One inch, maybe two, is all that kept the 1988 Cincinnati Bengals from having to travel an entirely different path to Super Bowl XXIII.
The Bengals entered their season finale against the defending Super Bowl champion Washington Redskins needing a win to clinch the AFC Central Division and a win and some help to have a shot at the No. 1 seed and home-field advantage in the playoffs.
The win appeared to be heading out the window that Saturday afternoon until … doink!
With 11 seconds remaining, Washington rookie kicker Chip Lohmiller lined up for a short, game-winning field goal, but the 29-yarder hit the inside of the upright and bounced back onto the field, keeping the score tied 17-17.
Then, eight minutes into overtime, Jim Breech nailed a 20-yard field that lifted the Bengals to a 20-17 victory and the division championship.
“I said to myself, ‘If (Lohmiller) misses this, then this is the Bengals’ year,’ ” Cincinnati quarterback Boomer Esiason said. “Damned if he didn’t hit the upright. Our trainer came running back saying, ‘Joe Post should get the MVP award.’
“It’s just a special year right now,” Esiason added. “Much like (the Redskins) last year, it’s us this year.”
The pressure of needing the win appeared to get to the Bengals early in the game, as they fell behind 10-0 on a 20-yard pass from Doug Williams to Gary Clark and a 43-yard field goal by Lohmiller, his 10th in a row.
The Bengals rallied to tie on a 50-yard field goal by Lee Johnson and a 17-yard pass from Esiason to Tim McGee with 62 seconds left before halftime.
Washington regained the lead in the third on a 44-yard TD from Williams to Ricky Sanders, and it looked as though that might be the game-winner as the Bengals offense struggled for much of the second half.
But Esiason hooked up with Eddie Brown for a 69-yard touchdown that tied the game with 8:20 remaining.
Brown had not scored in his previous five games and was held without a catch the week before in Houston. He had two against the Redskins, but the 69-yarder was huge.
And it almost went for naught.
Washington answered with a 15-play drive that ate up more than eight minutes of clock before Lohmiller trotted out for the chip shot with 11 ticks to go.
Even though he knew the situation was dire, Bengals linebacker Reggie Williams said he tried to stay positive.
“When you’re forced to rely on something as uncertain as blind hope, realism can ruin the moment,” he said. “So I chose not to mess up my mind with reality.”
After the miss, the Bengals got another break when Barney Bussey sacked Williams in overtime and forced a fumble that David Grant recovered to set up Breech’s game-winner.
“I don’t know whether to laugh or cry,” head coach Sam Wyche said emotionally after the game. “It was a whale of a game to watch, but it was tough to win the way we had to win it. We were bloody and beaten up and the odds were against us at the end, but we were able to do what we had to do.
“We ended the season the way we started,” Wyche added, referring to the goal-line stand in the final seconds of the season-opening win against the Cardinals. “We went right down to the wire at the end of the game and had the battle of wills go our way.”
Cincinnati got one final break the following day when Buffalo lost 17-14 to Indianapolis, earning the Bengals home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
Dec. 17, 1988
Cincinnati Bengals 20, Washington Redskins 17
At Riverfront Stadium
Washington 3 7 7 0 0 — 17
Cincinnati 0 10 0 7 3 — 20
W: Chip Lohmiller 43 field goal, 9:33
W: Clark 20 pass from Doug Williams (Lohmiller kick), 2:27
C: Lee Johnson 50 field goal, 5:57
C: Tim McGee 17 pass from Boomer Esiason (Jim Breech kick), 13:58
W: Sanders 44 pass from Williams (Lohmiller kick), 4:14
C: Eddie Brown 69 pass from Esiason (Breech kick), 6:29
C: Breech 20 field goal, 7:31
Washington – Doug Williams 17-22-1-217; Cincinnati – Boomer Esiason 10-19-0-187
Washington – Jamie Morris 45-152, Rickey Sanders 2-14; Cincinnati – Ickey Woods 18-115, James Brooks 3-7, Boomer Esiason 3-8
Washington – Ricky Sanders 6-120, Art Monk 6-52, Gary Clark 4-37, Mike Oliphant 1-8; Cincinnati – Eddie Brown 2-115, Tim McGee 3-49, Rodney Holman 2-16, Ickey Woods 1-6, James Brooks 2-1