Super Bowl history: Joe Burrow on verge of leading Bengals to first Super Bowl in franchise history

The Cincinnati Bengals’ Super Bowl legacy is closely tied to the player many considered to be the greatest quarterback in NFL history before Tom Brady’s rise to prominence this century. Joe Montana led the 49ers to four Super Bowl victories in the 1980s, with two of those coming against the Bengals.

It was close, but the modern day Bengals will not face the 49ers once again in Super Bowl LVI. The Bengals will face the Los Angeles Rams, who edged the 49ers in Sunday’s NFC Championship Game. Led by quarterback Joe Burrow, the Bengals are back in the Super Bowl for the first time in 33 years. Cincinnati will look to reverse the franchise’s history of coming up just short on pro football’s biggest stage.

Let’s take a look at the Bengals’ two trips to the big game, and how close they came both times to winning the franchise’s first Vince Lombardi Trophy.

Super Bowl XVI

  • 49ers 26, Bengals 21
  • MVP: Joe Montana – 14 of 22, 157 yards, 2 total TD

This was one of the most surprising matchups in Super Bowl history. Both teams were just 6-10 the previous season, while the 49ers became the first team to make it to the big game two years after owning the league’s worst record. San Francisco reached the big game after edging the Cowboys in one of the greatest championship games ever. In the AFC title game, the Bengals chilled Dan Fouts and the Chargers’ high-flying offense in one of the coldest games in league annals.

Super Bowl XVI marked the second-to-last time that both teams were making their Super Bowl debut (the last time was the Bears’ 46-10 win over the Patriots in Super Bowl XX). While the Bengals appeared to have big game jitters, the 49ers came out firing on all cylinders. Led by Montana and a defense that forced two Bengals turnovers, San Francisco jumped out to a 20-0 halftime lead.

Facing what was the largest halftime deficit in Super Bowl history, the Bengals roared back in the second half. Down 20-7 following quarterback Ken Anderson’s touchdown run, Cincinnati threatened to make it a one-score game at the end of the third quarter. But the 49ers recorded arguably the greatest goal line stand in Super Bowl history, as Cincinnati was unable to score despite having three straight plays from the 49ers’ 1-yard-line.

Cincinnati scored on their ensuing drive on Anderson’s touchdown pass to Dan Ross, who caught a then-Super Bowl record 11 passes for 104 yards. The duo connected for a second touchdown with 20 seconds left while making it a five point game. But the Bengals’ hopes of a comeback ended when 49ers receiver Dwight Clark recovered Jim Breech’s onside kick. Despite outscoring the 49ers 21-6 in the second half, the Bengals came up on the short end of a 26-21 score.

Along with the 49ers’ goal line stand, four Cincinnati turnovers (compared to one for the 49ers) was the biggest difference in the game. In a losing effort, the Bengals received a solid outing from Anderson, the league’s MVP during the 1981 season. Anderson threw for 300 yards while completing nearly 74% of his passes.

Super Bowl XXIII

  • 49ers 20, Bengals 16
  • MVP: Jerry Rice – 11 receptions, 215 yards, 1 TD

Seven years after their first matchup, the Bengals and 49ers faced off again in Miami for Super Bowl XXIII. Unlike the first matchup, the Bengals stayed with the 49ers from the onset. In a battle of field goals, the Bengals took a 6-3 lead on Breech’s 43-yard field goal with 5:45 left in the third quarter. Breech’s field goal capped off a 13-play, 71-yard drive that included two big completions from Boomer Esiason to Chris Collinsworth.

The 49ers – aided by an interception on the Bengals’ ensuring drive – tied the score on Mike Cofer’s second field goal of the day. But on the ensuing kickoff, Cincinnati’s Stanford Jennings gave the Bengals a 13-6 lead on a 93-yard kickoff return. It was only the second kickoff return in Super Bowl history and the first since Fulton Walker’s 98-yard return against Washington in Super Bowl XVII.

A sleeping giant up until this point, the 49ers ‘offense woke up following Jennings’ touchdown. Backed up on their own 15-yard-line, a 31-yard completion from Montana to Rice and Montana’s 40-yard completion to Roger Craig quickly moved the ball to the Bengals’ 14-yard-line. The 49ers avoided disaster when Bengals defensive back Lewis Billups dropped an interception in his own end zone. On the next play, Montana hit Rice for a game-tying, 14-yard touchdown.

The two teams then traded punts before the Bengals regained the lead on Breech’s third field goal of the day. Cincinnati’s 46-yard drive included two big completions from Esiason and runs of 10 and 7 yards from Ickey Woods, who was the heartbeat of the Bengals’ offense during the postseason. Esiason’s clutch completions, Woods’ tough running and Breech’s precise kicking gave the Bengals a 16-13 lead with 3:44 left.

Bengals coach Sam Wyche had an inkling of what was to come. San Francisco’s quarterbacks coach during the 49ers ‘first Super Bowl win over the Bengals, Wyche was the Bengals’ coach when Montana defeated Cincinnati on a last-minute touchdown pass to Jerry Rice during the 1987 season. Wyche’s defense, which played so well for most of the game, was unable to prevent history from happening yet again.

With 3:04 left, Montana and the 49ers began one of the greatest game-winning drives in NFL history. The 92-yard drive included three completions from Montana to Rice, whose 27-yard catch got the 49ers into the red zone with 1:17 left. After an 8-yard completion to Craig, the 49ers took a timeout, in which Wyche predicted that Montana would again look to Rice to deliver the game-winning score.

Instead of Rice, Montana threw a dart to John Taylor, whose only catch in Super Bowl XXIII produced the winning touchdown with 34 seconds remaining. The Bengals were lauded for their performance, but the Vince Lombardi Trophy – as well as the title as the team of the ’80s – went to the 49ers and coach Bill Walsh, who retired from coaching after leading the 49ers to their third Super Bowl title.

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