The 1981 AFC Championship Game, known as the Freezer Bowl, pitted the Cincinnati Bengals against the San Diego Chargers,
It's often referred to as the Freezer Bowl. Temperatures and winds so cold, man nor beast should ever have to experience. Game time temperature between the Bengals and the San Diego Chargers was -9 degrees with 35 mph winds creating a wind chill of -57 degrees! That is not a misprint. I am from Columbus and was working at a beer-wine drive thru during the coming of this Ice Age, and never forgot how the frozen pop bottles on display exploded sending everyone heading for cover from the glass shrapnel. And yes, some did send glass everywhere.
Despite the ridiculous cold, the Bengals offensive line came out for warm-ups and played the game in short sleeves. Yes, short sleeves! Despite experiencing the same kind of weather in the 1968 NFL Championship game as a member of the Green Bay Packers, Head Coach Forrest Greg felt it was not worth intervening in this lunacy. If you are not familiar with this game, does the phrase "frozen tundra of Lambeau Field" ring a bell? It was played in temperatures that would cause the Iditarod dogs to demand better working conditions. Temperature for that game was -13 degrees.
This was the Bengals first appearance in the AFC Championship game having gotten there by way of a 12-4 season then beating the Buffalo Bills 28-21 in the divisional playoff game. Ken Anderson had come off a season in which he finished as the top rated passer earning league MVP Honors and Comeback Player of the Year. His weapons included wide receivers Issac Curtis and rookie Cris Collinsworth, TE Dan Ross and bruising fullback Pete Johnson. The loony short sleeved offensive line included Dave Lapham, Max Montoya and Anthony Munoz.
This game featured the league's top two offenses with the Bengals averaging 373 yard per game and Chargers averaging a whooping 421.5 yard per game. It also featured two of the top three passing offenses with the Bengals averaging 249 yards per game, but the Chargers possessed Dan Fouts running the Air Coryell offense that averaged 296.2 yards per game. It was expected to be a high scoring affair, but the severe cold may have sapped some of that.
The Bengals started quickly, jumping to a 10-0 first quarter lead on the heels of a Jim Breech field goal and an Anderson touchdown pass to tight end M.L. Harris after Chargers kick returner James Brooks fumbled the kickoff. The Chargers responded with a touchdown pass from Fouts to TE Kellen Winslow in the second quarter to make it 10-7. On the next Charger possession, Fouts was intercepted by defensive back Louis Breeden, setting up a 1-yard Pete Johnson touchdown run making the halftime score 17-7. The Bengals came out in the second half taking control of the game with another Breech field goal to make it 20-7 in the third quarter and then sealed it in the fourth with a touchdown pass from Anderson to Don Bass for a final score of 27-7. This win propelled them to the franchise's first Super Bowl appearance, which was played in Detroit. And it was still cold for that game even thought it was played indoors.
For those who recognize the name of the Chargers' kick returner in the above paragraph but are not sure where, it is the same James Brooks who later became an integral part of the Bengals last Super Bowl appearance. He was traded to the Bengals after the 1983 season for Pete Johnson, playing in Cincy until 1994 making the Pro Bowl four times and becoming the franchise leading rusher at 6,447 rushing yards (since surpassed by Corey Dillion).
Both Anderson and Fouts did not have the same success they enjoyed during the regular season in this game. Anderson finished 14 of 22 for 161 yards and two touchdowns, Fouts had similar numbers at 15 of 28 for 185 yards, one touchdown but two interceptions. Neither teams' running game was a factor as Charger running back Chuck Muncie was the top rusher for the game with 94 yards; Pete Johnson may have been more effective finishing with 80 yards rushing, one touchdown and 14 yards receiving.
The teams did what they could to minimize the impact of the cold. Both teams had seat warmers working at such a volume that it would've caused gas shortages in most third world countries. Fouts had his sleeves stretched over his hands to keep them warm. Ken Anderson ended up with a frost bitten ear and Breech's kicking foot was bruised for days. Fouts' beard was frozen from, well, you know. And despite the inhuman and inhumane temperatures, the devout faithful ventured into the extreme cold air risking frostbite themselves, to witness a game that they will never forget.