Whether it is the Bengals' first two Super Bowls in the '80s, Dave Shula's last game as head coach in 1996, rookie head coach Marvin Lewis completing the NFL's biggest turnaround with a December 2003 win over the 49ers, AJ McCarron beating the 49ers in his first NFL start to secure a 2015 playoff berth, Zac Taylor's first Paycor Stadium game as head coach in 2019, or Joe Burrow's 249-yard-coming-of-age second half in a 2021 game, Bengals-49ers always seems to hold something significant.
Sunday's resumption of one of the NFL's more interesting rivalries (4:25 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) at Levi's Stadium is already intriguing even before it kicks off. Both teams have been to their last two conference title games and as Taylor revealed during his Wednesday news conference, he held up head coach Kyle Shanahan's 49ers as an example for his team as early as 2020.
The year before in his third season on The Bay, Shanahan, who won ten games in his first two seasons, led the 49ers to the Super Bowl. They lost to the Chiefs. But Taylor, a Rams assistant in 2017 who saw Shanahan's first season from a seat in the same division, observed what could quickly come from the ground up.
"Sure enough, maybe people are now showing clips of our Super Bowl game in Year 3," said Taylor, who replicated Shanahan in 2021. "I've always looked at San Francisco as a good template of how you can build and continue to evolve and get to where you want to be and then maintain that level of consistency. They've really been the standard in that."
When Taylor was showing those clips in 2020, they were just a year removed from that 2019 home opener they allowed 571 yards in San Francisco's 41-17 win on the way to the Super Bowl.
"We weren't ready," said linebacker Germaine Pratt, one of four current Bengals who played in that game. "But then Zac got the guys he wanted. We got the coaching. We got the players."
Taylor mapped it out to them when the Bengals weren't even on the globe.
"I remember showing our guys in 2020 kind of the evolution of San Francisco," Taylor said. "Their first year they were learning the system. You could tell at times they were learning. Some of the crispness wasn't there. The second year they ramped up and then I showed clips of their Super Bowl game against Kansas City. Of just why they were in the Super Bowl—the attention to detail, everything was so good.
"Hey, this is part of our process. Our first year we weren't very good. Our attention to detail wasn't great. Our level of coaching a lot of times wasn't great. In 2020 we made some progress and here is the step we've got to make in 2021. There is a path here. There is a path San Francisco has kind of shown people how it can occur."
And it turned out that one of the games that proved the Bengals weren't imposters came against these 49ers. It was a heartbreaking 26-23 loss in overtime at Paycor on Dec. 12, 2021 just as the 7-5 Burrow Bengals were taking their first steps as contenders.
Two muffed punts translated to 10 points and a 17-6 halftime deficit. But Burrow brought them back on 15 of 20 passing in the second half and overtime and forced the extra session on a 32-yard touchdown pass to rookie wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase with 1:19 left.
After Burrow generated an OT field goal (more on that), 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo stunned the faithful with a 75-yard touchdown drive to win it. And yet, the Bengals responded with three straight must wins for the AFC North title. After a rest in the finale, they won three more straight to match the 49ers and reach the Super Bowl.
"It felt like a Super Bowl game," said Bengals wide receiver Tyler Boyd. "We should have come through, but those are the games that show the club what type of team we are. I think at that point we knew what we were capable of doing. We were just one play away from who we are.
"It was a statement game. One of the games you view it, yeah, who ever watched that game knows these were two opponents that were Super Bowl contending teams."
The sophomore Burrow showed he was ready for the big stage, outpitching the Super Bowl vet Garoppolo, 125.6 to 103.3, in a passer rating classic.
"I would say that's one of the better games that I've played in my career. I had a lot of confidence after that game. I had a lot of confidence before that game, too," Burrow said Wednesday. "Every game that you play really well, you gain more confidence. You learn from every game. It's tough to say that you just pick one game and say that was the turning point. But I definitely learned a lot from that one."
So, too, it seems, did Taylor. He was pretty vocal right after the game when asked about his play selection in overtime. Taylor chose to run the ball from the 49ers 26 on first down and from the 49ers 22 on second down before settling for Evan McPherson's 41-yard field goal with 6:15 left.
"I agree with you. That's one that will keep you up at night," Taylor said that day. "We have a quarterback that can win us a lot of games, and there's maybe one more pass instead of a run there. Sure, if we hit that run, I feel great about it. But we didn't. And so then you go back to hindsight, and I'm sure I'll feel a lot of that tonight."
But now almost two years later, Taylor doesn't see that game as having much of an impact on his future play-calling. What he remembers now is how his team ended up battling back from 7-6.
"Really there was just one call that I talked about. There were a lot of things I think we did really well in that game," Taylor said. "You take it hard because it was a mid-December game and you felt like at the time that was one you needed to get into the playoffs. And so dropping a game like that, I remember how it felt. You weren't sure… You kind of lost control of your own destiny at that point, losing a game at that point of the season."
But guys like Pratt were just getting started.
"As we got guys and put the pieces together, we saw we could play with them," Pratt said.
Doesn't it always seem to be something big when it's Bengals-49ers?
"It's similar scheme. A couple of new players. Really similar styles from that year," Burrow said. "It's tough to say you can take anything from that game because it was two years ago. But we played well in that second half. We're going to have to play really well on Sunday to win."