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 He was replaced by Turk Schonert—you've never been replaced by Turk Schonert so you don't know how it feels, do you?—who led the Bengals to a 27-21 victory.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.