The Super Bowl is just 36 days away. Let’s look at the Super Bowl from 36 years ago to honor this not that significant occasion!
Super Bowl XVI was played in the Pontiac Silverdome on January 24, 1982. The game pitted the NFC champion San Francisco 49ers against the Cincinnati Bengals of the American Football Conference.
San Francisco 49ers 36 Years Ago
The 1981 49ers experienced a decade of mediocrity. Alas, a QB from Notre Dame came upon a white horse. His name was Joe Montana and he was about to rewrite the San Francisco and NFL history books. Bill Walsh, a Paul Brown disciple ironically from his Bengals’ days, served as 49ers head coach. His offensive scheme featured short passing plays mixed with runs by unheralded backs.
The 49ers’ best offensive weapon was wide receiver Dwight Clark. He possessed great hands and ran great routes.
On defense, the Niners were excellent in the defensive backfield. However, they were very young. They started three rookies every game of the season. Ronnie Lott, Eric Wright and Carlton Williamson were good from week one. Lott was special. Dwight Hicks was in his third season. He finished the year with 239 interception-return yards and was invited to the Pro Bowl.
San Francisco added Jack Reynolds and Fred Dean to bolster their run defense and pass rush. And it worked. In fact, the ’81 49ers finished 2nd in the league in defense and just 13th in team offense. So, their dynasty began like most of the greatest in NFL history after all. Defense wins championships.
They finished the 1981 season with 15 wins in their last 16 games. Atlanta and Philadelphia were suppose to be the best teams in the NFC. But, the Falcons never got off the ground and the Eagles slumped down the stretch and lost in the wild card game. In the end, the Niners and Cowboys were the leaps and bounds the two best teams in the conference.
The Niners beat the Giants and the Cowboys walloped the Buccaneers to set up the game of the season in the NFC. The teams went back and forth in an instant classic. The 49ers controlled the tempo of the game. But, whether it was nerves or whatever, they were mistake-prone. They turned over the ball an incredible 6 times.
Still, they only trailed 27-21 with five minutes left. They moved the ball slowly, but surely. They mostly relied on the running of veteran Lenvil Elliott and the catching of Dwight Clark. Indeed, it was a spectacular catch by Clark which is known as “the catch” that propelled the Niners into the Super Bowl. When Montana threw the pass, it looked as if he was throwing it away. But, Clark outjumped Everson Walls and scored. Dallas’ QB Danny White fumbled on the final series and the 49ers were Super Bowl-bound.
Cincinnati Bengals 36 Years Ago
The Bengals were surprisingly the best team in the AFC in 1981. They proved that with a 40-17 thrashing at San Diego. Their only loss during the last two months of the season came at home to the 49ers.
Three-time World champion Forrest Gregg was the Head Coach of the 1981 Bengals. Their defense was average, finishing 12th. However, their offense was excellent. League MVP and longtime Bengals’ starter Ken Anderson had a brilliant season. Rookie wide receiver Cris Collinsworth and fullback Pete Johnson also made the Pro Bowl.
In the playoffs, Cincinnati outlasted Buffalo 28-21. Next up, the high-powered San Diego Chargers. The Chargers defeated Miami in overtime in an epic. San Diego went from that hot, humid victory in Miami to Cincinnati to play in one of the coldest games ever recorded.
The Chargers were once again no match for the Bengals, losing 27-7. Cincinnati with their brand-new stripes were on to their first Super Bowl.
The Bengals got the first break when the Niners fumbled the opening kickoff. But, Anderson gave it right back with a red zone pick by Hicks. San Francisco took their opening drive to the one-yard line. Subsequently, Montana dove in for the first score.
The Bengals consistently moved the ball. But, they turned it over 4 times. For one, Collinsworth committed a critical red zone fumble. The Niners took advantage of these miscues, scoring 10 points in the second quarter. They squibbed a last-second kickoff at the end of the half. Sure enough, the Bengals fumbled again. San Francisco added one more field goal and the score was 20-0 at the break.
The Bengals did not fold. They scored the next 14 points around a superb 49ers’ goal-line stand. However, Joe Cool sealed the deal with a FG drive that put the game in hand. And the Niners intercepted Anderson again in the closing minutes.
Thus, the 49ers won their first of five Super Bowls over the next 14 seasons. The Bengals would rebuild and be back seven years later. Unfortunately for them, Cincy lost Super Bowl XXIII…to Joe Montana and the San Francisco 49ers.
Brandon Fazzolari is a Super Bowl expert…@spot_Bills