For the younger fan it's hard to imagine a time in which the Cincinnati Bengals were ever relevant. Sure, they've come alive, relatively speaking, under second-year, ginger-maned signal caller Andy Dalton, going to the playoffs each of the last two seasons. They've flamed out spectacularly at the hands of a limping Houston Texans team each time.
Things were different in the 80's. Diff'rent Strokes ruled the small screen, Blondie's Rapture rocked my young world and the boys from the Queen City, were a perennial contender in the weak AFC Central (the precursor to today's AFC North) in the seasons following the Steelers glory years. The Bengals faced off against the Niners in the Super Bowl twice during the decade, their only two trips, first following the 1981 season and again after the '88 season and are the only team to make a game of it against the juggernaut known as the San Francisco 49ers.
Super Bowl XVI is actually somewhat of an afterthought. The 49ers are a storied franchise with many great players, championships and countless great plays. No play is more beloved among 49ers fans than 'The Catch.' It occurred in the NFC Championship Game against the Dallas Cowboys two weeks before. Dwight Clark caught a Joe Montana pass in the back of the end zone with under a minute to play to give the 49ers a 28-27 victory and send them to their first Super Bowl. Bill Walsh had turned the fortunes of the franchise around in just three short years.
The 49ers came into the game as a slight two-point favorite on the strength of having beaten the Bengals earlier in the year. Played in the hotbed of winter wonderland vacationing, Detroit, MI, the game marked the first time a Super Bowl was played in a cold-weather location. The game was the first time two first-time participants played in a Super Bowl since SBIII (a feat matched in SBXX, played between the Bears and Patriots). It is also noteworthy for being the only time two teams with losing records the previous season would face off in a Super Bowl. One of the two teams would be taking the first step in rewriting their franchise's history and both teams were playing with house money at this point, with neither having anticipated much success heading into the season.
The 49ers got off to the worst start imaginable. Amos Lawrence fumbled the opening kickoff which was recovered by the Bengals at the 26-yard line. Bengals' quarterback Ken Anderson, one of the most accurate passers in NFL history during a time when precision offenses were non-existent, took over with great field position for his first drive. At the time of Anderson's retirement, he held the record for completion percentage in a game, in a season, in a single Super Bowl as well as the most consecutive completions in league history. He was also sacked more than any quarterback in league history to that point.
Anderson moved the Bengals down to the 49ers' 5-yard line, and following a sack on second down, made the first of many critical mistakes for the Bengals on the day. Dwight Hicks picked off an Anderson pass and returned it to the 32-yard line. The 49ers took charge of the game from there. Eight plays and a flea-flicker later, Joe Montana had the Niners at the Bengals goal line. He plunged it in via quarterback sneak and staked San Francisco to a 7-0 lead, a lead they would never relinquish.
In the second quarter, the Bengals again crossed midfield into Niners' territory. The threat was extinguished, as before, with a turnover, this time through a fumble by Chris Collinsworth (now more famous for hating the 49ers as a commentator), giving the 49ers the ball at their own 8-yard line. Montana moved the ball 92 yards for a score, a then Super Bowl record for longest drive, capping it off with a 10 yard pass to fullback Earl Cooper, who's celebration would grace the cover of Sports Illustrated.
The 49ers were on the move again, marching the ball into Cincinnati territory just before halftime. The drive would allow Ray Wersching, a man sporting a moustache that only a fireman or a father could love, to kick the first of a Super Bowl record four field goals with 15 seconds left on the clock. Wersching squibbed the ensuing kickoff but it was flubbed by Archie Griffin, the only two-time Heisman Award winner but apparently a liability on the hands team. The 49ers recovered and kicked another field goal. Halftime score: 49ers 20, Bengals 0. The route was on.
Or was it....
The Bengals took the second half kickoff and began their long fight back. Ken Anderson scored the first points of the game for Cincinnati on a 5-yard scramble, sparking some life into a team that had gone into the half a bit shellshocked. The 49ers would have one of the worst quarters offensively in Super Bowl history, managing 4 yards of offense on only 8 plays.
Later in the quarter, the Bengals would embark on what would be the key sequence of the game. Starting at midfield, the Bengals were pushed back to the 37 setting up a third-and-23. Anderson then hit Collinsworth for a 49-yard reception to get the Bengals into the red zone once again. Fullback Pete Johnson converted a short yardage fourth down to set Cincinnati up with a first-and-goal from the 3.
First down: Johnson up the middle for two yards to the 49ers 1-yard line.
Second down: Johnson up the middle for -1 yard.
Third down: A play that will live in 49ers and Super Bowl lore forever. Linebacker Dan Bunz (any name that ends in a Z is great, but BUNZ!!!) tackles running back Charles Alexander short of the goal line in a one-on-one situation in the flat following a swing pass. The play will go down as The Stop.
Fourth down: The Bengals go for it, electing not to kick the field goal. Like the Super Bowl victory itself, a group effort led the way. Johnson ran it up the middle again and was tackled for no gain. 49ers ball. Watch Archie Reese celebrate from his back. That's how they dance in Berlin, I hear.
It's the greatest goal line stand in Super Bowl history. It begins at 2:41 if you want to relive it.
The 49ers barely moved the ball from their own goal line, kicking it away after a three-and-out. The Bengals took advantage of their field position and Anderson hit tight end Dan Ross on a 4-yard score to cut the lead to 20-14 with just over 10 minutes to play. The goal line stand only temporarily prevented the Bengals from scoring, much like Michael Crabtree's fumble at the 1-yard line against the Falcons in this years NFCCG. The good field position following the failed attempt to get out of the shadow of their own goalpost eventually resulted in the desired score, but the time taken in recouping the ground lost would prove to be decisive.
The 49ers finally kickstarted their offense in the fourth quarter. They ran seven consecutive running plays at one point. A 9-play, 50-yard drive set up the third field goal of the game for the Man with the Golden Moustache, giving the 49ers their first points of the second half and a two score lead at 23-14. The Bengals, on the first play after the kickoff, gave the ball right back to the 49ers. Anderson threw his second interception of the game, this one to Eric Wright (no, not that Eric Wright!).
The 49ers, with the ball at the Bengals 22-yard line, ran five consecutive runs setting up Wersching's fourth and final field goal. The two drives, while only netting six points combined to take nearly 8 minutes off of the clock, time that Cincinnati did not have. Anderson managed to sprint the Bengals across the goal line for the final points of the game another short toss to tight end Ross, but it was too little, too late. The onside kickoff was recovered by Dwight Clark and the 49ers ran out the clock for the 26-21 victory.
Joe Montana finished the game with only 157 yards and one touchdown pass but accounted for the 49ers' other touchdown with his early sneak. Eric Wright accounted for two turnovers, forcing a fumble and intercepting Anderson in the fourth quarter. For the Bengals, Ken Anderson had 300 yards passing, two touchdown passes and another one rushing but his game was marred by his two costly picks. Tight end Dan Ross had the greatest Super Bowl game for a pass catcher to that point with 11 catches for 104 yards and a pair of scores.
The Bengals gained 356 yards to the 49ers' 275. It was the first time a losing team outgained the winning team. The difference proved to be the turnovers. Cincinnati's two fumbles and two interceptions all came at costly times and directly led to their demise. Combined with the turnover on downs at the goal line and one can easily see how this game was a hair away from ending in the Bengals favor. They had three trips into the red zone that came up empty handed. Combine that with losing the turnover battle and it's a surefire way to lose a game of any magnitude at any level. It's also surprising the game wasn't a bigger blowout with all of the Bengals' miscues.
The victory was the first of five Super Bowl wins for the 49ers, four of them coming in the glorious 80's. It catapulted the franchise to relevancy and set the stage for one of the greatest, ground-breaking dynasties in sports histories, one I relished as a child and look forward to reliving in this series.
Want to join the Niners Nation discussion? Register for free (no spam!). Make sure and follow us on Twitter @ninersnation and Like us on Facebook to get the full experience in what hopefully leads to Lombardi No. 6 in New Orleans!