The 1990 Cincinnati Bengals were looking for a comeback season. After coming within 34 seconds of winning the Super Bowl in 1988, the Bengals had gone up and down for much of 1989 and missed the playoffs. The up-and-down roller-coaster didn’t stop in 1990, but they did get back into the postseason and won a game when they got there.
Quarterback Boomer Esiason and big-play wideouts Eddie Brown and Tim McGee brought the flash, but the Bengals really thrived on a power running game. James Brooks was consistent and physical, and 1990 was no exception. He ran for over 1,000 yards and made the Pro Bowl. Up front, future Hall of Fame left tackle Anthony Munoz was 1st-team All-NFL in 1990 and tight end Rodney Holman was another Pro Bowler.
The offense ranked 7th in the NFL in points scored and covered for a defense that only ranked 19th. The Bengals D had a couple good individual talents, notably Pro Bowl strong safety David Fulcher. They also hit with the 12th overall pick in the draft, as outside linebacker James Francis stepped in and recorded eight sacks. But there was not enough consistency.
Cincinnati started 5-2 against a soft schedule. Decisive losses at Seattle and the division rival Houston Oilers were disappointing, but not game-changers.
The same couldn’t be said about a Sunday Night trip to lowly Atlanta when the Bengals turned the ball over four times and lost 38-17. Or coming home to face mediocre New Orleans and being pounded on the ground by Craig Heyward and Reuben Mayes in a 21-7 loss. Cincinnati went into the bye week, at 5-4.
Two games in three weeks against the Pittsburgh Steelers loomed and the running of Brooks got Cincinnati back on track. Brooks ran for 105 yards in the rain at home, the Bengals played mistake-free and they won 27-3. Two weeks later on the road they used the ground game and tempo control to grind out a 16-12 win.
But in between, Cincinnati stumbled and lost to mediocre Indianapolis. The Bengals entered the final quarter of the season at 7-5. They still led the Steelers and Oilers by a game in the race for the AFC Central (a division that included Cleveland)
The schedule turned against them, with games against the two-time defending champion San Francisco 49ers and the playoff-bound Los Angeles Raiders in consecutive weeks. The Bengals didn’t play badly, but they lost both games. At 7-7, Cincinnati was now a game back of both Pittsburgh and Houston.
The Oilers came to town on December 23 and immediately jumped out to a 10-0 lead, but head coach Sam Wyche stuck with the running game and Brooks rewarded him. He ran for over 200 yards and the Bengals romped, 40-20.
Cincinnati beat Cleveland 21-14 in the finale and clinched a wild-card berth. Now they had to watch Oilers-Steelers from Houston on Sunday Night. If Pittsburgh, at 9-6, lost, there would be a three-way tie of 9-7 teams. The Bengals had swept the Steelers and split with the Oilers, thus giving them the edge. Houston blew out Pittsburgh 34-14 and Cincinnati was division champs.
From beating Houston to pulling for them to playing them again…it was quite the roller-coaster for two teams that really disliked each other in those days, but the bracket sent the Oilers back into Cincy for the first-round game. Houston was missing Hall of Fame quarterback Warren Moon. Backup Cody Carlson had won the Steeler game, but that proved to be one-game magic. Carlson struggled to a 16/33 for 165 yards showing in this early Sunday afternoon playoff game.
Meanwhile, Cincinnati came out firing on all cylinders. Even with Brooks needing to leave the game early with a dislocated thumb, they still won the rushing yardage battle 187-67. Esiason was excellent and efficient, going 14/20 for 150 yards, no mistakes and he used eight different receivers. It was 20-0 at halftime, reached 34-0 in the third quarter and ended 41-14.
The following Sunday in Los Angeles the season came to an end with a tough 20-10 loss to the Raiders. The game was tied 10-10 in the fourth quarter, but L.A. had a running back tandem of Marcus Allen and Bo Jackson that was too much to overcome. Although unfortunately, Bo suffered a hip injury in the second half that would end his career.
From the Cincinnati standpoint, it was the end of an era. Wyche had come on in 1984 and produced teams that were mostly competitive, even if they only made the playoffs twice. Following a 3-13 season in 1991, Wyche was fired and the franchise fell apart. They didn’t make the playoffs again until 2005. And these 1990 Cincinnati Bengals were the last edition to get out of the first round.