Cincinnati Bengals play Sunday in their 4th AFC title game and have their sights set on their first Super Bowl win

The Cincinnati Bengals are in an unusual situation.

On Sunday, the team meets the Kansas City Chiefs for the second consecutive AFC championship game. It is only the fourth time in franchise history that the Bengals have played in a conference title game. They won the previous three appearances in this round and advanced to the Super Bowl, where they lost every time.

Still, for much of the franchise’s history, the Bengals have been among the least successful franchises in the league.

As of last January, they hadn’t won a playoff game in 31 years and lost seven wildcard games in that span, including five in a row from 2011 to 2015. And aside from the three seasons they’ve appeared in the Super Bowl, they have only one playoff win. That happened on January 6, 1991, when the Bengals defeated the Houston Oilers 41-14 in a wild card game when quarterback Boomer Esiason threw two touchdown passes and ran for another.

The next week, they lost 20-10 to the Los Angeles Raiders, the start of a playoff winning streak that would not end until January 15, 2022.

Now, with quarterback Joe Burrow at the helm, the Bengals are playing in back-to-back AFC title games for the first time. Cincinnati is an underdog against the Chiefs and plays in a tough street environment, but the Bengals have defeated the Chiefs in their last three matchups, all of which have been decided by three points, including a 27-24 win on Dec. 4 in Cincinnati.

Here’s a look at the Bengals’ other three AFC title games:

January 10, 1981 – Bengals defeat San Diego Chargers 27-7 in Cincinnati

The Bengals entered the 1981 season after finishing bottom in their division for three consecutive seasons. And they had only made the playoffs three times, losing in the first round each time.

Still, Cincinnati broke through with a 12-4 win that season, winning AFC Central and earning the conference No. 1 in the playoffs. The Bengals opened the postseason with a 28-21 win over the Buffalo Bills when quarterback Ken Anderson threw the game-winning fourth-quarter touchdown to rookie receiver Cris Collinsworth, now NBC’s lead game analyst.

The next weekend, the Bengals defeated the Chargers by 20 points in the so-called “Freezer Bowl” due to the cold conditions: the temperature was -9 degrees while the wind chill was -59 degrees. Anderson threw for two touchdowns while the defense pressured Chargers All-Pro quarterback Dan Fouts, who went 15 of 28 for a touchdown and two interceptions and was sacked twice.

In the Super Bowl on January 24 in Detroit, the Bengals lost 26-21 to the San Francisco 49ers, who won their first title. San Francisco quarterback Joe Montana was named the game’s MVP after rushing for 157 yards and a touchdown on 14-of-22 and attempting another touchdown.

January 8, 1989 – Bengals defeat Buffalo Bills 21-10 in Cincinnati

The Bengals won their division and entered the playoffs with a 12-4 record as the No. 1 in the AFC. They had the largest point difference (119 points) in the league and averaged an NFL-best of 28 points per game.

After a bye, Cincinnati opened the playoffs against the Seattle Seahawks, the AFC West champions, on New Year’s Eve. At halftime, the Bengals were up 21-0 after three quick touchdowns. The Seahawks then scored two touchdowns in the fourth quarter to make it 21-13 and got the ball back about two minutes from time but didn’t score.

The AFC title game featured the top two seeded teams and a replay of a regular season matchup in which the Bengals defeated the Bills 35-21 at home on November 27. The Bengals won again in the playoffs when they rushed 50 times for 175 yards and two touchdowns and had a 39:29 to 20:31 advantage in possession time. Bill’s quarterback Jim Kelly threw three interceptions and completed just 14 of 30 passes.

The Super Bowl was a rematch of the game seven years earlier and had the same outcome. This time the 49ers won. 20-16, culminating with Montana’s 10-yard touchdown pass to John Taylor with 34 seconds remaining. That was ranked as the 21st greatest game in NFL history and was a heartthrob for the Bengals, who were ahead despite Esiason completing just 11 of 25 passes and throwing an interception.

January 30, 2022 – Bengals defeat Chiefs 27-24 in overtime in Kansas City

The Bengals were one of the surprise teams of the past year. They were bottom of the division for three straight years and haven’t made the playoffs since 2015.

Despite this, Cincinnati won three of their last four regular season games, won the AFC North and entered the playoffs No. 4. They won the wild card game 26-19 against the Las Vegas Raiders, their first playoff win since January 1991. The following week, the Bengals traveled to Tennessee and defeated the No. 1-seeded Titans 19-16 as kicker Evan McPherson scored a 52-yard field goal after time was up.

The Bengals traveled again to the AFC title game. The Chiefs were the No. 2 seed and favorites after making it into the conference championship game for the fourth straight season.

At halftime, the Chiefs led 21-10, although the game was far from over. The Bengals went on to score the next 14 points, including a 52-yard field goal from McPherson that gave Cincinnati a 24-21 lead with just six minutes left.

On the next drive, Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes completed five consecutive passes, including a two-yarder on Travis Kelce that gave Kansas City a first and a hit on the five-yard line with 1:30 left. But in third place from the 9 yard line, Mahomes was released and fumbled, but Kansas City recovered at the 26 yard line.

The Chiefs then turned to kicker Harrison Butker, who scored a 44-yard field goal after time was up, to send the game into overtime. Kansas City won the coin toss and gained first possession in overtime, but the Chiefs went three-and-out. On the next possession, McPherson got through again, hitting a 31-yard field goal and sending the Bengals to their first Super Bowl in 33 years.

Like the Bengals in the Super Bowl in January 1989, they took the lead in the second half. Cincinnati led the Los Angeles Rams 20-13 after McPherson’s field goal 10-15 in the third quarter. But they didn’t score another goal and lost by 23:20 when Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford threw Cooper Kupp a 1-yard touchdown pass with 1:25 left. Kupp had eight catches for 92 yards and two touchdowns and was named the Super Bowl Most Valuable Player.


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