Thursday, January 2, 2014

San Diego vs. Cincinnati in the Postseason

After losses by Miami and Baltimore, San Diego outlasted Kansas City's backups in overtime and clinched the AFC's final playoff spot. They will visit the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday in the wild card round. It's the second time we'll have San Diego vs. Cincy in one of the Big Four postseasons, and the first game was also Chargers-Bengals. Until we see a Padres-Reds series in October, this is all we're gonna' get.

The Bengals are looking to avoid becoming the eighth team in NFL history to lose six consecutive playoff games. Here are the top seven streaks:

8 - Chiefs 1993-present (became the first eight-gamer in excruciating fashion)
7 - Lions 1991-present
6 - Giants 1939-50
6 - Browns 1969-85
6 - Vikings 1988-96
6 - Seahawks 1984-2004
6 - Cowboys 1996-2007

One of the longest and the third-longest active playoff victory droughts could end this weekend. The Chiefs haven't won since the 1993 season but visit Indianapolis on Saturday afternoon. The last Lions playoff victory was in the 1991 divisional round and with their collapse in the NFC North, they won't be getting one this year. But the longest dry spell in years belongs to the Bengals, who last won a playoff game on January 6, 1991 against the Houston Oilers (that's how long it's been). The first loss in their streak was the following week against the L.A. Raiders, the game in which Bo Jackson injured his hip and ended his football career.

After losing at Houston in the wild card round in each of the last two postseasons, the Bengals are at home this time. The other Chargers-Bengals playoff game was also in Cincinnati and it sure was chilly that day.

It was -9 degrees for the 1981 AFC Championship Game, and winds were gusting at 35 miles per hour, making it feel even colder. The wind chill was -59 (!) but under the new formula it was more like -35 (much better). The Bengals had the top seed and edged the Bills 28-21 in the divisional round. The Chargers reached the conference title game by outlasting the Dolphins in a 41-38 overtime classic played in sweltering heat and humidity. Their next game in Cincinnati would go down in history as The Freezer Bowl.

The home team's coach for the second-coldest game in NFL history played 14 years earlier in the coldest one. Forrest Gregg was Green Bay's right tackle in the Ice Bowl (#75 in this photo) and piloted the 12-4 Bengals in the Freezer Bowl.

Jim Rohrer wrote this excellent piece recapping the scene at Riverfront Stadium that day. Also included are stories from fans that were there. Frozen beer, ticket takers working in brief shifts, little heaters that didn't work, Bengals lineman in short sleeves and some fans with no shirts on at all.

The Chargers were spooked when Anthony Munoz, Dave Lapham and the rest of the Cincy O-Line came out with short sleeves. The Bengals won the opening coin toss, but chose to put the wind at their backs to start the game.

The Bengals scored first on Jim Breech's 31-yard field goal, and they got the ball right back when James Brooks fumbled the ensuing kickoff (39:50 mark in the video*).

* The video has embed restrictions which might not display properly. As you'll see throughout the rest of this, big plays will have a time stamp with a link. Or you can open up the video and skip along at will.

Starting at the San Diego 12, it took Cincy only two plays to get into the end zone. Ken Anderson's 8-yard touchdown pass to M.L. Harris gave the Bengals a double-digit lead (41:26). The Bolts put together a good drive in response, but it stalled at the 18 and Rolf Benirschke's 37-yard kick had no shot (51:15).

They would get on the board early in the second quarter though. With a first down at the Bengals 33, Dan Fouts was blitzed by Eddie Edwards. At the last moment, he was able to dump it off to Kellen Winslow, who weaved through the defense for a touchdown that trimmed the lead to 10-7 (1:02:43). The Bengals then took over and reached the San Diego 16, but faced 3rd and 8. Anderson hit Isaac Curtis with a pass to the 1 before Pete Johnson bowled in for the TD and a 17-7 advantage (1:09:54).

* This seems to be an error in the Pro-Football-Reference box score. It has the Johnson touchdown coming before Winslow's, with Cincy taking a 17-0 lead before the Chargers scored.

San Diego was down ten, but they were moving the ball well. On their next drive they got into Cincinnati territory again, with a 3rd and 3 at the 31. Fouts went deep looking for 1980 All-Pro wideout Charlie Joiner, but Louis Breeden picked it off at the 5-yard line (1:18:30). Fouts drove to the Bengals 22 on the next possession right before halftime, but he lofted a pass into the end zone that was intercepted by Bobby Kemp (1:29:10).

After the break was yet another drive into the Bengals side of the field, and another turnover by the Chargers. San Diego reached the 38 on the first possession of the second half before Chuck Muncie fumbled (1:55:58).

The NBC broadcast is terrific, with the great Dick Enberg and Merlin Olsen on the call. In the nascent days of sideline reporting, there was a good spot during a change in possession as Byron Day spoke with a doctor at a first aid station. It's good to see that despite the brutal cold, there were few incidents of frostbite and the like (2:11:20).

The Bengals kicked a field goal to increase their lead to 20-7 but the Chargers were driving again as the third quarter came to a close. On 3rd and 10 at the 25, Fouts tripped after receiving the snap and tumbled at the 31 (2:22:40). The end of the quarter sent the Chargers to the other side of the field and gave them the wind. When we come back to start the fourth, we see NBC crew members working to revive a frozen camera, before Benirschke's 50-yard field goal attempt was miserably short (2:24:58).

On the following Bengals possession, Anderson was crushed at the tail end of a scramble by three San Diego defenders (2:29:30). He got up "a little woozy" (concussed?) and backup Jack Thompson had to come into the game. After just two plays, Anderson returned to a rousing ovation. On the same drive, the Bengals converted a 4th and inches at the Chargers 22 when Johnson powered through for an 8-yard run behind the blocking of Hall of Famer Anthony Munoz (2:36:18). Cincinnati put the game away as they punctuated the 14-play march with Anderson's 3-yard pass to Don Bass (2:40:02). With about seven minutes to play it was 27-7 Bengals.

Just before the two minute warning, San Diego's last gasp effort reached the Cincinnati 5. But the Bengals made the fourth-down stand to get the ball back (2:52:06). They ran out the clock to put the final touches on the franchise's first AFC championship (3:03:48). The game was overshadowed a bit by the NFC Championship Game that followed, which featured an 89-yard game-winning drive by some guy named Montana. Quite a day in NFL history.

The 49ers beat the Bengals 26-21 in Super Bowl XVI. Montana won the first of his four Super Bowls, the third of which also came against Cincinnati. It's been almost 25 years since and the Bengals have only won one playoff game. They may equal that in the Queen City on Sunday, or perhaps the Chargers can start a run in the AFC. But one thing is almost guaranteed. It won't be colder than it was in the Freezer Bowl.

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