The 1986 Cincinnati Bengals didn’t make the playoffs. But they came close for the first time in several years and set the stage for what would ultimately be a Super Bowl team.
Cincinnati had been mired in mediocrity since the playoff years of 1981-82, where they reached the Super Bowl in ’81. Veteran quarterback Ken Anderson had to be moved aside for up-and-coming Boomer Esiason. The young left-handed quarterback and future CBS studio analyst had a breakout season.
Esiason completed 58 percent of his passes and threw 24 touchdown passes. His 17 interceptions weren’t ideal, but in a different era he was about the middle of the league in terms of INTs as a percentage of passes thrown. And his ability to stretch the field more than made up for anything else. At 8.4 yards-per-attempt, Esiason was the best big-play quarterback in the NFL In 1986 and he threw for nearly 4,000 yards.
It was enough to put him in the Pro Bowl, and he was joined by running back James Brooks, who ran for over 1,000 yards, averaged five yards a pop and also caught 54 passes. Esiason’s other targets included Eddie Brown, 58 catches for 964 yards. And Esiason connected most frequently with another future TV personality—Cris Collingsworth, who caught 62 passes and went over 1,000 yards.
Tight end Rodney Holman rounded out the pass-catching brigade and Esiason was protected by a line that had two Pro Bowlers. Anthony Munoz was the best left tackle in football and ended up in the Hall of Fame. Max Montoya also had a Pro Bowl season at right guard. It added up to an offense that was third-best in the NFL in points scored.
The defense was more problematic, even with future Steelers legend Dick LeBeau calling the shots as the coordinator. Cincinnati got some big plays from outside linebacker Emmanuel King, who finished with nine sacks. A pair of rookie defensive backs, corner Lewis Billups and strong safety David Fulcher each had an impact. Veteran defensive ends, Ross Browner and Eddie Edwards each had a modest impact with 6 ½ sacks apiece.
But there was no Pro Bowl talent and the defense ranked 23rd in the league in points allowed.
Cincinnati opened the season with a late afternoon kick in Kansas City. It was an odd game to put in the late afternoon window, with neither team having shown any signs of life. But maybe NBC, who televised the AFC in this era, knew something. This would prove to be arguably the most consequential game of the regular season.
At the time it just looked like another dreary performance by the Bengals. Even though King led a good pass rush with three sacks, Cincinnati was whipped up front, lost the rushing battle 180-60 and the football game 24-14.
Esiason squared off with another young gun, Buffalo’s Jim Kelly, in the home opener the following week. Esiason connected with Brown on first-half touchdown passes of 35 & 17 yards. The Bengals led 21-9 before Kelly came back and put the Bills ahead 26-21. The Cincy defense forced a safety and Esiason made the final strikes, tying the game and ultimately pulling out a 36-33 overtime win.
Thursday Night games were relatively rare, so the Bengals’ visit across the state to defending AFC Central champ Cleveland had a special aura to it. And Cincinnati took advantage of their moment on center stage. They pounded the ball on the ground, with fullback Larry Kinnebrew going for two short touchdown runs and winning the rushing battle 257-83. The game was tied 13-13, thanks to a defensive touchdown by the Browns, but the Bengal control of the trenches was too much and they pulled away to a 30-13 win.
A long week was followed by a disastrous home game with Chicago. Esiason threw four interceptions and there was no running game to speak of in a 44-7 loss. But this was a Bears’ team fresh off a dominating run to the Super Bowl title in 1985 and a 14-2 season this year. The blowout didn’t raise too many eyebrows.
And Cincinnati got their running game back in gear when they went on the road to play the Packers. Green Bay was a terrible team in 1986 and this game was at old Milwaukee County Stadium, where the Pack used to play three times a year. Brooks ran for a pair of second-quarter touchdowns, one from 27 yards out and the Bengals approached nearly 200 yards on the ground. They jumped out to a 27-7 lead and hung on to win 34-28.
The Pittsburgh Steelers were another proud franchise on some ho-hum times in 1986, but they came to Cincinnati and gave the Bengals a tough game on a Monday Night. Esiason was only 15/30 passing, the running game wasn’t quite as dominant and the Bengals trailed 19-14 in the fourth quarter. But Esiason made the most of his completions, getting 231 yards and running back Jeff Hayes broke a 61-yard touchdown run. Cincy pulled it out, 24-22.
A home game with the Houston Oilers (today’s Tennessee Titans) was a battle between Cincinnati’s running game and the Houston passing game led by Warren Moon. Cincinnati ran for 224 yards, took a 24-21 lead in the fourth quarter and was driving inside the ten-yard line ready to put the game away. Then a fumble was taken 92 yards the other way and in a stunning turnabout, the Bengals were down 28-24. They had one more drive left in them and Brooks, who rushed for 133 yards, bolted in from 21 yards out to get the win.
The three-game winning streak had Cincinnati rolling at 5-2, but a road trip to Pittsburgh tripped them up. The running game numbers got reversed, as it was the Steelers rolling up 238 yards on the ground and the final was 30-9. But things returned to normal the following week in Detroit, as Brooks’ 120 yards led a potent ground attack and a 24-17 win.
Houston was a division rival at this time—the old AFC Central was the Bengals, Browns, Steelers and Oilers—so a return trip to the Astrodome was up next. After a horrible start saw Cincinnati in a 26-0 hole, Esiason led a furious rally. He threw three consecutive touchdown passes, including one to Munoz and the Bengals made a game of it. But the poor start was too much to overcome in a 32-28 loss.
Taken individually, the losses at Pittsburgh and Houston weren’t big deals, as both were at least competitive division rivals. But “competitive” doesn’t mean the Steelers and Oilers weren’t still mediocre in the big picture and going 0-2 in those trips would haunt the Bengals down the stretch as they went scraping for wins.
Home games with winning teams in Seattle and Minnesota were next. The Bengals ripped the Seahawks 34-7, getting defensive touchdowns from both Edwards and Billups to break the game open in the second half. The Bengals then jumped out to a fast 21-10 first quarter lead on the Vikings. Esiason would go 17/25 for 252 yards. The game settled down and the defense salted it away, getting four sacks and holding on to the 24-20 win.
Cincinnati was sitting on an 8-4 record and tied for first with Cleveland. They were also tied with the Los Angeles Raiders for the final wild-card spot if it came to that. There was plenty of reason to be excited when the Bengals visited Denver on the Sunday after Thanksgiving.
The Broncos would reach the Super Bowl this season, so it would take a great effort to beat them. The Bengals instead played their sloppiest game of the season. They fumbled six times, lost it three times and dug a 34-14 hole. Esiason threw a couple late TD passes to Collingsworth to make the score close, but it wasn’t enough. They slipped a game back of the Browns and had another tough road trip, this one to playoff-bound New England.
With the season likely hanging in the balance, the Bengal running game had its best game in a year of excellent games. They pummeled the Patriots for 300 yards on the ground. Brooks had 163 of those yards and it included a 56-yard touchdown bolt. Stanley Wilson had a 58-yard touchdown run that broke a 17-7 game open in the third quarter. Cincinnati won 31-7, kept on Cleveland’s heels and moved one game ahead of what was a three-team trio of the Raiders, Chiefs and Seahawks (in the AFC prior to 2002) chasing them for the last wild-card spot.
A home date with Cleveland gave Cincy a chance to take control of the AFC Central. But Esiason was awful, 14/31 for 151 yards and two interceptions. Brooks was shut down, held to 43 yards rushing. The Browns were coming on strong and they clinched the division with a 34-3 win.
The news got worse—the Chiefs and Seahawks had both won and Kansas City now held the tiebreaker advantage among the 9-6 teams. The Bengals were next in line, but also had to play the playoff-bound New York Jets in the finale.
Cincinnati took care of their business. The Jets were fading fast, having come from 10-1 to 10-5 and would barely hang on to a wild-card berth. The Bengals spotted them a 7-0 lead on the opening kickoff being returned for a touchdown and trailed 21-17 at the half.
Then Esiason went to work. He found Holman on a 34-yard TD pass. A 42-yard touchdown strike to Collingsworth followed. Collingsworth had another touchdown catch, and Munoz again to get in on the fun with a two-yard TD reception. The final was 52-21.
Cincinnati had done its part, but they didn’t get help. At the same time this was going on, Kansas City was scoring three special-teams touchdowns in Pittsburgh to escape the Steelers 24-19. That Week 1 visit to the Chiefs, oddly set up in the late afternoon window, had proven to be decisive in settling the last playoff berth. The Bengals were also hurt by those losses in Houston and Pittsburgh—it was conference record that enabled the Jets to still take the other wild-card spot in a logjam of four 10-6 teams.
Even so, Cincinnati was clearly coming with Esiason and head coach Sam Wyche. 1987 would be a strange year, split apart by a three-week strike early on and the Bengals briefly lost their momentum. But they got it back in 1988, in time for Esiason to win an MVP award and lead the team back to the Super Bowl.