Snubbed on the NFL's prime-time TV schedule after a 4-11 season, the Bengals staged one of the biggest turnarounds in NFL history, posting a 12-4 record. They clinched the AFC home field advantage for the playoffs, and they won games at Riverfront Stadium over Seattle and Buffalo before losing a dramatic Super Bowl XXIII by 20-16 to San Francisco at Joe Robbie Stadium in Miami. In the Super Bowl, the Bengals took a 16-13 lead on a 40-yard Jim Breech FG with 3:20 remaining, but the 49ers drove 92 yards in 11 plays to seize victory with 0:34 to play, on a 10-yard pass from Joe Montana to John Taylor. The Bengals suffered two dramatic player losses for the Super Bowl, as troubled FB Stanley Wilson missed the Sunday game due to a Saturday night drug relapse, and Pro Bowl NT Tim Krumrie suffered a broken leg early in the first quarter, with TV cameras catching the fracture in grim detail. NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle called Super Bowl XXIII the most exciting to that point in history of the game, which had recently suffered from very lopsided results. (The five previous winners had an average victory margin of 27.6 points). Nine Bengals were selected for the Pro Bowl, a club record that still stands through 2017. FB Ickey Woods did not make the Pro Bowl, but in his only full season of a career later derailed by injuries, he rushed for 1066 yards and a club-record 15 rushing TDs. His "Ickey Shuffle" dance became an iconic TD celebration nationally and would bring him widespread notice for many years, despite the brevity of his playing career. Sam Wyche, whose continued status as head coach was questioned by many entering the season, was named NFL Coach of the Year by the Pro Football Writers Association. But the more prestigious coaching award, from Associated Press, went to Mike Ditka of Chicago, whose team lost 28-3 in the NFC Championship game. Cincinnati's two playoff wins were fraught with high-level controversy over Wyche's hurry-up "no huddle" offense. In the Divisional game, Seattle players transparently feigned injuries to buy time for situational defensive substitutions, and that flap, raised to a higher level by comments from Buffalo coach Marv Levy, led the NFL to ban the no-huddle for the AFC Championship game against the Bills. But the Bengals dispatched Buffalo 21-10 without their full bag of tricks, and the NFL later admitted its ban was a mistake. The Bengals were allowed to use the no-huddle in the Super Bowl. In developments prior to the season, the Ben-Gals cheer-leading squad was reinstated after a year's absence — "We heard from the fans that they wanted them back," said assistant general manager Mike Brown — and LB Reggie Williams on June 16 became the first (and still only) Bengal to serve on Cincinnati City Council, appointed by the Charter Party to a seat from which Charterite Arn Bortz had retired. In January of '88, Williams had received the "Sportsman of the Year" award from Sports Illustrated, and he was presented the award by President Reagan in a ceremony at the White House.
AFC Divisional Playoff
Unbeaten at home in eight regular-season games, the AFC Central Division Champion Bengals ran their Riverfront Stadium mark to 9-0 by rushing for a season-high 254 yards. They scored all three of their TDs in the first half and withstood a 13-point Seattle fourth quarter. The Seahawks pulled to within 21-13 on QB Dave Krieg's one-yard sneak with 6:05 to play, but K Norm Johnson's missed PAT left the visitors still two scores short, as the two-point conversion would not be added to NFL rules until 1994. The victory earned the Bengals their first trip to the AFC Championship game since the 1981 season. Bengals rookie FB Ickey Woods rushed for 126 yards on 23 carries, and his one-yard TD run midway through the second quarter gave Cincinnati a 21-0 halftime lead. A pair of three-yard TD runs in the first and second quarters by FB Stanley Wilson opened the Bengals' scoring. Wilson added 45 rushing yards on seven attempts, while HB James Brooks rushed for 72 yards on 13 attempts. Cincinnati's defense held Seattle to just 22 yards rushing the entire game and only 49 total net yards in the first half. The Bengals stayed on the ground to win, getting only seven completions from QB Boomer Esiason, the NFL's top-rated quarterback and its consensus MVP in the regular season, and only one reception from WR Eddie Brown, who led the AFC in the regular season with 1273 receiving yards.
The week before the AFC Championship game was filled with controversy, as Bills head coach Marv Levy convinced the NFL office that Bengals head coach Sam Wyche's no-huddle offense was illegal. Cincinnati had developed and employed the no-huddle attack all season, but shortly before kickoff, the league informed the team that game officials would severely restrict its use. Wyche eventually would prevail in this rule book battle. Nevertheless, his offense, forced to abandon its no-huddle tactics for this contest, returned to basics and led the charge in beating Buffalo for a berth in Super Bowl XXIII. It was Cincinnati's third victory of the year over Buffalo, the Bengals having also downed the Bills in the preseason and regular season. Cincinnati won with a punishing rushing game, running the ball on 50 of 73 offensive plays and gaining 175 of its 249 total yards on the ground. Cincinnati's defense recorded a solid performance, holding the Bills to 181 total yards, including just 53 in the second half. Cincinnati made eight of 16 combined third-down and fourth-down conversions while allowing the Bills a debilitating none of 11. Bengals rookie FB Ickey Woods had his second 100-yard rushing game of the postseason, gaining 102 on 29 carries. The Bengals advanced to the Super Bowl from what was, at the time, the worst previous-season finish (4-11) of any Super Bowl qualifier. Even to the present time, only the 1999 St. Louis Rams (4-12 in '98) have gone farther.
Super Bowl XXIII
NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle termed it the most exciting of the first 23 games in Super Bowl history, and the result regained some respect for the AFC, which had lost the last four contests by an average of more than 27 points. But the dominant emotion of the day still was heartbreak for head coach Sam Wyche's underdog Bengals, who took a 16-13 lead with 3:20 to play on Jim Breech's 40-yard FG before succumbing to a 92-yard, 11-play TD drive led by San Francisco QB Joe Montana. WR John Taylor's game-winning 10-yard TD catch from Montana came with just 34 seconds remaining. Never before had a Super Bowl been won on a TD so late in the game. Cincinnati played without FB Stanley Wilson, who was suspended for a substance abuse violation that occurred the night before the game. In addition, the Bengals played almost the entire contest without All-Pro NT Tim Krumrie, who suffered a severely broken leg early in the first quarter. The teams were tied 3-3 at halftime, tied again at 6-6 late in the third quarter, and then swapped TDs in quick succession. A 93-yard kickoff return by Cincinnati HB Stanford Jennings was countered by a four-play San Francisco TD drive. The third of Breech's three FGs gave Cincinnati its third lead of the day before Montana's final heroics saved the day for the 49ers. San Francisco WR Jerry Rice tied a Super Bowl record with 11 receptions (still tied; originally set by Bengals TE Dan Ross in Super Bowl XVI) for 215 yards and one TD, earning the game's MVP award. Montana completed 23 of 36 passes for 357 yards, two TDs and no INTs. The victory made San Francisco the first NFC team to win three Super Bowls.
|OFFENSE||1 (378.6)||1 (169.4)||11 (209.2)|
|DEFENSE||15 (323.9)||18 (128.0)||10 (195.9)|
|PLAYS||FIRST DOWNS||NET YDS RUSH||NET YDS PASS||TOTAL NET YDS||PTS|
|Eddie Brown||Receiving Yards|
|Ira Hillary||Punt Returns|
|Stanford Jennings||Kickoff Returns|
|Jim Breech||Field Goals|
|Sam Wyche||Head Coach|
|Jim Anderson||Running Backs|
|Bruce Coslet||Offensive Coordinator|
|Bill Johnson||Tight Ends|
|Dick LeBeau||Defensive Coordinator|
|Jim McNally||Offensive Line|
|Mike Stock||Special Teams|
|Bill Urbanik||Defensive Line|
1988 NFL Draft: April 24 - 25
|2||Elbert “Ickey” Woods||RB||Nevada-Las Vegas||31|
|4||David Grant||NT||West Virginia||84|
|7||Rich Romer||LB||Union (N.Y.)||168|
|9||Brandy Wells||DB||Notre Dame||226|
|10||Ellis Dillahunt||DB||East Carolina||253|
|11||Paul Hickert||K||Murray State||280|
Players selected for the 1988 NFL Pro Bowl: RB James Brooks, WR Eddie Brown, QB Boomer Esiason, S David Fulcher, TE Rodney Holman, NT Tim Krumrie, G Max Montoya,
OT Anthony Munoz, CB Eric Thomas