The last time the Bengals and Bills met for a game of this magnitude set for Monday night at Paycor Stadium (8:30-ESPN, Cincinnati's Channel 9), it helped put quarterbacks Boomer Esiason and Jim Kelly on the cover of a Wheaties box you can get for 12 bucks on eBay.
That 1988 Breakfast of Champions is now a 2023 all-you-can-eat-Next-Gen-Stats buffet with the Bengals' Joe Burrow and the Bills' Josh Allen giving us caviar.
Burrow is 12 passes away from becoming the NFL's all-time completion percentage leader and is tied for the NFL lead with 18 deep touchdown passes since 2021. Allen needs three touchdown passes to become the first player in NFL history with 35 touchdown passes and five rushing touchdowns in three straight seasons and comes into Paycor leading the NFL with 1,891 deep passing yards since 2021.
"He'll win a Super Bowl one day," Esiason says of Burrow.
The 6-5, 237-pound Allen, a bowling ball runner who refuses to slide, barges into Paycor with a one-game lead over the 11-4 Bengals for the AFC's top seed with two games to play. Burrow, a 6-4, 215-pound point guard who has a Bengals-record 34 touchdown passes to nine different receivers, is riding a 10-game winning streak in December and January.
"I tell him to run," Kelly says of Allen. "It's part of his game. It's a difference-maker. All I tell him is to slide. I don't think he ever played baseball."
They are playing a game almost as different from the 1980s, when Esiason's Bengals beat Kelly's Bills twice in six weeks to go to the Super Bowl, and the 1990s, when Kelly beat them with five touchdown passes the last time the teams met on Monday night on his way to the second of four straight Super Bowls.
And they love it.
Esiason, 61, the long-time sports media personality and former NFL MVP and Man of the Year, says there's not much difference among the AFC's best quarterbacks.
"I call them the Big Four," Esiason says of Burrow, Allen, Patrick Mahomes and Justin Herbert. "All four are incredible athletes first and foremost, and they've got a poise factor of 10."
Kelly, 62, the Pro Football Hall-of-Famer and conscience of Western New York ("I lost four straight Super Bowls and beat cancer four times, I know what's important"), is pulling for Allen and admiring both.
"(Allen) is one of the top three quarterbacks in the NFL," Kelly says. "He's got that running style and he can zip it in there when he has to and lay it out there when he has to. He's one of those quarterbacks every franchise wishes they had. Like Joe Burrow."
Like Esiason and Kelly, Burrow and Allen go beyond the field.
"We're friends. We've hung out quite a bit," Burrow said this week. "Everybody that watches Josh, there's no secrets about why he's so good. He's fun to watch, he runs around. He makes plays. He makes throws that nobody else can make. He's just an exciting player, a great player that it's going to be fun to go up against him.
"He's fun to be around. He's an outgoing guy. He's fun to hang out with."
Burrow and Allen met through a mutual trainer and have known each other for three years, when Burrow came out for the draft. Esiason and Kelly had a mutual friend, too.
"We were buddies. We had some good times together," Esiasion says. "His backup was my college roommate. Frank Reich. We knew that team really well and they knew me. We hung out in the offseason with a lot of guys."
As they grew older, Esiason and Kelly had more in common. Both had special needs children and became exhaustive advocates in the towns they played and across the country. Kelly calls Esiason one of his best friends and admits this week's build-up has some familiar echoes.
"Both of these guys have the weapons," Kelly says. "Just like when I played. I had James Lofton and Andre Reed and Boomer had Cris Collinsworth and (Eddie) Brown. Now both have very good receivers. Josh has Diggs and Davis and they're like Higgins and Chase for you guys."
Kelly thinks it's a tight enough matchup that special teams decides it. Esiason thinks the Buffalo defense is going to have a tough time with a set of skill players he calls the best group in the NFL.
"I could make an argument the Bengals have the best offense in football with what they have at running back and wide receiver and quarterback. That's the conundrum for Buffalo's defense," Esiason says. "It comes down to (the Bills') pass rush like it did with Aaron Donald in the Super Bowl. If they get to (Burrow), they win. If they don't, he's going to carve them up. It's pretty simple."
He doesn't think the protection is going to crumble with the loss of right tackle La'el Collins (yes, another '88 similarity when right tackle Joe Walter went down with an ACL tear in the regular-season finale), citing the post-season experience of those behind Collins.
"(Hakeem) Adeniji is going to have to be Brian Blados," Esiason says.
Instead, Esiason is looking at Burrow's two touchdown passes to wide receiver Trenton Irwin last Saturday in New England. And the one that went off his fingertips.
"This Trenton Irwin kid is coming out of nowhere. But that's what good quarterbacks do. Good quarterbacks elevate smart players. Maybe he's limited physically, but not mentally. That kid is good and smart, one of those under-the-radar guys that's a significant part of your success," Esiason says.
"(Burrow) is getting rid of it in less than three seconds. That tells you something about his decision-making … Those balls he threw to Irwin last week, what that tells me is the defense is trying to take away Ja'Marr Chase and Tee Higgins, so let's go where the defense is taking me and I've got confidence in this kid to make plays for me. He's got confidence throwing the ball to everybody."
Kelly is just hoping the Bills get some decent conditions so they can travel and throw the ball around. Last week they played in nine degrees in Chicago and the week before that they played in snow in Buffalo. The fatal snowstorm that hit the city over Christmas delayed them a day getting back from Chicago.
"They've just been playing in terrible weather," Kelly says. "I haven't checked the forecast yet for Monday, but I just hope the conditions are better than what they have been."
The extended forecast for Monday in Cincinnati has it for temperatures in the mid-50s with a heavy chance of rain. Nowhere near what Esiason calls "a classic cold weather game," in the 1988 AFC title game the Bengals beat the Bills at old Riverfront Stadium. In 31 degrees amid wind up to 25 miles per hour, the Bengals kept Kelly on the sidelines for nearly 40 minutes with 50 rushing attempts for 175 yards.
"Physical. Nasty. There were a lot of words said on both sides," Esiason says.
And that was nothing like the game six weeks before that against the Bills at Riverfront when the Bengals won home-field advantage in 53 degrees with a deadly balance of 455 yards in a 35-21 victory Esiason completed 72 percent of throws averaging 9.5 yards.
"That was probably the best game we ever played," Esiason says.
But not the biggest win in Bengals history. Esiason says that came in last year's AFC title game in Kansas City.
And they know there isn't going to be nearly the same amount of running plays or hits in a far different game.
"Boomer can tell you about this," Kelly says, emphasizing the description of the ground. "The defense didn't just try to put the quarterback on the A-a-stroturf. They wanted to bury you under the A-a-stroturf. And under the A-a-stroturf was concrete. The way they protect the quarterbacks these days, I could have played a few more years."
Even when someone gets called for roughing Allen, Kelly shakes his head wondering how that can be roughing the quarterback. But he's also grateful.
"You also want your guy protected," Kelly says. "At this time of year, it comes down to how healthy your team is. That's why everybody doesn't want Josh to run."
But run he will. Looking at his big passing plays, those 40-, 50-yarders Allen unleashes after breaking the pocket, Esiason says, "Then let him run."
"(Allen) creates those plays on his own. Sometimes they'll call it for him, but a lot of times, especially in a game of this magnitude," Esiason says, "there'll be five or six plays that are indefensible unless you've got a scheme and design."
Although Esiason is a big fan of Bengals defensive coordinator and fellow New Yorker Lou Anarumo, he admits, "That's hard to do because it's happening within the game."
Kelly knows what the Bills have to do to stop Burrow.
"Have to hit him in the pocket a few times," Kelly says. "Can't let him sit back there."
What's old is new again. A late-season Bengals-Bills game in Cincinnati to possibly decide home-field advantage.
"On Monday Night Football," says Kelly, impersonating Howard Cosell's iconic nasal introduction.
"Those two wins over that team in such close proximity shows you how good our team was," says Esiason of a matchup that could define these Bengals.
"Let's go Buff-a-loooo," Kelly says
"Who-Dey," Esiason says.