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TDBH: Best Bengals team ever ‘runs out of time’ in Super Bowl XVI
January 24, 2018 05:00 AM | Geoff Hobson

PONTIAC, Mich. - Whenever the Bengals of Winter gather to reminisce, never mind Joe Montana to John Taylor. The one that really hurts is the ice pick through the heart tonight in the Pontiac Silverdome during the franchise's first Super Bowl in that Arctic opening to '82. Considered the best Bengals team ever and today's best team on the field, they can't recover from a nightmarish first half of three turnovers that translate to 17 San Francisco points in a 20-0 half-time deficit and lead to a 26-21 loss. The Bengals end up making history, but it's not what they have in mind as the first team to outgain a Super Bowl champion. It makes a winner of Niners head coach Bill Walsh, the old Paul Brown student who had tutored Bengals quarterback Ken Anderson for the first five seasons of his career. When it is over, Anderson looks for Walsh while holding the hand of six-year-old son Matt. Walsh steps down from a media podium to console them and after a few hushed moments, the Andersons leave into history and Walsh goes back to the press and into the Hall of Fame. Shakespeare doesn't even write this stuff.

Anderson, off an NFL MVP season he runs Walsh's West Coast offense to textbook perfection, sets Super Bowl records with 300 yards passing, 25 completions, and his signature accuracy of 73.5 percent. "I think he'd be in the Hall of Fame if we'd won. He had the four (NFL) passing titles, but he didn't win a championship," says wide receiver Cris Collinsworth of Anderson years later as an Emmy Award winning analyst. "When you lose the Super Bowl, it's amazing. You're just one of the other teams that lost in the playoffs. No one remembers who lost." Collinsworth takes some of the blame. The Bengals are headed for a tying touchdown at 7 early in the second quarter when Anderson hits him over the middle from the Niners 27. But cornerback Eric Wright pries the ball loose as Collinsworth hit the ground and it is recovered at the 8. "If there was instant replay, they would have ruled the ground caused the fumble," says Bengals kicker Jim Breech. "But that's the way the whole game was. A bunch of what ifs." It is mind-numbing. The 49ers' first TD is set up on an Anderson red-zone interception and the second on that Collinsworth red-zone fumble. Montana won't get into the end zone again. But, unbelievably, in the last moments of the first half the Bengals can't handle two kickoffs to give up six more points. "Those six points were doomsday for us," says Hall of Fame left tackle Antony Munoz. It doesn't help years later when 49ers free safety Dwight Hicks tells Anderson he was in the wrong spot for that early interception that set the tone.

Figures. It is a surreal day all the way around. With the first northern Super Bowl buried in ice outside, Collinsworth remembers the team bus crawling to the Silverdome and barely getting there in time to get dressed an hour and 45 minutes before kickoff. "Guys were getting in fights to get taped first," Collinsworth says as trainers Bill Connelly and Paul Sparling scramble to get away from one scuffle. But the scrum everyone remembers is the Niners' goal-line at the end of the third quarter. Three straight stops from the 1 after the Bengals crawl to within 20-7. "In my heart," Collinsworth says, "I think we would have come back all the way if we had scored there. But who knows? We did come back to score a touchdown." Leave it to Bengals long-time radio analyst Dave Lapham, the left guard today, to break it down all those years later. "On second down, (rookie wide receiver) David Verser went in motion and didn't get his block on the linebacker, and they blew up (running back) Pete (Johnson) in the backfield," Lapham says. "On third down (running back) Charles Alexander couldn't quite finish off his route on a pass in the flat and (Niners linebacker) Dan Bunz somehow stopped him six inches from the end zone. Most times, his body would have just fallen, but Bunz somehow caught him at the right angle. Then on fourth down, we ran Pete right and they stopped him ... It came down to the little things, little mistakes. We made them and they didn't."

Before they blow up the Silverdome decades later, whenever the Bengals go there to play the Lions Lapham heads to that goal line in pre-game warmups knowing, "I've got a Super Bowl ring buried here ...I went from the greatest high of my career to the lowest low of my career on the same day. All in three hours." Years later in the reminisces head coach Forrest Gregg just wishes he had a little more clock. "The thing I'll always remember," Gregg says, "is that we could have lain down in the second half. But we came back. We made it a game, and almost pulled it out. It was a good team with good guys who played hard and wanted to win badly. The way I like to think about it is that we didn't lose. We just ran out of time."

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