This day in '81: Playoff fever grips Cincy

Each week from the bye on, plans to go down the stretch with the 1981 AFC champion Bengals to see what was happening in the newspapers on this date 30 years ago.

NOV. 27: We are at the end of the week that is.

Thirty years from now the historians can go back through the papers and tab this week as the week Bengaldom was born with everyone basking in last Sunday's 38-24 destruction of the Broncos at Riverfront Stadium in their power summit that leaves the Bengals tied with the NFL's best record at 9-3 and Denver's No. 1 defense in the league limping at 8-4.

The game isn't sold out and the game is blacked out, but that doesn't stop the fans from savoring the stretch run. There are orange wigs and striped buses and an endless quilt of bedsheet banners as playoff fever grips the town.

Underneath a story headlined "Bengal-a-mania" in The Cincinnati Post, Greg Hoard tackles the phenomenon with a light touch and a nod to the growing influence of sports talk radio.

"Symptoms: Unusual queasiness of the stomach. Uncontrollable gravitation toward the colors orange and black in automobiles, attire or even hair color.

"Attending physicians: Dr. Tom Kelly of WCKY Radio, Doug Kidd of WLW Radio, Paul Brown, Bengals president. Additional information taken from Cincinnati merchants. Ms. Kelly O'Shea of Brendamours, James Hoffman of Koch's Sporting Goods. The following patients studied will be named only as Mac, or the Rev. Mac, and Tom of Section 102. Both of these patients first emerged through the mania hotline program. Thanks go to Drs. Kelly, Kidd and (Bob) Trumpy for their cooperation."

Everybody wants a piece of the Bengals. On the Tuesday after the Denver game the papers are splashed with photos of them playing their weekly Monday whiffle ball game at Spinney Field.

The breathless captions inform us "Anthony Muñoz delivers a pitch," and "Blair Bush takes a mighty swing and misses."

Even the veterans' annual Thanksgiving turkey prank gets big play in the media. Mike Dodd of The Cincinnati Enquirer has a good laugh at the expense of the kids.

"It is a prank as old as the leather helmet and seems as reliable as a Pete Johnson run off tackle," Dodd writes. "This year's game plan was as elaborate as the Bengals offense has been the past month."

Dodd details how a month before a letter from the owner of the Brookville Turkey Farm makes its way to the team bulletin board at Spinney Field with the offer of a free turkey to every member of the team, complete with directions to the Indiana store. Head coach Forrest Gregg even joins in at the Monday meeting, urging the rookies to pick up the veterans' turkeys.

But of course, there is no Brookville Turkey Farm or turkey, or, even a Route 28, as fullback James Hargrove discovers when he finally pulls over to the side of the road at a pay phone and calls information. Hargrove, who drove fellow rookies Cris Collinsworth and Mike Obrovac, concludes, "I was supposed to pick up some turkeys, but the turkeys didn't know about it."

Gregg feels a little badly ("I feel like a traitor," he said) but the kids could have asked second-year left tackle Anthony Muñoz. Muñoz is fast becoming the game's best left tackle and one day he'll be the first Bengal elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. But he fell for it the year before.

"You're talking to the biggest turkey of last year. You're talking to a 270-pound turkey," Muñoz says.

But the Bengals are becoming a legit item on the national menu. This week Paul Brown appears in a New York Post story detailing the success of his team.

"They have done it quietly without the fanfare orchestrated by the media centers on the East or West coasts. Paul Brown, whose once-timid Bengals stood 3-9 after 12 games last year are 9-3," The Post says and Brown can't resist taking a few shots at the detractors of the new Bengals striped helmets in their debut season.

"We attribute all our success to the stripes on our helmets," Brown says. "I can remember when the Rams put the horns back on their helmets. The guys in the league meeting were rolling off their chairs laughing and the Chargers have those electric bolts and no one thinks anything of it. We just put the stripes there to give us some identity. TV has become such a big factor. When the cameras zoom in, you know what team it is."

But tight end Dan Ross still has a hard time getting recognized in his hometown, even though his seven catches for 123 yards against Denver puts him within six catches of the club record for a season.

A few weeks before in a live interview on a Boston station, the reporter asked, "Well Dan, this is your second year in the NFL. How do you like wide receiver? Have you started any games?"

As Dodd reports in The Enquirer, this is his third year and all as a starter tight end.

"I just went along with him," the good-natured Ross tells Dodd and he says only two Bengals games have been seen in his hometown just north of Boston in Everett. "The San Diego game went back to Boston but they shut it off after the first half because we were beating them so bad. The L.A. game went in, but most of the town is on cable and the cable blew out that day."

Cincinnati doesn't get to see that watershed win over the Broncos, but it ended up being close with 57,207 watching Bengals quarterback Ken Anderson rip the Broncos to shreds with 396 yards passing (25-for-37) and three touchdown passes in the second best day of his career.

If the Bengals weren't on the national radar, they are now. The Broncos had come in allowing just six touchdown passes as well as a mere 152 yards a game through the air. They had been giving up just 14 points per game until the Bengals juggernaut doubles that in the first half.

"The way they were running their offense," says Broncos linebacker Tom Jackson, the future ESPN analyst, "it almost looked like they knew what we were going to do before (the play)."

Broncos coach Dan Reeves pulls no punches with the media.

"They are the best football team we've played this year; they beat us in every phase of the game there is," Reeves says. "We were never really in it. They have an excellent football team and they had an excellent game plan and just picked us apart."

Brown is particularly pleased with the passing game. Lindy Infante doesn't have the title of offensive coordinator, but as the quarterbacks and receivers coach, this is his offense. Brown congratulates his coaches and lingers with Infante after the game.

"Boy, can we throw the ball," Brown says. "Hey, I liked a couple of those new dipsy doodles today."

Infante explains to the press that he mixed things up this week with three wide receivers and two tight ends instead of the usual pro set of two backs, two receivers, and a tight end.

"Last week the Rams used double coverage on our tight end and took him away. We thought the Broncos would try it so we used a lot of the two tight end formations," Infante said. "We figured Denver would have trouble deciding which one of the two tight ends to take away."

They took away neither as Ross and M.L. Harris combined for 11 catches for 180 yards.

"Most of the catches were on eight- and 12-yard patterns, but those guys broke them for 20 and 30 yards," Infante says. "When you throw for 396, you can't expect the quarterback to throw for all of it."

The Bengals are headed to Cleveland this Sunday to play the 5-7 Browns with a two-game lead over the Steelers in the AFC Central and the papers are pointing out the Bengals were in the same spot in 1976 and ended up not going to the playoffs.

"We are worried about Cleveland and only Cleveland," Gregg says. "We're not going to start any ifs and buts."

But ... Bengaldom is here.

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