Instead, ESPN picked the 1976 Bengals’ squad that failed to make the playoffs as the No. 18 team on their list of the best teams to never make it to the final game of the football season. Cincinnati’s two Super Bowl teams of 1981 and 1988 were conspicuous by their absence.
But there is no argument that the 1976 squad was special.
In Cincinnati’s first season without Paul Brown as head coach, the Bengals put together an impressive record of 10-4 under the guidance of Bill Johnson. Cincinnati won nine of its first 11 games, and was without a doubt the Bengals’ best team not to make the playoffs.
Six Bengals made the Pro Bowl that year, including four from a defense that ranked fifth overall and third in passing defense.
Coy Bacon, who the Bengals picked up from the Chargers in exchange for Charlie Joiner, was credited with 22 sacks that season, and safety Tommy Casanova had five interceptions, two of which he returned for touchdowns, and also returned a fumble for a touchdown.
Cornerback Lemar Parrish retired with four punt returns for touchdowns, along with one kickoff return, and finished with 25 career interceptions as a Bengal. Linebacker Jim LeClair also made the Pro Bowl that year.
The Bengals gave up only 15 points per game and had 26 interceptions. Cornerback Ken Riley led the AFC with nine interceptions. The defense forced 12 fumbles and recorded a franchise-record 46 sacks.
The offense was led by Ken Anderson, who completed 179 of 338 passes for 2,367 yards, 19 touchdowns, 15 interceptions and a passer rating of 76.9.
Boobie Clark had 671 yards rushing on 151 carries (an average of 4.4 yards per carry) and scored seven touchdowns, while Isaac Curtis, who barely missed qualifying for the 1972 Olympics, caught 41 passes for 766 yards and six scores.
Two of Cincinnati’s four losses came at the hands of the hated Pittsburgh Steelers, who also finished with a 10-4 record and made the playoffs because of their head-to-head wins over the Bengals.
Cincinnati had at least a share of the AFC Central lead the entire season. In the next-to-last game of the season, Anderson, who led the NFL in passing that year with an overall rating of 98.5, threw two touchdown passes to help the Bengals clinch the division with a 17–10 win over the Steelers.
Cincinnati beat Buffalo in the AFC Divisional Playoff game and then knocked off the Chargers the following week in the Freezer Bowl, where game temperatures reached nine degrees below zero, with a wind-chill factor of minus-59.
The Bengals entered Super Bowl XVI as a one-point underdog to the San Francisco 49ers, and trailed 20–0 at halftime before storming back in the second half to make a game of it. The 49ers eventually hung on for a 26–21 victory.
Anderson was named the NFL MVP that year after completing 300 of 479 passes for 3,754 yards and 29 touchdowns. Rookie wide receiver Cris Collinsworth caught 67 passes for 1,009 yards and eight touchdowns, and Pete Johnson rushed for 1,077 yards (back when 1,000-yard rushing seasons were still uncommon) on 274 carries and 12 touchdowns. Johnson also had 46 receptions for 320 yards and another four scores.
And then there was Cincinnati’s 1988 squad.
That team won its first six games and also finished at 12-4, including an 8-0 record at home. It featured nine Pro Bowl players, including quarterback Boomer Esiason, who was named the NFL MVP after passing for 3,572 yards and 28 touchdown passes with only 14 interceptions while rushing for 248 yards and a touchdown on 43 carries. He finished as the top-rated quarterback in the league with a 97.4 passer rating.
Esiason had plenty of help. Cincinnati boasted six Pro Bowl selections on offense, led by wide receiver Eddie Bown, who had 54 receptions for 1,273 yards and nine touchdowns. Brown set franchise records for most receiving yards in a season, highest yards per catch average in a season (24.0) and most receiving yards in a single game with 216 yards against the Steelers.
Wide receiver Tim McGee and tight end Rodney Holman combined for 75 receptions for 1,213 yards and nine touchdowns.
Rookie Ickey Woods rushed for 1,066 yards and 15 touchdowns and contributed 21 receptions for 199 yards. Running back James Brooks added 1,218 total yards rushing and receiving and scored 14 touchdowns.
Anthony Munoz, probably the best left tackle ever to play the game, and right guard Max Montoya led one of the best offensive lines in the league as the Bengals’ offense led the NFL in scoring with 448 points, rushing yards with 2,710 and total yards with 6,302.
Cincinnati’s defense was led by defensive tackle Tim Krumrie and defensive backs Eric Thomas and David Fulcher, who combined for 12 interceptions. The Bengals eventually lost Super Bowl XXIII 20-16 on a 10-yard pass from Joe Montana to John Taylor with 39 seconds left.
Any or all of these three Bengals’ teams are worthy of being considered among the best teams never to win a Super Bowl. Which team would have been your choice?
Which Bengals’ team was the best team to never win a Super Bowl
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