Most football fans are familiar with the AFC West Division, which consists of Oakland, Kansas City, the San Diego (now Los Angeles) Chargers and Denver.
What most people are not aware of, though, is that there was a time when there was a fifth team in that division. In 1968, the American Football League’s West Division (the forerunner to the AFC West) consisted of the Raiders, the Chiefs, the Chargers, the Broncos and . . . the Cincinnati Bengals.
In their inaugural season, the Bengals called the west coast home, and they were there for two years before moving to the AFC Central after the merger of the AFL with the NFL in 1970. Cincinnati finished that first season with a record of 3-11, then went 4-9-1 in 1969. The AFC Central later became the AFC North with realignment in 2002.
The teams played twice a year for those first two years, with the Broncos owning a 3-1 advantage. The Bengals won the initial meeting between the two teams by a 24-10 score in their second game of the 1968 season, then lost the next three meetings. Denver holds a 21-9-0 advantage, and has won 7 of the last 9 and 18 of the last 21 times these teams have met.
Probably the most memorable defeat for the Bengals came in the 2015 meeting between the two teams. Cincinnati went into Mile High Stadium with a chance to claim home field advantage and a bye in the first round of the playoffs with a win.
Instead, the Bengals, led by backup quarterback A.J. McCarron, came out with an overtime loss that would thrust them into a first-round matchup with the dreaded Pittsburgh Steelers, and the rest is history.
As remarkable as that contest was, though, there were other games between the teams that have etched themselves into Bengals lore.
In 2006, Denver had a starting quarterback named Jay Cutler, and he was going up against a Carson Palmer-led Bengals team that came into the game with a record of 8-6 and playoff aspirations still dancing in their heads.
Palmer struggled throughout most of the day, but marched the Bengals down the field on a drive that culminated with a scoring strike to T.J. Houshmandzadeh and pulled Cincinnati within one point at 24-23. A bad snap resulted in a missed extra point, and the Broncos recovered the onsides kick to run out the clock.
But, of all the games played between these two teams, nothing can come close in terms of sheer drama and excitement to the 2009 contest that pitted Palmer and the Bengals against the Broncos, who were now led by Kyle Orton.
The game was actually pretty boring right up to the end. Denver had slogged to a 6-0 lead on the strength of a pair of Matt Prater field goals before the Bengals finally were able to get something going late. A Cedric Benson touchdown run put Cincinnati up by a score of 7-6 with only 38 seconds remaining.
Denver faced a second-down-and-10 at its own 13-yard line, with the clock down to 28 seconds. Orton fired a short pass on the right sideline that was intended for Brandon Lloyd, who was surrounded by three defenders. The ball should have been intercepted by Bengals’ cornerback Leon Hall.
Instead, Hall batted the ball into the air, and it fell right into the waiting arms of Brandon Stokley. Stokley raced 56 yards untouched into the end zone, and the Broncos had one of the most improbable wins ever.
Hopefully, the Bengals will not be in for any of the same type of melodrama when they travel to Denver on Sunday.
Brock Osweiler will be making his third consecutive start for the Broncos Sunday, and it was Osweiler who was at the helm of the 2015 meeting. In his previous two games, Osweiler has completed 37 of 71 passes for 429 yards, two touchdowns and three interceptions.
Denver, like Cincinnati, comes into the matchup with a 3-6 record and is still stinging from a 41-16 shellacking at the hands of the Patriots on Sunday. This is not quite a “playing for pride” type of game, but the loser will be well on its way to doing just that.