- James Walker, ESPN Staff Writer
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Analysis: If not for the late-game heroics from San Francisco 49ers Hall of Fame quarterback Joe Montana, the 1988 Cincinnati Bengals would have earned the franchise's first and only Super Bowl title. Instead, they join a long list of great teams that are often forgotten after losing in the big game.
With the Bengals leading by three points, Montana drove San Francisco 92 yards for a touchdown late in the fourth quarter to seal a 20-16 victory in Super Bowl XXIII. Montana's game-winning touchdown throw to receiver John Taylor with 34 seconds remaining has been replayed constantly and is a reminder of how close the Bengals were to winning the Super Bowl.
But being that close to a title is what makes the '88 Bengals the best team in franchise history.
Cincinnati's explosive offense led the NFL in scoring with 448 points and in total yards in '88. Esiason threw for 3,572 yards and 28 touchdowns, and the Bengals nearly had two 1,000-yard rushers in Ickey Woods (1,066 yards) and James Brooks (931 yards).
The '81 Bengals also won the AFC and are a close second. Coincidentally, Cincinnati lost to San Francisco in the Super Bowl that year as well.
Most impressive win: Despite Cincinnati lighting up the scoreboard all season, the AFC Championship Game was a defensive battle against the Buffalo Bills.
The Bengals had to win with toughness, holding the Jim Kelly-led Bills to 181 total yards in a 21-10 victory. Cincinnati held Buffalo to 45 yards rushing and forced three turnovers. The Bengals also ran the ball 50 times for 175 yards in the win to set up their Super Bowl showdown with San Francisco.
Research room: The Bengals had seven Pro Bowlers in '88. Esiason, Munoz, Brooks, Brown and tight end Rodney Holman represented the AFC on offense. On Cincinnati's defense, Fulcher and Krumrie also earned Pro Bowl nods.
The Ickey Shuffle: To the casual football fan, probably the most memorable aspect of the run made by the '88 Bengals was the invention of the "The Ickey Shuffle."
Woods came up with a famous (infamous?) touchdown dance that consisted of a stutter-step to each side, then a spike of the football. Artistically, "The Ickey Shuffle" wasn't all that great. But it became one of the most well-known touchdown celebrations in NFL history.
1981: This remains the only other Bengals team to play in a Super Bowl. Quarterback Ken Anderson had a career year, throwing for 3,754 yards, 29 touchdowns and a 98.4 passer rating.
2005: The best team of the Marvin Lewis era, Cincinnati went 11-5 and won the AFC North. But a first-quarter knee injury to quarterback Carson Palmer led to a quick playoff exit against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
1975: Another first-round playoff exit makes this a quality but forgotten team. The Bengals were very well-balanced in '75 and ranked in the top seven in total offense (No. 2) and total defense (No. 7).