When the Cincinnati Bengals boarded the plane for the long flight to Los Angeles for their fifth game of the 1988 season, they were 2-point underdogs despite being undefeated and facing a 2-2 Raiders team.
“We were still kind of flying under the radar at the point,” offensive tackle Joe Walter said. “It wasn’t until after that that we really started opening some eyes and getting a lot of national attention.”
The Cincinnati offense exploded for 496 yards, and six different players scored touchdowns to key a 45-21 rout that left the Bengals as the NFL’s lone remaining undefeated team after the Bills and Rams lost earlier in the day.
“We had a bunch of good old-heads on that team and they policed things pretty good, so I don’t think anyone was getting too full of themselves,” Walter said. “But I’m pretty sure there were some adult beverages being served way in the back of the plane on flight home. I hope Mike (Brown, assistant general manager at the time) didn’t know.”
The Bengals entered the game averaging 22.5 points per game, but they had surpassed that number by halftime against a Los Angeles defense that featured Matt Millen, former Super Bowl MVP Rod Martin, future Hall of Famer Howie Long and Greg Townsend, who would record 11.5 sacks that season.
“The only thing I worried about all week was keeping Townsend and Long from hitting Boomer,” Walter said. “They never got to him once.”
With the offensive line keeping him clean, Esiason completed 21 of 28 passes for 332 yards and three touchdowns before getting benched.
Bengals head coach Sam Wyche pulled Esiason in favor of Turk Schonert with 12:48 left in the game to protect his rising star.
“We’re not going to call him a star just yet because I don’t want the head to get large on him,” Wyche said after the game. “But he’s going to be a star.”
In addition to Esiason touchdown passes to Rodney Holman, Tim McGee and Ira Hillary, the Bengals got rushing touchdowns from Ickey Woods, Stanley Wilson and Stanford Jennings.
“That’s the way that team was built,” said Walter, who today works as business banking officer at Forcht Bank in Burlington, Ky. “We had weapons everywhere to go along with a great offensive line and a great quarterback.”
The defense came up big that day as well. David Fulcher had two interceptions and Lewis Billups and Eric Thomas had one each against Jay Schroeder.
Los Angeles finished with 406 yards of offense, but 186 came in the final seven minutes when the game was out of hand. And the Raiders got their final score on a touchdown pass with one second left in the game.
“After the game we understood the importance of where we were and that everyone wanted a piece of us now that we were opening some eyes,” Walter said. “But we didn’t let that get to us. We were a hard-working team anyway, and it was just one of those teams where the chemistry was perfect. We were ready for all of the challenges that came with such a great start.”