The 1981 Cincinnati Bengals gave the franchise its first real taste of success since the legendary Paul Brown retired. Under Brown, the Bengals won 10-plus games each year from 1973-76 in what was then a 14-game schedule. Two of those years resulted in playoff appearances.
But 1977-79 brought sharp decline, to the 4-12 level. Forrest Gregg was hired as head coach and he nudged the Bengals to 6-10 in 1980. A breakthrough no one saw coming in 1981 gave the city its first Super Bowl appearance.
Quarterback Ken Anderson ran a high-precision offense. His 29/10 TD-INT ratio was brilliant and he threw for over 3,700 yards. Anderson was named Comeback Player of the Year and he also won a more prestigious honor–the MVP award.
A tough offensive line was led by 23-year-old left tackle Anthony Munoz, already a 1st-team All-Pro and destined for a Hall of Fame career. Max Montoya, a future four-time Pro Bowler was also up front and the top runner was bruising fullback Pete Johnson, who had once personified Woody Hayes’ tough running games at Ohio State. Johnson enjoyed a 1,000-yard Pro Bowl season in 1981.
Another Pro Bowler destined for big things in the NFL was at wide receiver. Rookie Cris Collingsworth racked up over 1,000 receiving yards and made the Pro Bowl. Of course Collingsworth’s “big things” would be becoming a prominent TV analyst after his playing days, but he was pretty good on the football field too.
The offense ranked third in the NFL in points scored and carried the team. Defensively, the Bengals ranked 12th and it was a case of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts. Cincinnati had talent–two defensive lineman, Wilson Whitley on the nose and Ross Browner at defensive end had won college football’s Lombardi Award in consecutive seasons (Whitley at Maryland in 1976, Browner with Notre Dame in 1977). But there were no Pro Bowlers on the 1981 Cincinnati Bengals defense.
There was absolutely nothing in the way 1981 began that indicated a special season was in the works. The Bengals hosted the lowly Seattle Seahawks. Anderson threw an early Pick-6, and Cincinnati trailed 21-0 before the first quarter was over. But they didn’t abandon the ground game, running it 45 times and gaining 210 yards. Seattle couldn’t run and control the clock, and Cincy eventually rallied to a 27-21 win.
Another big early deficit came at the New York Jets, another team that would make a breakthrough run to the playoffs. Cincinnati trailed 17-3 in the second quarter. This time it was Anderson who led the rally. He went 22/34 for 252 yards. Archie Griffin caught ten passes out of the backfield, while wide receiver Isaac Curtis had five catches for 108 yards in the eventual 31-30 win.
The Bengals came home to host in-state rival Cleveland, the defending AFC Central champs. For the third straight week, Cincinnati was in a double-digit hole before the first half was, trailing 13-0. For the third straight week they fought back, but this time it wasn’t enough. The Bengals didn’t stop the run, giving up 185 yards and they lost 20-17.
Another home date with a division champion from the previous year was next against Buffalo. There was no early hole this time, as the first quarter went by scoreless. But Cincinnati still made sure to fall behind by eleven, at 21-10 in the fourth quarter.
Anderson, who threw for 328 yards, found Steve Kreider for a pair of 16-yard touchdown passes in the final quarter and the game went to overtime at 24-24 before the Bengals won it with a field goal.
Cincinnati traveled to Houston to play the Oilers, a team that would struggle to 7-9, but was coming off three consecutive playoff appearances and had the great Earl Campbell in the backfield. This time the Bengals played from ahead, leading 10-7 in the second half. Naturally, they lost–Campbell ran for 182 yards, the Oilers got a kickoff return for a touchdown and won the game 17-10.
A strange game followed in Baltimore against the lowly Colts. Baltimore had a defense whose ineptitude would set records, but the team with the future MVP at quarterback only had three points early in the second quarter. The score was an equally strange 5-3. But Anderson unleashed, finishing 21/27 for 257 yards and three touchdowns, as Cincinnati dominated the second half in a 41-19 win.
The Pittsburgh Steelers were just two years removed from the last of their Super Bowl wins in the Steel Curtain era. This was not the same team and that was demonstrated vividly when they came to Cincinnati, as the Bengals led 34-0 in the fourth quarter before giving up a meaningless touchdown. Anderson threw for 346 yards, no interceptions and Johnson rushed for 87 yards.
Cincy was riding along at 5-2, in an AFC Central division where the rival Browns, Oilers and Steelers were all in decline. But just when you thought it was safe to trust the Bengals, they turned in a clunker at lowly New Orleans. Unbelievably, Cincinnati didn’t score until the fourth quarter and the game was all but over.
The offensive sluggishness carried over into the first quarter of a home date with Houston and the Bengals trailed 7-0. The second quarter saw the lid come off the kettle and all the steam of the Cincinnati frustration pour out. They scored 24 points in the quarter, Johnson finished the day with 114 yards and the final was 34-21.
A trip to San Diego looked important at the time, with both teams 6-3 and leading their divisions and it would prove to be arguably the most significant regular season game played in the AFC. Anderson threw first-half touchdown passes to Curtis and Kreider and the Bengals were leading 24-7 in the second quarter.
The Chargers had the most prolific offense in the NFL and weren’t to be dismissed easily though, and they were driving to get back in the game. Cincy defensive back Louis Breeden intercepted a pass in the end zone and 102 yards later had scored to blow the game open. The Bengals won 40-17. When Cincinnati came home to face the struggling Los Angeles Rams, Breeden kept it going with two interceptions and keying a 24-10 win.
Cincinnati’s home game with Denver was a battle between contenders, as the Broncos were fighting with the Chargers at the top of the AFC West. The Bengals played an outstanding football game. Johnson romped 39 yards for a touchdown and then scored on a 2-yard run, as the tone was set early. The big back also caught six passes. Anderson carved up Denver to the tune of 25/37 for 396 yards and the result was an easy 38-21 win.
Cleveland’s fall from grace was complete by the time Cincinnati traveled east across the state on the last weekend in November. The Browns didn’t put up a fight, as Anderson threw a pair of touchdowns to Collingsworth to key an early 21-0 lead and Cincy won 41-21. With three weeks to go, they were 10-3 and the only team with a chance to catch them in the AFC Central was Pittsburgh at 8-5.
A home game with San Francisco, the top team in the NFC was seen at the time as the potential Super Bowl preview that it indeed proved to be. Anderson played his worst game of the year, going 11/20 for 97 yards and throwing two interceptions. Jack Thompson came off the bench and went 10/18 for 114 yards, but six turnovers doomed the Bengals in a 21-3 loss. Fortunately, the Steelers also lost and the two-game lead in the division held.
Cincinnati went to Pittsburgh for the regular season’s penultimate game on December 13 and the Steelers still had a chance to take the Central on a tiebreaker. Looking ahead, the Bengals’ season finale was also on the road, in Atlanta. The Falcons were a 7-9 team, but still the same group that had gone 12-4 in 1980. Playing them on the road wouldn’t be easy, so this was far from a done deal.
But Terry Bradshaw was out for Pittsburgh and Mark Malone wasn’t going to scare anyone at quarterback. The teams played a scoreless first quarter and traded field goals in the second. Anderson broke through with a short touchdown pass to Curtis and then a 22-yard pass to Kreider. The defense corralled the Steeler running game, holding it to 87 yards. And Malone wasn’t going to beat them by himself. The 17-10 win gave the Bengals their first division title since 1973.
The finale in Atlanta still mattered. Cincinnati was 11-4, while Miami was right behind them at 10-4-1 for the #1 seed. Anderson went 18/34 for 299 yards and spread the ball to nine different receivers. Collingsworth did most of the damage, with five catches for 128 yards. Cincy took a 24-7 lead in the second quarter and then battened down the hatches, holding on for a 30-28 win.
Playoff football returned to Riverfront Stadium on the first Sunday of January, as the Bengals rematched with the Bills in the early afternoon kickoff. Cincinnati was a (-6) favorite and they came out blazing, getting touchdown runs from Charles Alexander and Johnson to take a 14-0 lead after the first quarter.
Any thoughts of an easy day soon disappeared. Buffalo’s talented young running back Joe Cribbs, scored from a yard out in the second quarter, and then bolted on a 44-yard touchdown run in the third quarter. The Cincy offense had bogged down and it was 14-14.
Alexander ran in from 20 yards out to make it 21-14, but Buffalo again answered and tied the game 21-21. Anderson led the Bengals back down the field and found Collingsworth on a 16-yard touchdown pass for a 28-21 lead. One more time, Buffalo came back down the field. They appeared to have completed a make-or-break 4th-and-4 pass for a first down. But delay of game gave the Cincy defense a second chance and this time they forced an incompletion. For the first time ever, the Cincinnati Bengals were going to the AFC Championship Game.
The opponent would be San Diego, who had survived Miami in a 41-38 overtime epic. The Chargers had finished the season 10-6. Had they, not the Bengals, won the teams’ regular season meeting on November 8, each would have been 11-5 and San Diego would have owned the tiebreaker. And Cincinnati would not have enjoyed the immense advantage the weather gave them on January 10.
Conditions were frigid, with 24 mph winds blowing. The temperature with the wind chill was minus six. A West Coast team that relied on a downfield passing game was going to have problems with a trip to Ohio in January in any event, and the conditions in this game worked even stronger for Cincinnati.
Anderson’s precise short-passing game work had a better chance of succeeding in the conditions, and he found M.L. Harris with an 8-yard touchdown pass in the first quarter, as the Bengals built a 10-0 lead. The Chargers answered with a second quarter touchdown, but Cincinnati promptly drove back down, with Johnson finishing off the drive and the game went to halftime at 17-7.
San Diego kept threatening, but the Cincinnati defense turned them back. Three times, the Bengals forced a turnover that stopped a drive, and they ultimately won the turnover battle 4-1. Anderson was an efficient 14/22 for 161 yards and no interceptions, while Fouts struggled to 15/28 for 185 yards and two picks. Cincinnati got a field goal in the third quarter and Anderson put it away with a short touchdown pass in the fourth quarter. The game ended 27-7.
The good people of Cincinnati didn’t have far to travel if they wanted to go to the Super Bowl. The game was held at the Pontiac Silverdome, home of the Detroit Lions. The rematch with San Francisco had come to fruition, and both the Bengals and 49ers were products of the emerging age of parity, having turned themselves around from 6-10 finishes in 1980.
Cincinnati had turnover problems that negated early drives, and Anderson was also sacked five times. They dug themselves a 20-0 hole, but were on the verge of getting back in the game in the third quarter. It was 20-7 and Cincy had first-and-goal from the one. Johnson bashed into the line and was stopped. The big bruiser bashed again and was stopped. On third down, Anderson threw a pass down the line of scrimmage that was complete, but a perfect tackle prevented the score.
Now it was fourth down and everyone knew big Pete Johnson was getting the football. He bashed one more time…and was stopped. Even though Cincinnati still cut the lead to 20-14 later on, this was too many missed opportunities. San Francisco kicked two field goals, Cincy drove for a touchdown against the prevent defense, but failed to cover the last onside kick. A 26-21 loss ended the championship dream.
The Bengals came back strong a year later, going 7-2 in the strike-shortened 1982 season, but an early playoff loss ended that hope. The Cincinnati fans would wait until 1988 to get back to the Super Bowl, a bid that would end, yet again, with a heartbreaking loss to San Francisco. The search for the franchise’s first championship continues to this day.