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The Bengals First AFC Central Championship

Virgil Carter
Virgil Carter

Including the preseason, the Bengals are scheduled for five prime time games this season. Since the start of Monday Night Football (MNF), primetime games have become highly coveted, growing to a point over the past 40 years that when the new schedule is released every year, everyone looks directly for the primetime games and how many your team is playing. When the concept of MNF was hatched, the Bengals were part of the maturation for that season.

NFL games broadcasted in primetime didn't start on ABC, but were actually televised on Saturday nights by the DuMont Network in 1953-1954. Bad ratings and dissolution of the network led to the series ending. After taking over in 1960 and carrying a vision, NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle felt primetime games would help with the league's growth. Initially bid as a Friday night game in 1964, it was heavily criticized as possibly interfering with attendance at high school games. Keeping this in mind, Rozelle decided to experiment scheduling a Monday Night game between Green Bay and Detroit on 28 September, 1964. Although not televised, it was a sellout as 59,203 attended the game at Tigers Stadium.

During contract negotions in 1970, Rozelle's primary focus was having a weekly game in primetime.  NBC and CBS were cold to the idea, so Rozelle took it to ABC. ABC was also reluctant to enter into the risky venture as they were the lowest rated network at that time. Rumors surfaced that Rozelle was signing with independent Hughes Sports Network (owned by Howard Hughes). With the speculation of ABC affiliates pre-empting network line-ups in favor of the games and losing viewership, ABC decided to sign.

The Bengals were founded in 1968, initially joining the American Football League (AFL) prior to the merger in 1970; the same season Monday Night Football premiered on ABC.  Despite a record of 7-20-1 in their first two seasons of existence, they became part of Monday Night Football's first season schedule.  The significance with this game is that it was their first prime time appearance, and the first time they played the hated Pittsburgh Steelers.  Plus, despite losing, it may have been the launching point for a team that was not expected to contend for a playoff spot that season.

Greg Cook was the incumbent quarterback coming into the season, but a shoulder injury thrusted Virgil Carter into the starting role. His performance against the Steelers was not stellar, completing 15 of 29 passes for 142 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions. Running back Jess Phillips was the team's top rusher, gaining 76 yards rushing with 28 yards receiving. For the game, Cincy was able to hang with the Steelers , recording 282 total yards against the Steelers' 281, but committing three turnovers led to the Bengals losing 21-10.  Heading into the fourth quarter, the Bengals had a slim 10-7 lead until Steelers Tight End Dennis Hughes scored on a 72 yard touchdown pass from Terry Hanratty.

This loss put the Bengals in a 1-6 hole, which by most accounts, should have ended any playoff hopes.  The division leading Cleveland Browns possessed a 4-3 record after week seven, holding a three game lead in the division. The primetime loss for the Bengals was the last that season, winning the remaining seven games to finish 8-6 becoming the first ever AFC Central Division champion! The winning streak included a rematch at Riverfront Stadium in week 10 with the Bengals dominating the Steelers 34-7.  Don't let the score fool you, it was close statically except one; the Bengals committed one turnover verses six for the Steelers.  Turnovers kill, baby!

After the Monday night loss, the Bengals went on a string of big victories starting with a 43-14 thrashing of the Bills. After throttling the Steelers, the team continued to rack up high scoring victories against the Saints (26-6), the Oilers (30-20) and finishing the season with a 45-7 beating of the Boston Patriots completing the seven game winning-streak to clinch the title. During this run, a close 17-14 victory against the Chargers in week 12 allowed the Bengals to catch the Browns at 6-6 overall, but were 4-2 to the Bengals 3-3 in the division, with two games remaining.  In week 13, the Browns lost to the Cowboys 6-2 (I am not making it up) giving the Bengals a one-game lead heading into the last week of the season with their victory over the Oilers. All that was needed was a win, which they did, to clinch the division championship.  A lose would have given the Browns the title.

The first Monday Night appearance may not have been the best prime time performance, but may have been what the team needed to gather themselves for a push leading to the franchise's first division title and playoff berth. No one truly knew what the Monday Night football experiment would become. Now that it has become a national institution, those that played in that game can hang their hats on being in the primetime spotlight for Monday Night Football's inaugural season, and clinching NFL's first AFC Central Division title.