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 1989and 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.
The 1989 Cincinnati Bengals came into the season looking to finish the job, after losing the previous year’s Super Bowl in the final minute to the San Francisco 49ers. Instead, the Bengals went through and up-and-down year that ended up just short of the playoffs.
Boomer Esiason was coming off his MVP season of 1988 and while he didn’t match that career year, Boomer was still pretty good in 1989. His 28-11 TD/INT ratio was solid by the standards of the time and he earned another Pro Bowl appearance.
The running game was potent—even though celebrated 1988 rookie Ickey Woods only played two games and was on his way out of the league and into a 21st-century future doing Geico commercials, the Bengals still had an outstanding offensive line.
Anthony Munoz was a future Hall of Famer at left tackle and still playing at a Pro Bowl level at age 31. Max Montoya gave Cincy another Pro Bowler at right guard. James Brooks ran behind this offensive line to the tune of a 1,200-yard season and averaged better than five yards a pop.
Esiason had no shortage of targets—tight end Rodney Holman was a Pro Bowler. Tim McGee could stretch the field and averaged better than 18 yards-per-catch. Eddie Brown caught over 50 balls and was a steady threat all year. Cincinnati’s offense was orchestrated by head coach Sam Wyche, a product of the Bill Walsh coaching tree and coordinator Bruce Coslet, a future head coach himself. And they finished fourth in the league in scoring.
So if the offense was still playing at a high level, the defense must have been the cause of the team’s fall, right? Wrong. They may have had only one Pro Bowler—strong safety David Fulcher who picked off eight passes—but they were coordinated by the great Dick LeBeau and finished seventh in scoring defense. Yet in spite of this well-balanced team, the final record did not match the composite sum of the parts.
WINDY CITY WAR
The season kicked off in Chicago’s Soldier Field with a highly anticipated game in the early afternoon TV window. The Bears had reached the playoffs each of the last five years under Mike Ditka, including an NFC Championship Game appearance in 1988. The Week 1 game was seen as a possible Super Bowl preview and it played out just like that.
Defenses were both tough and the Bengals held a 14-10 lead into the fourth quarter. But they couldn’t contain Chicago running back Neal Anderson, who rolled for 146 yards. Eventually, the Bears got a 20-yard touchdown pass from Mike Tomczak, a veteran product of Ohio State, and Cincinnati lost 17-14.
The Bears’ season would follow a similar trajectory to that of the Bengals—high expectations, a nice start, but then faltering down the stretch. Actually, that’s a bit unfair to Cincy, as Chicago completely collapsed in the second half. But in the moment, a close Week 1 loss on the road in the Windy City was no reason for alarm.
Cincinnati immediately asserted itself against divisional competition. The next four weeks included three games against AFC Central rivals—a division that at the time included Pittsburgh, Cleveland and the Houston Oilers (the organizational forerunner of the Tennessee Titans). There was also a game with Kansas City, who had an old rival in charge—Marty Schottenheimer had been chased out of Cleveland following the 1988 season and would rebuild the Chiefs into a playoff contender for this season.
The Bengals won all four games. A 113-yard performance from Brooks keyed a big rushing advantage over Pittsburgh in an easy 41-10 win. The running game dominated again on the Monday Night stage in Cleveland—Brooks and Eric Thomas shared the load, the Bengals outrushed the Browns 187-92 and won the football game 21-14.
A narrow escape followed in Kansas City—after trailing 17-7, the Cincinnati comeback was keyed by a 22-yard fumble return by linebacker Leon White and the Bengals won 21-17. The win streak closed with another big game by Brooks against the Steelers. The running back ran for 127 yards in a 26-16 win.
With a 4-1 record, the Bengals were atop the AFC Central and had picked up where they left off. But they would not win consecutive games the rest of the season.
STUMBLING FOR SEVEN WEEKS
It wasn’t that the schedule over the next seven weeks was particularly brutal. In what proved to be a very balanced AFC, it was no cakewalk—Miami and Indianapolis, who each came to Riverfront Stadium, contended for the playoffs to the final week of the season. So did the Raiders, whom Cincinnati visited in what was then the Silver-n-Black’s home at Los Angeles Coliseum. Road games against Buffalo and Houston were against teams that did make the postseason.
On the flip side…the very balance of the AFC meant that none of those teams finished better than 9-7. But the Bengals lost all five games. Only a couple games against NFC also-rans in Detroit and Tampa Bay saved this stretch of the season from being a complete washout.
Cincinnati was better than a touchdown favorite at home against Miami in mid-October and led 13-3 at the half. They couldn’t stop Dolphin wide receiver Mark Duper though and lost 20-13. The run defense failed them the following week against the Colts, with future Hall of Famer Eric Dickerson going for 152 yards and the Bengals again letting a second half lead slip, this time losing 23-12.
A third straight home game, this one against the Buccaneers, provided some relief. Esiason unleashed, throwing five touchdown passes, while Brooks ran for 131 yards. A 56-23 rout temporarily restored some order. But it didn’t last—against the Raiders, the Cincy defense allowed two huge plays to Bo Jackson—an 92-yard TD run and 84-yard catch and run for a score. With Esiason out for this game, backup Erik Wilhelm couldn’t generate any offense in the 28-7 loss.
There was real urgency as Cincinnati returned to Monday Night Football in a visit to Houston. After a scoreless first quarter, Brooks ripped off a 58-yard touchdown run. The Bengals led 14-7 at half, but giving up a defensive touchdown kept the game closer than it needed to be.
Houston began moving the ball in the second half, but the Cincinnati defense repeatedly forced field goals, so they trailed only 16-14. Esiason then hit Holman on a 73-yard touchdown pass. Oiler quarterback Warren Moon countered with a TD throw of his own. The teams traded field goals. Houston finally got the last word, with a 28-yard field goal that won the game 26-24.
Cincinnati had played well—Brooks ran for 141 yards, Esiason finished 11/19 for 209 and defensive back Eric Thomas sacked Moon twice. But giving away the free touchdown in the first half kept the downward spiral going.
The visit from the lowly Lions lifted everyone’s spirits—Boomer was razor-sharp, going 30/39 for 399 yards, with McGee and his eleven catches for nearly 200 yards doing the bulk of the damage. The result was an easy 42-7 win. But a visit to Buffalo—whom Cincinnati had defeated in the previous year’s AFC Championship Game—brought the team back down to earth.
While Brooks ran well, gaining 105 yards, the Bengal defense did not stop the run. A tag-team of Thurman Thomas and Larry Kinnebrew led the way for Buffalo to win 24-7.
The loss dropped Cincinnati to 6-6, but there was still hope. Cleveland led the AFC Central at 7-4-1 and there was still a head-to-head game ahead. The Bengals would also play the Oilers, who were in one of the two wild-card spots, at 7-5. In fact, no wild-card hopeful had a record better than 7-5. Cincinnati still controlled its own fate.
BIG DIVISION WINS
The games with the Browns and Oilers were on December 3 and December 17 respectively, and the Bengals were ready. With the winds gusting in Cleveland and no one really able to play well, Cincinnati found a way. Esiason threw third-quarter touchdown passes from 38 yards to McGee, nine yards to Holman and the Bengals broke open a close game, winning 21-0.
In a must-win game at home against Houston, to say Cincinnati was ready understates the case—Esiason hit Brown for touchdown passes of 22 yards and 35 yards in the first quarter and the Bengals were quickly on top 21-0. It was 31-zip by half. The Oilers didn’t score until the scoreboard read 52-0 and the final was a shocking 61-7.
Those two wins ensured that Cincinnati would control its playoff fate when they played the final Monday Night game of the season in Minnesota on Christmas Night. But in between the two divisional rivals was a bad letdown loss—the Seattle Seahawks had a mediocre team in 1989. In spite of the Bengals being a (-10) home favorite and getting a Pick-6 from Eric Thomas, they lost 24-17.
The result of the loss was that Cincinnati was out of the division title picture—that would be won by Cleveland in a Saturday night prime-time game in Houston on December 23. And it also meant the Bengals had to get one more win against an opponent that was just as desperate.
In the days before the final game of the season was a flexed game on Sunday Night chosen just prior to the last week, you had to hope for the best with the MNF finale. ABC couldn’t have scripted this one any better—Cincinnati and Minnesota were both playing win-or-go-home games. Pittsburgh and Green Bay were each tuned in, with their own playoff fates in the balance. Both the Bengals and Vikings had opened the season with Super Bowl expectations and now had to play for their lives in a de facto playoff game.
Cincinnati got off to a horrible start. They dug themselves a 19-0 hole by halftime, with the only consolation being that Minnesota had settled four times for field goals, two of them from in close. Esiason threw a 34-yard touchdown pass to Eddie Brown to make it a game. The Vikings drove again and again settled for a short field goal. Esiason answered with a 65-yard strike to Holman and the lead was cut to 22-14 going into the fourth quarter.
Boomer kept coming—though he would throw three interceptions on this night, he also went 31/54 for 367 yards. And he threw his third TD pass from 18 yards out to Craig Taylor. The two-point conversion was still several years into the future though, so Cincinnati could only kick the extra point and make it 22-21.
The decisive play came when Minnesota faced fourth-and-goal from the one late in the game. Viking coach Jerry Burns, tired of settling for field goals, rolled the dice to try and clinch the game. A play-action toss to the tight end, Brent Novoselsky, scored the touchdown that sealed the 29-21 final and sealed the Bengals’ fate.
Sam Wyche’s time in Cincinnati wasn’t done—he and Esiason would get the team back to the playoffs in 1990 and advance to the divisional round. But that was it. Wyche was fired following a collapse in 1991 and Esiason was traded to the Jets two years later. The franchise would not reach the postseason until Marvin Lewis came to town in 2005 and still has not won a playoff game since 1990. It’s fair to say the Cincinnati Bengals have never really recovered from the midseason fade in 1989.
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.
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.
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.