In a game history lines up in the A Gap with Monday Night Football's two most prolific passers ever for a shot at the AFC's No. 1 seed, the Bengals honor their legendary "S.W.A.T Team," secondary that locked up enough quarterbacks to give them the top seed on the way to one of the greatest Super Bowls.
Evolutionary safety David Fulcher, who picked off Bills future Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly in the end zone with eight minutes left to secure the 1988 AFC title game and then exchanged helmets with him a few weeks later in the Pro Bowl, leads his unit against Buffalo again Monday night (8:30-ESPN, Cincinnati's Channel 9) when they take the Paycor Stadium stage moments before kickoff as "Rulers Of The Jungle."
"His helmet is in my trophy case," Kelly says.
Fulcher is hoping to exchange places with the current Bengals secondary as it eyes another seemingly Canton-bound Buffalo quarterback, Josh Allen, with a quarterback of their own worthy of a Boomer Esiason NFL MVP in Joe Burrow when a win can give them back-to-back AFC North titles for the first time ever.
"This reminds me of '88. Everybody is talking about our high-powered offense and I called us the 'No Name Defense,'" says Fulcher of another '70s hit called the Miami Dolphins. "The guys that are just out there coming to work every day and just coming up with plays. This football team is doing it exactly the way we did it. The offense is scoring points and the defense is winning championships."
Joining Fulcher and his fellow safety Solomon Wilcots is Eric Thomas, the Pro Bowl cornerback from that season he had an interception in each playoff game at Riverfront Stadium. They'll be holding the "No. 24," jersey of their late teammate Lewis Billups, the cornerback who came up with the name from the 1970s television series about a police department's special weapons and tactics unit.
During an '88 season that began with three straight successful red-zone stands in the last minute, a photo op with the starting secondary draped in ammo on a Cincinnati Police Department's S.W.A.T. vehicle seemed quite fitting. They all had at least one interception in the two Riverfront playoff games. Three against the Bills.
"Jim got a little greedy going for (running back) Ronnie Harmon across the middle," Fulcher says. "When he threw it a little off, I was right behind him, caught it and I think I laid down. That was it."
The S.W.A.T Team takes the stage nine days after strong safety Vonn Bell preserved the win in New England by forcing a fumble at the Bengals 5 with a minute left up by four points and 15 days after Tre Flowers came up with the cornerbacks' only interception of the season that started a spate of four straight turnovers of Tom Brady.
"I don't mind the cornerbacks having just one interception," Thomas says. "As long as they don't give up the big one. That's all that matters. Don't give up the big one. For the most part, the corners have been solid."
If you want to know how big they were back in '88, talk to Wayne Box Miller, the current host of the game day shows on the Bengals Radio Network.
"I set up a couple of appearances for them and they were like rock stars," Miller says.
When Miller got them a spot at the Tri-County Mall, he ended up needing to do his own tactical negotiations with the Springdale police. About 1,000 fans overran the place and they had to shut it down while the guys signed the S.W.A.T. Team poster and everything else that got shoved at them that wild day.
All three felt the love and stayed in Cincinnati to live their lives and they're enjoying this season watching another secondary take over because they follow it all
Wilcots is the velvet voice of Sirius NFL Radio's Opening Drive. Fulcher is the host of Bengals Nation at OTR Eatery every Wednesday with Bell and slot cornerback Mike Hilton, as well as serving the team's NFL uniform liaison on game days. Thomas, still a physical specimen believed to be the first NFL player to return in the same year he tore an ACL for the 1990 AFC Central champs, is a youth coach and trainer.
"We all love Lou Anarumo," says Wilcots of the Bengals defensive coordinator. "We talk about it all the time. He's a great coach. He knows how to play defense from back to front. The best defensive coaches do it that way. Dick LeBeau. Tony Dungy. Bill Belichick. Tom Landry. They know it starts on the back end."
Dick LeBeau, of course, is the defensive coordinator from that '88 team who created the zone blitz largely out of Fulcher's once-in-a-generation versatility. "Fulcher 2 Stay," was the call and he rode it to three Pro Bowls and 31 career interceptions while also winning two team tackling titles.
"I think that's what set me apart from most safeties in the league at that time," says Fulcher, who always stuns the current Bengals secondary when he tells them he played at 240 pounds. "When you wanted a run stuffer, I was there. When you wanted a pass defensed, I would go back and do it. I tell them I played at 240 and they say, 'No freaking way!'"
Fulcher looks at Bell and sees himself and Esiason said almost as much last week when he reminisced about '88.
"How many times," Esiason asked, "did Fulcher and those guys make a play back there when we needed it?"
When the Patriots got a rare long touchdown pass against them last week on a tipped ball (the Bengals have allowed the third fewest touchdown passes this season), Bell told Fulcher he wished he could have either sacked quarterback Mac Jones or knocked the ball down.
"That sounds like me. There are football players who have a knack for getting the ball. I was one of those guys. When I watch Vonn, he's not out to destroy players. He tries to disrupt them," Fulcher says. "He may miss a tackle or let a guy get six or seven (yards) after the catch, but he's steady trying to punch the ball out and that makes him different than a lot of players. Some safeties try to make the kill. Vonn is trying to disrupt the play and take the ball away and that puts him in a class by himself."
Wilcots, the textbook right-place-right-time safety, calls the tandem of Bell and free safety Jessie Bates III as good as it gets in the NFL.
"They both have tremendous football IQ. You don't see busted coverages or miscommunications or misalignments," Wilcots says. "No one plays the deep ball without drawing a flag better than Vonn Bell. Nobody has a better bead on quarterbacks and how to match up in zones and when to break on a ball and the timing of it than Jessie Bates. They both make plays. They both get picks. Bell is a good blitzer, good in the box. A quintessential Ohio State safety we became accustomed to in the '80s and '90s. Bates is an elite cover safety."
Wilcots goes back to the first snap of last year's AFC Divisional game, the same game Wilcots had a pick against Seattle 33 years before. Against Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill, Bates didn't just sit in centerfield.
"Bates rotated down in the zone. He plays everywhere well," Wilcots says. "He knows where to disguise and where to be. Let that route declare for the quarterback and he's on it."
Fulcher and Wilcots pretty much agree this is the Bengals' best safety tandem since they roamed Riverfront. But they'll also remind you there were other contributing DBs on that team such as Ray Horton, Rickey Dixon, Barney Bussey who they considered part of the S.W.A.T Team.
"They weren't on the poster, but we were representing the group," Fulcher says.
Just like with this team. Fulcher says his defensive MVP is the 5-9 Hilton.
"That little guy plays big," Fulcher says. "Look at some of the running backs he's took down. Derrick Henry in Tennessee. Slowing up quarterbacks coming off the corner blitzing. He's played a big role.
"I like those safeties and I'm sure the guys on defense would say the whole defense is the MVP. But I like that little guy. He's made a lot of plays."
They don't admire just Bell, Bates and Hilton. Rookie cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt has caught their eye since he chased down Titans 250-pound running back Derrick Henry and stripped him at the two-yard line.
"We're big fans," Wilcots says. "He wanted that ball. He's tough, he's physical. It's not very often you see a guy take on Derrick Henry and say, 'Give me the ball.'"
Thomas, a second-round pick himself, calls CTB "feisty." He also likes how the other starting cornerback, Eli Apple, has responded after some mid-season struggles pointed to a possible benching until Chidobe Awuzie tore his ACL in the eighth game of the season. The Bengals haven't lost since.
"I give him credit. (Apple) did what an NFL corner is supposed to do. He went back to work," Thomas says. "The rookie missed a lot of training camp. He's learning on the job and doing quite well, by the way. The more things he sees, the more things he'll learn. Stay with the technique. They're playing solid.
"Those guys at safety have played a lot of games. They understand they have to protect the rookie a little bit. Eli has to hold it down. They can't worry about two corners. The defense is playing so well. They play within the scheme. They play hard. They really, really rally to the ball. That's defensive football."
The S.W.A.T Team is all in on these guys. When Thomas went out to the Super Bowl last year to watch them, he ran into Bills Hall-of-Fame wide receiver Andre Reed in a parking lot. "Eeeeee-Teeee," Reed said when he finally recognized him. Because Thomas could slide in and out of the slot, he was assigned Reed man-to-man in the championship game. He got him for an interception when Reed ran an out and Thomas under cut it, something that Anarumo doesn't want Taylor-Britt to do quite yet.
"They did a lot a of things with Andre He got me a few times," said Thomas of Reed's 55-yard day. "But he didn't get away."
That's their mantra for Monday night.
"Don't give up the big one," Thomas says.
"Tackle Josh Allen like he's a running back," Wilcots says. "Tackle him so he regrets the decision to run."
Fulcher is keeping an eye on his guy Hilton. Hilton may be 60 pounds lighter than Fulcher, but like LeBeau lined him up everywhere, Fulcher knows Anarumo can put Hilton anywhere.
"It's kind of cool it's Buffalo, too," says Fulcher of a night they hope two Bengals secondaries Rule The Jungle.