Looking back at the Cincinnati Bengals first Super Bowl appearance.
The NFL post-season is in full swing and before we know it Super Bowl LVI will be upon us. Normally at this time of year we think it might be fun to do a series on the decade anniversaries of the big game. Like last year when we did retrospectives on decade anniversaries. Covering Super Bowl XLV, Super Bowl XXXV, Super Bowl XXV, Super Bowl XV, and Super Bowl V.
This year however is actually the 40th anniversary of the Cincinnati Bengals making their first Super Bowl appearance. So rather than do a retrospective that focuses on one team at the dance’s history more than other, I thought it might be fun to look back at the first time both teams made the show. We started with the LA Rams, but now we turn to the AFC Champion Bengals.
They have made two prior trips to the Super Bowl (XVI & XXIV), both ending in defeat at the hands of the San Francisco 49ers.
Their first trip to the show came following the 1981 regular season. On January the 24th 1982, the Bengals lost out 26-21 to the 49ers in front of 81,270 fans at the Pontiac Silverdome in Michigan.
The Bengals previous playoff experiences
This was the Bengals first Super Bowl appearance. Not to mention first title game appearance too. They had been founded as an AFL expansion team in 1968. Prior to the playoffs leading to this game they had made only three playoff appearances. All without a win to show for their efforts.
In 1970 they had gone 8-6 to win the AFC Central Division. That was their first season in a fully merged NFL, and only their third year as a franchise. Made all the more impressive by the Bengals turning around a six game losing streak. And 1-6 record, to win out and take the Division. In the playoffs they were ousted 17-0 by a 12-2 Baltimore Colts team. Those Colts would go on to win the Super Bowl.
In 1974 they took their second Central Division title. This time off a more impresive 10-4 record. Unfortunately for them they were matched up with the defending champion 12-2 Miami Dolphins. The Dolphins outgained Cincinnati in total yards, 400–194. Not to mention 27–11 on First Downs. Whilst also scoring on three of their first four possessions and shutting out the Bengals in the second half. The Dolphins won 34-16 and went on to defend their title winning Super Bowl VIII.
Prior to the Bengals first playoff win and Super Bowl appearance, they had last appeared following the 1975 season. Having finished 2nd in the Central the Bengals third playoff appearance followed an 11-3 season. They lost a Divisional Playoff 31-28 away at the 12-2 Oakland Raiders. The Bengals were down 24-7 in this one in the third before mounting a comeback that just fell short.
The run up to the game
The 1981 season was the NFL’s 62nd year. Some rule changes were instigated for the season. The penalty for illegal use of hands, arms, or body (including holding) was reduced from 15 yards to 10 yards. Whilst it became illegal for any player to put adhesive or slippery substances such as the product “stickum” on his body, equipment or uniform. Often referred to as the ‘Lester Hayes’ or ‘Fred Biletnikoff’ Rule.
The 49ers would oppose the Bengals having gone 39-79 over eight seasons since their last playoff appearance. That included having gone 10-38 from 1978-1980 before their breakout 13-3 performance in 1981.
The Bengals first Super Bowl appearance followed the Bengals first home playoff games and first playoff wins. They had not been to the playoffs since 1975. In between they had amassed a 32-44 record. That included a 14-34 run from 1978-1980. A 12-4 record in 1981 had carried them into the playoffs.
Playoffs – the Bengals first wins
Both teams were making their first Super Bowl appearance. And both were doing it after making remarkable turnarounds. Both had gone 6-10 the year before. And both were coming off three miserable years. Yet both had also won the right to be the number one seed in their conference. Each would play both of their pre Super Bowl playoff games at home.
Cincinnati overcame a 10-6 Buffalo Bills team to record their first playoff win by a score of 28-21. This was the first postseason meeting between the Bills and Bengals. QB ken Anderson led the way. Guiding an efficient Offence and finishing the game 14 of 21 for 192 yards and a touchdown.
In the AFC Championship game the Bengals first AFC title came. Thanks to a 27-7 win against a 10-6 San Diego Chargers team. The previous week the Chargers had beaten the Dolphins 41-38 in 79 degree Miami humidity. In Cincinnati they faced minus 9 degree temparatures (or effectively minus 59 with wind chill taken into account). The game would become known as the ‘Freezer Bowl‘. The Bengals were up 17-7 at the half and shut out San Diego in the second.
The 49ers made their way to the game by defeating the New York Giants 38-24. Then won a classic over the Dallas Cowboys 28-27. That game featured ‘The Catch‘. A play that many NFL observers refer to as the changing of the NFL guard from one Dynasty to another.
The Game Itself: Super Bowl XVI
A tale of two halves
The Bengals were going into this one as slight favourites. But nobody thought one team would dominate the other. And many thought it could go either way.
Following Diana Ross singing the national anthem, and former Lions great QB performing the coin toss Super Bowl XVI got underway.
The First Half
The crowd saw a real tale of two halves as the 49ers dominated the first, and the Bengals the second. Going into this game the two teams had the fewest turnovers in the NFL. Cincinnati ranked number one on that front. And the 49ers number two. So, of course, the game started with both teams turning the ball over!
The Bengals first turnover really hurt though. They had forced a fumble on the 49ers 26 on the opening kickoff return. Then moved inside the 10 yard line. After Ken Anderson was sacked, the Bengals came up empty from a great position. Free Safety Dwight Hicks picked the ball off at the 5 and ran it back to the 27 yard line.
Joe Montana started with a hot hand. He completed his first 4 passes to 4 different receivers. Setting up an 11 play 68 yard drive. A drive capped by Montana taking a 1 yard TD plunge. In response the Bengals managed a couple of first downs before punting.
In the second the Niners forced another turnover. This time as Cris Collinsworth fumbled an Anderson pass at the San Francisco 8 yard line. Twice now the Bengals had come away with nothing in the Red Zone. There is an argument that today the play would have been reviewed and possibly ruled an incompletion. Once again however San Francisco turned a turnover into points. They went 92 yards, (the longest drive in Super Bowl history at this point), to another TD. This time Montana hit Earl Coooper from 11 yards out.
Kicker Ray Wersching added two Field Goals before the half for San Francisco to go in 20-0 to the good. That second kick came after the Niners got a chance to score with just 15 seconds to go. Wersching sent down a squib kick which the Bengals fumbled setting him up for a 26 yarder before the half.
San Francisco had outgained Cincinnati by 208 yards to 99 on their way to the largest halftime lead in Super Bowl history.
The Second Half – Bengals fight back but fall short
Finally, the Bengals got going. After receiving the opening kickoff of the second half, the Bengals drove 83 yards in 9 plays. Ken Anderson emulated Montana by rushing for the Bengals first points (from 5 yards out). With the score 20-7 the Cincinnati D stepped up. In the third period they held the 49ers to only 8 plays and 4 offensive yards for the entire quarter.
The defining series
Down 20-7 but with the D dominating, Cincinnati drove towards the 49ers goalline. In fact from the San Francisco 14 they ran 8 plays and came up empty. Bengals Head Coach Forrest Gregg declined the kicks and went for a TD. But the Niners made a goalline stand.
On 4th and 1 the Bengals tried to run it in. But CB Ronnie Lott and LB’s Jack “Hacksaw” Reynolds and David Bunz held them up at the half yard line. It could have been 20-10, or even 20-14. Instead it was still 20-7 to San Francisco.
The Final Stanza
The Bengals held San Francisco and this time they did convert it into a touchdown. Eight plays would end with Anderson hitting Ken Ross for the TD. Now there was one score between them.
That left 10:06 in the game. The 49ers came back with a 50-yard, 9-play drive that took 4:41 off the clock. Ray Wersching capped it with his third Field Goal and the Niners led 23-14.
A turnover again dealt a huge blow to the Bengals. CB Eric Wright intercepted a pass at the 47 and returned it to the 25. He dangerously tried to lateral it but a Niners player saved the day by falling on his errant throw. Already in field goal range, the Niners called six straight running plays to eat up the clock. Wersching booted another Field Goal for a 26-14 lead with less than 2 minutes left in the game.
Anderson completed six consecutive passes on the Bengals’ ensuing drive, the last one a 3-yard touchdown pass to Ross to make the score 26–21. However, none of the receivers on Anderson’s completions were able to get out of bounds to stop the clock.
An onside kick failed and the Bengals first Super Bowl came up just short. They would rue their missed opportunities from this one.
Anthony Muñoz remains the only Bengals player from this team to be in the Hall of Fame.
What came next
The Bengals would not return to the big stage the following year. Instead they would finish a strike shortened season 7-2. Before losing 44-17 to a 6-3 New York Jets team. The five following seasons would see Cincinnati on the outside looking in when it came to the playoffs following a combined 36-43 run.
They would make the Super Bowl once more following a 12-4 1988 season. Super Bowl XXIII would see them face off once more with the 49ers. By now the Niners were in their third Super Bowl and on their way to four titles in the 1980’s.
A playoff win would come in 1990. But that Bengals team was checked by the Raiders. After that they would not make the playoffs again until 2005. Again they lost out – this time to the Steelers.
In fact from 2009-2015 they would go 66-45-1. But six playoffs would deliver zero wins. From 2016-2020 they were an anaemic 25-53-2. Before turning it all around this previous season. We have looked back at the Benglas first Super Bowl appearance. Now against an NFC West opponent not named San Francisco, can the Bengals first Super Bowl win finally be achieved?
Banner Image: QB Ken Anderson led Cincinnati to the Bengals first Super Bowl appearance. Image from bengals.com