The Super Bowl was getting a bad reputation. Most of the games in its 23-year history had failed to live up to even reasonable expectations and the last five had been complete blowouts. The San Francisco 49ers and Cincinnati Bengals rematched their 1981 battle when they met in Miami and they finally gave the fans a game to remember, a terrific conclusion to the 1988 NFL playoffs.
San Francisco was peaking. The 49ers had played well down the stretch of the regular season and overtook the Los Angeles Rams to claim the NFC West and the #2 seed.
The 49ers still weren’t the main story in the divisional round though. That honor belonged to a juicy matchup between the NFC’s top seed, the Chicago Bears, and the Philadelphia Eagles. After the Bears won the Super Bowl following the 1985 season, their colorful defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan had taken the Eagles’ coaching job.
Now in his third year in Philly, Ryan’s Eagles surged down the stretch, beating the Rams and the first-place New York Giants in overtime. When New York lost again on the final week of the regular season it was enough for Philadelphia to steal the NFC East title and get into the playoffs as the #3 seed.
Prior to 1990, the #3 seed was automatically placed in the divisional round, and with just five teams per conference qualifying, there was a rule in place that said teams from the same division could not meet prior to the conference championship game.
The result was when the Minnesota Vikings beat the Rams in the NFC wild-card game, it meant the top-seeded Bears could not play them. Instead, Chicago would play Philadelphia and Ryan would come back to Chicago.
Ryan’s return to the Windy City for a playoff game would have been newsworthy in of itself, but then the weather kicked in. Fog settled over Chicago, so dense that not even viewers on TV could see the game. . Somehow, the teams managed to move the ball enough to score some points. Chicago won 20-12, in a game still remembered as “The Fog Game.”
While Ryan, the Bears and the weather were providing the intrigue, the 49ers just played dominating football. They completely destroyed the Vikings at home and then did the same to the Bears on the road, winning their two playoff games by a combined 62-12.
It had not been a dominating year for Joe Montana at quarterback, but wide receiver Jerry Rice was a Pro Bowler and defensive end Charles Haley was becoming a dominating presence, with 11.5 sacks. And even if Montana wasn’t dominating, was there anyone else you would rather have at playoff time? The 1988 NFL playoffs again showed the answer to that question was no.
A quarterback who was having a dominating year was Boomer Esiason in Cincinnati. The lefthander and future CBS studio commentator won the MVP award and led the NFL’s best offense. The Bengals didn’t overwhelm anyone in the playoffs, but they got the job done. A 21-13 win over a mediocre Seattle Seahawks team was followed by a 21-10 win over the two-seed Buffalo Bills to punch their ticket to the Super Bowl.
If the Super Bowl was getting a bad reputation for blowouts, what happened leading up to the Cincinnati-San Francisco game was even more worrisome, for real-life reasons. The Overtown section of Miami, near where the game would be played, was overrun by riots following a racial incident and there were rumors the game might be moved to Tampa Bay. That didn’t happen, but provided an ominous shadow over the Super Bowl.
The quality of a football game can’t solve the problem of the riots, but it could at least do something about this event’s blowout reputation. Cincinnati led 13-6 after three quarters. But Montana threw one touchdown pass early in the final quarter, and after a Bengals field goal gave them the lead, Montana got it back with 3:10 to go and 92 yards to cover.
He methodically marched the 49ers down the field and reached the Cincinnati 14-yard line with 34 seconds left. Even though Rice had caught 11 passes for 215 yards—good for game MVP honors, it was John Taylor, who had to yet catch a pass in this game, who got open over the middle. Montana hit him with a 16-yard scoring pass that gave San Francisco a 20-16 win.
The 1988 NFL playoffs ended with the 49ers third championship of the 1980s, and head coach Bill Walsh announced after the game that he was retiring on top.
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