As is the case this year, the 1988 Bengals were surprise participants in the penultimate week of the season.
Back then, Dayton Daily News columnist Gary Nuhn admitted having underestimated the Orange and Black, and he expressed some of the same preseason questions for that edition as this one: “play-calling was as pitiful as a stray dog, use of the clock was what you’d expect of a CYO team from Zambia” and their confidence level was “lower than the water table in the Gobi.”
In Nuhn’s view, quarterback Boomer Esiason and rookie fullback Ickey Woods became stars out of nowhere, receiver Eddie Brown’s hands became inexplicably reliable, and star nose tackle Tim Krumrie finally got some quality help on the defensive line while the linebackers also improved tremendously.
Most surprising, though, was the ascent of coach Sam Wyche: “How were we to know old Wicky Wacky — sorry, Sam — how were we to know Sam Bam Wyche could gain control of a club he’d so badly managed?”
A year earlier, there had been some question if Wyche (with a 29-34 record) would be retained by general manager Paul Brown, but Esiason and receiver Cris Collinsworth both expressed thanks he did.
“I know it sounds hard to believe, but the whole situation had a sort of calming influence,” Collinsworth said of going into the season knowing Wyche’s job was on the line. “There was a lot of pressure, but we all knew exactly where we stood. And that was with our backs right against the wall. If we didn’t win this year, Sam would be gone and a lot of the assistant coaches and players would have been gone, too.”
In contrast to this year when Joe Burrow and the passing game have carried the team down the stretch, the ‘88 Bengals went on a run late in the season because they started leaning more heavily on their running game.
Would that continue, or would Wyche let Esiason, Brown and Collinsworth (with tight end Rodney Holman as well) air it out against a ferocious Buffalo defense?
The other big question leading into the game involved Cincinnati’s no-huddle offense one week after Seattle resorted to faking injuries to try to slow the Bengals down.
“I assured Sam we wouldn’t fake injuries was long as you don’t quick snap, as long as we have the opportunity to get people on the field,” Bills coach Marv Levy said. “He said he couldn’t assure me of that.”
The Bengals won 21-10 despite the league letting them know the morning of the game they would not be allowed to run their offense to full effect.
They would have to allow Buffalo to finish subbing or any play the Bengals ran with a “quick snap” would be considered unsportsmanlike conduct and not count.
This of course did not please Wyche, who pointed out changing the rules typically happens in the offseason, not the morning of a game set to decide who goes to the Super Bowl.
“It’s something we’ve been doing for 31/2 years,” Wyche said. “Why couldn’t they have made the decision last Monday?… For the league to come in one hour and 50 minutes before the game and take that away from you, it’s not fair.”
Esiason called the ruling “disturbing,” but the Bengals were more worried about continuing to establish how physical they could be.
“I’ll never forget the Houston Oilers saying we were a finesse team,” the quarterback said. “Well, you didn’t see a finesse team out there today.”
Woods ran for 102 yards and two touchdowns, and the Bengals outrushed Buffalo 175-45.
Cincinnati dominated field position thanks to punter Lee Johnson and intercepted Jim Kelly three times.
“We may have done the Bengals a favor by telling them to just line up and play football,” Levy said. “I’m not just talking about today. I’m talking about down the line. They have an outstanding football team.”
The win sent Cincinnati to Miami to face San Francisco in Super Bowl XXIII, but the postgame celebration might not have been as wild as one would expect.
“We were going home within an hour of the game,” said Cincinnati Police Lt. Gary Glazier, who was in charge of crowd control at Fountain Square.