So it's the Bengals against San Diego for the AFC championship in Cincinnati, a city that until Sunday had never hosted a playoff game. The Bengals won that one 28-21 over the Buffalo Bills, who played a costly mini-game of "Let's Not Beat the Clock" in the waning moments of the game when a tying touchdown seemed imminent. This took place in a town that usually spends the winter months pondering the Reds' pitching rotation and what position Johnny Bench is going to play. But now there were madmen in the stands of Riverfront Stadium, with striped faces and orange and black wigs and waving "terrible tails."
The Bengals had been an organization which, under the edict of General Manager Paul Brown, used to rip down banners in the stadium, even if they were complimentary. Now banners like STRIPER BOWL wave freely in the breeze. And didn't ol' Paul, with the help of his son Mike, the club's assistant general manager, work with the NFL Properties people to come up with a helmet and uniform all done up in tiger stripes—"a bold new concept," as they say in fashion circles?
Who better to lead this team than The New Kenny Anderson, whose parting shot Sunday was, "It's going to be great to get back to work tomorrow and prepare for the Chargers." Actually, The New Kenny Anderson is just The Old Kenny Anderson with an offensive line that is maturing into one of the best in the game, an innovative offensive coordinator in Lindy Infante, a bunch of receivers who spend their spare time in libraries, and a wrecking ball of a fullback in 249-pound Pete Johnson, who had his best year with 1,077 yards rushing.
Anderson began the season before the home folks by throwing two interceptions and 10 incompletions in the first quarter as the Bengals fell behind Seattle 21-0. He was replaced by Turk Schonert—you've never been replaced by Turk Schonert so you don't know how it feels, do you?—who led the Bengals to a 27-21 victory. Cincinnati Coach Forrest Gregg vacillated most of the following week before deciding to start Anderson against the Jets in Shea Stadium. It was Gregg's best decision since drafting Offensive Tackle Anthony Munoz in the first round in 1980. Anderson completed 22 of 34 passes for 252 yards and two touchdowns in a 31-30 come-from-behind win and he hasn't been stopped since. He's the likely choice for the AFC Player of the Year.
Anderson completed 14 of 21 for 192 yards against the Bills, who sacked him four times but never really disturbed his rhythm. He would be drooling at the prospect of facing a San Diego defense that made Miami's Don Strock look like Johnny Unitas but for the fact that Anderson doesn't drool.
The Bengals scored on their first two possessions Sunday, set up by Mike Fuller's 27-yard punt return, which gave Cincinnati possession at the Buffalo 42, and a Ken Riley interception that started another drive at the Bill 48. Anderson moved his team straight down the field both times, mixing the running of Johnson and Charles Alexander (a surprise with 72 yards on 13 carries) with passes to three different receivers. With three minutes left in the first quarter, Cincinnati led 14-0.
But the Bengals aren't the Dallas Cowboys, and the Bills, to their credit, aren't the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Joe Ferguson (15 of 31 for 202 yards) finally got on target—he was intercepted not only by Riley but also by Linebacker Bo Harris before Buffalo scored—and directed the Bills to a touchdown just before halftime and another on their first possession of the second half to tie the game at 14-14.
The tying touchdown came on Joe Cribbs's finest moment. From the Bengal 44, the NFL's best all-purpose back circled left end, eluded clean shots by Linebacker Jim LeClair and Riley, cut back against the grain and went the distance. Unfortunately for the Bills, Cribbs bruised his knee on a carry on Buffalo's next possession and was sidelined for the rest of the game.
Even without Cribbs, though, Buffalo moved the ball, which was inevitable considering that Cincinnati, which had a division-leading 42 sacks in the regular season, didn't dump Ferguson once. "I don't know why we didn't blitz that much," said Linebacker Reggie Williams. "I can't speak for the coaches. The pregame plan was to pressure Ferguson, but then we didn't blitz."
For his part, Anderson was having his way with the Buffalo defense. After Cribbs's tying run, Anderson marched Cincinnati 65 yards in seven plays for a touchdown with the help of a questionable pass-interference penalty against Cornerback Mario Clark and Anderson's 13-yard scramble for a first down. The Bengals wince every time that Anderson runs because injuries (broken bones in hand, knee, ankle, shoulder, toe) have been the source of many of his difficulties over the years.
With Cincy on the Buffalo 20, Anderson called a draw to Alexander, who sprinted through a big hole at right tackle and carried Safety Bill Simpson into the end zone with him to make it 21-14. It looked like a classic misdirection play, because the blocking went the other way, but it was actually designed to go to the left (over Munoz and Guard Dave Lapham, where Cincinnati ran most of the day), and Alexander simply cut back when he saw that Buffalo was overrunning the play. After the game Alexander was happy but uncomfortable amid a sea of reporters; it was only the second time he had been interviewed all season. "You'll have to excuse me if I'm a little rusty," he said.
Ferguson came right back, with a big assist from Roland Hooks, who was subbing for Cribbs and had 24 yards rushing on five carries and one reception for six yards on the ensuing 79-yard drive. Ferguson's 21-yard pass to Jerry Butler on the first play of the fourth quarter tied the score 21-21.
By this time it was obvious defense wasn't going to win the game. Anderson promptly led the Bengals on a nine-play, 78-yard drive that ended with a 16-yard touchdown pass to Cris Collinsworth that put the Bengals ahead 28-21. It was this drive that demonstrated as well as any the importance of both Infante and the talented Bengal receivers to Anderson. The key play came in a third-and-one situation at the Cincinnati 42. Everyone expected a simple handoff to Johnson, who specializes in short yardage. But earlier in the week Infante had installed a different kind of play for just such a moment. He flooded the inside while slipping Wide Receiver Steve Kreider out in the flat. The play was ticketed for between two and five yards. Kreider gained 42, speeding down the sideline and getting a screen block from speedster Isaac Curtis. "Actually, it was closer to third-and-two," said Infante later, "or we might've run Johnson." Oh.
After two incomplete passes, Infante called for one of the Bengals' "either-side option routes," plays in which both Kreider and Collinsworth could choose any of three patterns. Kreider was double-teamed but Collinsworth found some space in the middle and took Anderson's pass in for the winning touchdown. "The key to the play absolutely was Kenny having the time to make all those reads," said Infante, who is in his second season with Gregg. "And we couldn't run all of our option routes with just any group of receivers. Ours are way above average in intelligence."
So is Anderson, who in July completed studies for his law degree at Northern Kentucky University's Chase College of Law and will take bar exams in both Kentucky and Ohio. His reads on the option patterns have made an all-purpose back out of Johnson, a rookie of the year out of second-round draft choice Collinsworth and a reputation for Tight End Dan Ross, who had a club-record 71 receptions this season and six for 71 yards against the Bills. Only the venerable Curtis, who caught just 37 passes this season, isn't getting the amount of work he wants, but Curtis will be double-teamed until he's 90, and that has helped the other receivers get open.
Anderson is content to let Infante call the plays from the press box, which he does by relaying them to Backfield Coach George Sefcik, who tells backup quarterback Schonert, who sends them to Anderson with hand signals that are more complicated than, say, rubbing the letters and going to the bill of the cap. "We don't want anybody to steal our signals," says Infante.
Even if the Bills signaled in Mohawk it wouldn't explain the blunder that ultimately may have cost them the game.
Buffalo drove to the Bengal 20 where, on fourth-and-three, with 2:58 left, it took a time-out. Then with the 30-second clock ticking and the Bills still huddling, wide receivers Lou Piccone and Ron Jessie were sent into the game. "Why they weren't sent in earlier I don't know," said Ferguson. But Buffalo Coach Chuck Knox said he always sends in the players late in such a situation so the defense doesn't have time to adjust to the new personnel.
In defense of Knox, the Bills got exactly what they wanted—Piccone, who lined up in the backfield, isolated with a linebacker on a short sideline pattern. The ball was snapped and Ferguson passed to him from the shotgun for an apparent first down near the 10-yard line, from where the Bills, who were moving the ball easily, could be expected to score the tying touchdown. But Buffalo was called for delay of game. Faced with a much more difficult fourth-and-eight from the 25, Ferguson overthrew Hooks in the end zone. That was Buffalo's last good chance.
Afterward, Bills Center Will Grant, whose job it is to check the 30-second clock, said it was only at 12 when he put his head down to snap to Ferguson. Ferguson said only that he had to enunciate his count more clearly, what with the crowd noise, and maybe that was what caused the delay. Whatever the cause, Knox didn't protest the penalty, though he reportedly put his fist through a blackboard in the dressing room before the press was admitted. Somebody did, because the board was smashed. Funny it wasn't a clock.
Alexander carried the Cincinnati running attack and some Buffalo defenders as well.
Cribbs broke away for a 44-yard score on this play but was injured soon afterward.
Kreider took a short pass 42 yards down the sideline to set up Cincy's winning TD.
The Bills' last gasp: Piccone's crucial first-down catch was nullified by a penalty.