Super Bowl XXIII rematch: The play that changed Bengals history


To celebrate Super Bowl 50, NFL Media's Elliot Harrison is looking back at each of the 19 Super Bowl rematches on the regular-season schedule in 2015, revisiting the clashes of the past as former Super Sunday opponents square off once again.

This Sunday's rematch: Cincinnati Bengals at San Francisco 49ers, 4:25 p.m. ET.

Reunites the combatants from: Super Bowl XXIII (49ers 20, Bengals 16).

It could have been a Malcolm Butler-esque play, 26 years in arrears.

The outcome of Super Bowl XXIII and the legacy of the Cincinnati Bengals were both forever altered on a play their cornerback didn't make ... Lewis Billups' fourth-quarter interception that wasn't.

"There was a sense of dread when you watched Lewis Billups drop that interception," said Solomon Wilcots, who was a cornerback for the Bengals that season. "That was the one because you knew [Joe Montana] wasn't going to give you another shot. ... It just takes your momentum, robs you of your energy, and you've got to regain your focus to overcome it. All of those things take place. There was a sense of dread, like, 'Oh, we're going to live to regret this.' "

Billups' dropped pick in the fourth quarter of the Cincinnati-San Francisco Super Bowl rematch prevented an almost sure victory for the Bengals. And to understand the import of the play, it's both vital to look at the play itself and the history of these two clubs, as well as how each are viewed today.

One yard and a mouthful of Astroturf

The Bengals and 49ers first met in a Super Bowl seven years prior, in Super Bowl XVI. It was the first opportunity the then-legendless San Francisco franchise had at hoisting the Lombardi Trophy, and it was a chance for a still relatively young Cincinnati organization (by NFL standards) to become a real player in pro football's oligopoly.

The Bengals made the Super Bowl in their 14th year of operation. They were young enough for a patient fan base that had dealt with a decade of Steelers dominance in the old AFC Central -- and old enough to appreciate pro football's biggest stage. Cincy's players acquitted themselves well, too, giving Bill Walsh's young 49ers team, featuring an already fantastic Montana, all it could handle.

San Francisco ended up prevailing on the strength of its defense, coupled with the failure of the Bengals offense, with a fierce goal-line stand being the coup de grâce.

With Cincy trailing 20-7 on second-and-goal from the 1, 1,000-yard back Pete Johnson got jacked at the line. Then, on third-and-goal, the Bengals eschewed the services of their 260-pound tailback (sound familiar?) and tried a pass -- and Charles Alexander cut his route too short before getting tackled by Dan Bunz, one foot short of pay dirt. On fourth-and-goal, Cincinnati went to their bread and butter again, with Johnson eating it short of the goal line once more. Cincinnati, behind league MVP Ken Anderson, rallied furiously, but could never close the gap in the 26-21 loss.

Bitter West Coast pills to swallow

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While Billups, Eric Thomas, David Fulcher and Wilcots -- the talented Bengals secondary Dick LeBeau developed on the Super Bowl XXIII team -- were early in their college years, 49ers head coach Walsh used the victory in Super Bowl XVI to bolster his budding reputation as an offensive guru. The 49ers were second in the league in offense in 1984, going 15-1 before besting the Dolphins in Super Bowl XIX. And by the time Walsh and his team entered their second Super Bowl match with Cincinnati, he had led the 49ers to seven playoff appearances in 10 years.

Those trophies could've been sitting in Paul Brown's office, and every Bengals fan knew it. Brown was not only the founder of the team, but as the first head coach in franchise history, he had passed on his top offensive assistant -- Walsh -- as his successor in 1976. Devastated, Walsh was an offensive coordinator for San Diego and coached at Stanford for two years before taking the head coaching job in San Francisco in 1979.

A decade later, here was Walsh, trying to win his third title while stealing another from the ill-fated Bengals ...

Team of misfortune

... though Cincy wasn't ill-fated entering the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XXIII. Despite losing his best defensive player, head coach Sam Wyche's group had more than held its own. Up 13-6, the defense kept arguably the NFL's greatest quarterback in check while foiling Walsh's swan-song season. Montana and that West Coast offense? Six points through three quarters. It was to be Cincinnati's night.

Until it wasn't.

Trailing 13-6, but in the Bengals' red zone, Montana looked for the quick strike to tie up the contest. On second-and-10, John Taylor ran a deep slant from the right side of the formation. As Taylor got into his route, Billups undercut him, attaining inside position, forcing Montana to make an almost perfect throw.

He did -- that is, if Billups had been the one running the slant and wearing a 49er uniform. Montana's seven-step drop resembled more of a graceful backslide, except for the part were the future Hall of Fame quarterback threw off his back foot, à la a certain Bears passer some 26 years later. The spiraling football landed softly in Billups' hands, with the corner on the run, as if the play were designed for him, not Taylor. And just as soon as it arrived in Billups' mitts, it bounced out, taking the hopes of an entire organization (and city) along with it.

On third down, Montana hit his throw right on Jerry Rice's numbers for a 14-yard touchdown. Tie ballgame. After Jim Breech hit a field goal to put Cincinnati back up, Montana took over with 3:20 to play and 90 yards to go. Eleven plays later, we all saw Taylor beat Billups to win the game, a pitch-and-catch captured by NFL Films and relived every year with other great moments of Super Bowls past.

It's funny, though, because that's not the most important play from the 49ers' final drive, the one that Wilcots remembers. Earlier in the drive, the Bengals forced the 49ers into a second-and-long situation.

"You know they have to throw it, they know they have to throw it and we know they're throwing it to Jerry Rice," Wilcots recalled. "If you go watch the play, and God bless Ray Horton because I learned a lot from him, but he took the wrong angle and ran into two other defenders, so three players collide, Jerry Rice is running into the night and converts. Two plays later was the touchdown to win the game."

Since that time, the heritage of the 49ers franchise has been celebrated ad nauseam. Deservedly so, as San Francisco not only made the plays to win Super Bowl XXIII, but XXIV and XXIX to boot. Meanwhile, Cincy is yet to get back, with a Shula, an owner's son and a redheaded passer variously being to blame. And one can only wonder what could've been if Billups had caught that ball.

Every game, all season

Up seven in the fourth quarter with the NFL's top-ranked rushing offense to close the door? Sounds pretty plausible. Even if Ickey Woods and James Brooks -- who combined for about 2,000 rushing yards between them that season -- couldn't churn out first downs, the Bengals had the league's MVP in quarterback Boomer Esiason to convert on third. Essentially, the game would've been Cincy's to lose. More importantly, the Cincinnati Bengals would hardly be lumped in with other NFL have-nots. This would have been a club with a sleek, new offensive attack to be copied by everyone, with a Super Bowl win over an opposing quarterback and head coach respected by everyone.

And the play of Billups -- who passed away in a car wreck five years later -- would have stood tall alongside that of Butler and "Old Man Willie" from Super Bowl XI.

Except it wasn't to be.

Did you know?

Although far more famous, Walsh's final 49er team, along with the West Coast offense he masterminded, didn't come anywhere close to matching Wyche's own creation -- the no-huddle. The '88 Bengals terrorized defenses, pacing the NFL in points scored, rushing and passer rating. The "K-Gun" offense of '90s Bills lore was essentially a direct copy of Wyche's unique attack.

Follow Elliot Harrison on Twitter @HarrisonNFL.



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