202 rushing yards to Freeman McNeil. At the time, it was easy to write this season off to the strike and the odd playoff format; the Bengals appeared ready to contend for the next decade. But this game would mark their last playoff appearance for six years.
Cincinnati's first win on Monday Night Football came at a critical time, as the Bengals were trying to keep pace with the Steelers in the AFC Central. Ken Anderson threw for 447 yards as the Bengals set a club record with 553 yards of total offense. O.J. Simpson countered with 197 rushing yards and two touchdowns. It was the past against the future: the Bills were a typical run-oriented 1970's team, while the Bengals were developing the offense that would dominate football in the decades to come. That night, many fans got their first glimpse of what would someday be called the West Coast offense.
23 comments, Last at 23 Oct 2005, 4:38pm by Ralph