There haven’t been too many high points in the history of the Cincinnati Bengals—in fact, there’s never been the ultimate high point of winning the Super Bowl. But the late 1980s were pretty good and saw some postseason victories. The 1988 Cincinnati Bengals produced the league MVP, reached the Super Bowl and came oh-so-close to winning it.
Boomer Esiason was a strong-armed lefty at age 27, before his current career as a studio analyst for CBS. In 1988, Esiason threw for 3,572 yards, 28 touchdown passes and keyed the top-scoring offense in the NFL, winning the MVP award.
But the running game was essential to Cincinnati’s success in ’88 and they had a good two-pronged attack with veteran James Brooks and rookie Ickey Woods. Woods ran for over 1,000 yards and was Pro Bowler. Woods was the short-yardage option at fullback and scored 15 touchdowns. His “Ickey Shuffle” after scoring was a hot item in 1988 and has a seen a modern resurgence with his role in Geico commercials.
Brooks and Woods had a good offensive line in front of them. Anthony Munoz, one of the great left tackles of all time, was still going strong at age 32. Max Montoya was a Pro Bowler at right guard, and the Bengals consistently ran the football and protected Esiason.
Defensively, Cincinnati was good enough to get by. They had a quality defensive tackle in 1st-team All-Pro Tim Krumrie, and a pair of Pro Bowlers in the secondary, corner Eric Thomas and strong safety David Fulcher. It was enough to rank 16th in what was then a 28-team NFL in points allowed.
Cincinnati opened the season at home against an average Phoenix Cardinals team. They trailed 14-7 in the third quarter before rallying to win 21-14. Esiason threw three touchdown passes to three different receivers, but there was really no sign of a special season. The Bengals, after going 10-6 in 1986, had regressed to 4-11 the previous season and struggling to beat a mediocre team in the first game of 1988 didn’t put anyone on Super Bowl alert.
Esiason delivered a big performance the following week in Philadelphia, where Buddy Ryan’s Eagles would start to emerge as a playoff team in the NFC. Esiason threw for 363 yards and four touchdowns, twice hitting Tim McGee, as the Bengals survived a back-and-forth battle and won 28-23. They moved their record to 3-0 the following week, winning a sloppy 17-12 game on the road against what was then a bad Pittsburgh Steelers team.
The Cleveland Browns had reached the AFC Championship Game each of the two previous seasons with Marty Schottenheimer coaching the team and Bernie Kosar at quarterback. Kosar was out for this game and replaced by Mike Pagel. The Bengals still had a tough battle on their hands at home, but they showcased a well-balanced rushing attack. Brooks, Woods and Stanley Wilson shared the load for a combined 213 rush yards and a 24-17 win.
The winning continued against two average teams, the Los Angeles Raiders and New York Jets. Fulcher intercepted two passes against the Raiders, Esiason went 21/28 for 332 yards, three touchdowns and zero interceptions, and Cincy won 45-21. Against the Jets, Woods powered his way for 139 yards and two late touchdowns as the Bengals broke open a close game and won 36-19.
Cincinnati was now riding at 6-0 before the good times came to an end at the New England Patriots. Esiason was intercepted five times, the Bengals dug a 20-0 hole and eventually lost 27-21. It was time to refocus for a critical two-game schedule stretch.
In the old AFC Central, the Browns and the Houston Oilers (the current Tennessee Titans) were the primary rivals—the Steelers were the fourth team and on their way to a 5-11 season. Cincinnati would host Houston and then go to Cleveland over the next two weeks.
The game with the Oilers was sloppy, each team committing four turnovers. But Cincinnati got a consistent running game, this time Brooks as the hero with 102 yards. It was the key to a 44-21 win. Kosar was back on the field for the game with the Browns, but the big problem in that game was that the Bengals did not run the football well. They lost 23-16.
Cincinnati was still in first place, at 7-2, but both Houston and Cleveland were in hot pursuit at 6-3 each. The Bengals took advantage of a game with the Steelers and unleashed all their offensive weapons. Esiason threw for 318 yards, 216 of them to Pro Bowl receiver Eddie Brown. Brooks ran for three touchdowns and the final was 42-7.
But one week later, the Bengals went to an awful Kansas City Chiefs team and blew a big lead. After a kickoff return for a touchdown by Stanford Jennings giving Cincy a 28-6 lead, they ended up losing 31-28. The plot line—big return by Jennings followed by a blown lead-was a haunting foreshadowing of things to come.
Another road game with a bad team awaited, this time against the Dallas Cowboys in what would prove to be Tom Landry’s final season. Esiason played well, 16/29 for 205 yards and three touchdowns, making him the difference in a game where both Brooks and Dallas’ Herschel Walker ran the ball well. The final was 28-16.
Cincinnati was 8-3 and still a game up on Houston. Both teams got a break when Cleveland had hiccup and was now fighting for a wild-card at 6-5. The Bengals hosted the Buffalo Bills, who had lost just one game and appeared to be in position for the #1 seed in the AFC. Cincinnati kept that prize in play with a 35-21 win. The running game was the key—the Bengals outrushed the Bills 232-110, with both Brooks and Woods having big games.
Woods muscled his way for 141 yards in a 27-10 home win over the lowly San Diego Chargers. It gave Cincinnati a chance to clinch the division when they went to Houston for the penultimate game of the season. But the Bengals played their worst game of the season, losing 41-6 to Warren Moon and the high-powered Oilers offense.
A lot was on the line when Cincinnati hosted the Washington Redskins on a Saturday afternoon to close the regular season. The Bengals were in the playoffs, but they still needed one more win to clinch the division. They also had an outside chance at the #1 seed—Buffalo had inexplicably lost at Tampa Bay recently and another upset loss at Indianapolis could cost the Bills the top line in the AFC bracket.
The Redskins were the defending Super Bowl champs, but only 7-8 this season. Cincinnati didn’t play its best game, and it looked like they would lose when Washington lined up for a short field goal at the end of a 17-17 game. The kick hit the upright and Cincinnati won in overtime. They were division champs, and when Buffalo was upset at Indy, the Bengals were improbably the #1 seed.
On New Year’s Eve in Cincinnati, the Bengals hosted the Seattle Seahawks to begin divisional round weekend. The Seahawks were a mediocre 9-7 division champion and the difference between the two teams showed. Woods ran for 126 yards and Brooks tacked on 72 more. The defense held Seattle to 18 rush yards. Cincinnati led 21-0, before giving up a couple fourth quarter touchdowns. But the Seahawks missed an extra point and in the days prior to the two-point conversion, that was enough to clinch the 21-13 win.
The Bengals and Bills saddled up to play the AFC Championship Game a week later. Neither Esiason nor counterpart Jim Kelly played very well—Esiason threw two interceptions and Kelly threw three. Once again, the difference was on the ground. Woods pounded for 102 yards and Buffalo could only muster 45 as a team. Woods plunged in for the game’s first TD and with Cincy leading 14-10, he plunged in for the game’s last score. Cincinnati’s 21-10 win sent them to the Super Bowl.
Seven years earlier Cincinnati had made its first Super Bowl against the San Francisco 49ers and Joe Montana. The 49ers were again the opponent this time. It was a defensive struggle for most of three quarters, but when Jennings broke a 98-yard kickoff return to give Cincy a 13-6 lead, it looked like the Lombardi Trophy might finally come to western Ohio.
When Bengal kicker Jim Breech booted a field goal to give Cincinnati a 16-13 lead with 3:10 to go and the 49ers had to start the final drive on their own 8-yard line, it looked even better for the Bengals. Then again, as long as Montana was on the field, it never looked good for the opponents and that proved to be the case here. San Francisco drove 92 yards and Montana threw a touchdown pass with 34 seconds left to break Bengal hearts again.
The 1988 Cincinnati Bengals were a young team, with Brooks, Munoz and Montoya the only players age 30 or older. In that regard, it’s disappointing that they never again made a big run. They won the AFC Central and a first-round playoff game in 1990, but have never again even reached the AFC Championship Game, much less tasted the Super Bowl.