Legendary Days: The Freezer Bowl- 1981 AFC Championship Game

For all the romanticized hyperbole when The Ice Bowl is brought up, The Freezer Bowl is largely forgotten about. The 1981 AFC Championship between the Cincinnati Bengals and the San Diego Chargers was colder from a wind chill factor perspective at -59*.  Do you realize that is 90* below freezing?? This was where Air Coryell unceremoniously crash landed for good and became the ultimate lesson on why achieving home field advantage is so important.

It was a hard earned lesson and we covered this in the championship rings for Cincinnati… so this one is being told from the Chargers’ perspective

Head Coach Forrest Gregg carried off by his Cincinnati Bengals players.

One man happened to be involved in both games.  Hall of Fame Tackle Forrest Gregg started for the Green Bay Packers in the ’67 NFL Championship. Then he went into coaching where he was the Bengals head man when they advanced to the ’81 AFC Championship Game. The winner would make the trek to Super Bowl XVI in frozen Pontiac Michigan, they first had to endure the coldest game in NFL history.

A frozen Dan Fouts.

Coming into 1981 the San Diego Chargers had been the vanguard of the new passing offenses that dominated with the rules of 1978, which liberalized the passing game. Head coach Don Coryell had revived the passing attack with many of Sid Gillman’s principles from the old AFL Chargers and forged a passing game that became the scourge of the league.

Now the head slap was outlawed on the line of scrimmage. Offensive linemen were allowed to extend their arms in pass protection, and receivers weren’t allowed to be hit after 5 yards. Offenses had been liberated from the thunderclap of defense which had dominated both the AFL & NFL since the mid 60’s.

Dan Fouts became the 1st QB to challenge and break Joe Namath’s all time record 4,007 yards passing when he broke it with 4,082 in 1979. Then he pushed it to new heights throwing for 4,715 yds in 1980, and finally 4,802 in 1981. However his Charger teams fell short of greatness by short circuiting in the playoffs. First they stumbled in a mind numbing 17-14 upset loss at home to the Houston Oilers in ’79, then again to the arch rival Oakland Raiders in the 1980 AFC Championship Game.

Also a loss at home in sunny San Diego. In all reality this team was losing it’s prime and not capitalizing on the championship window that was before them.

Armed with 3, 1,000 yard receivers in TE Kellen Winslow, WR Charlie Joiner, and now WR Wes Chandler, it was interesting to watch individual battles. Fouts led the league with 33 TDs, the late Chuck Muncie led the league with 19 rushing TDs to go with his 1,144 yards and James Brooks had nearly 900 yds from scrimmage and 6 more scores. Nevertheless they fell to 10-6 and had to go on the road in the ’81 playoffs.

One reason this game wasn’t remembered with the reverence of The Ice Bowl is it didn’t produce a champion. Another reason is it was buffered against 2 other memorable playoff games in January 1982. One was the Epic In Miami where the Dolphins and the Chargers played in 76* weather for 6 quarters in a 41-38 divisional thriller. The other was The Catch in the NFC Championship between San Francisco and Dallas the following week. Yet earlier on January 10, 1982 San Diego’s 2nd straight road affair took them to Cincinnati for the AFC Championship Game.

If you’re keeping score at home, yes the San Diego Chargers had to play in 140 degree temperature difference in one week’s time.  There were heated buses outside Riverfront Stadium in case fans needed to get warm. A Sports Illustrated article the following week reported 43 fans suffered heart attacks at the game.

Temperature difference withstanding, the divisional game against Miami went into 6 quarters in high humidity, so the Chargers were exhausted.

It was the end of an era for Charger power. Sure they made the playoffs in 1982 but so did everyone else in the strike shortened year where 16 teams were in a single elimination tournament. Proof?? They beat a Pittsburgh team in the 1st round that had been shut out twice by non playoff teams. In one of them they lost to Buffalo 13-0 and finished the day with -2 yards passing. Yes that is with Terry Bradshaw….yet I digress

Age and injuries caught up to the Chargers as well as AFC West opponents to their air attack. John Elway and Marcus Allen came in and the balance of power shifted toward the Broncos and Raiders. In 3 of the next 5 years, Fouts watched those teams play on the Super Bowl stage he so desperately wanted to lead the Chargers to. He retired after the 1987 season and when you look back to the 2 AFC Championship Games lost it was this one that produces the most what ifs.

Thanks for reading and please share the article.

The Freezer Bowl – 1981 AFC Championship Game

For all the romanticized hyperbole when The Ice Bowl is brought up, The Freezer Bowl is largely forgotten about. The 1981 AFC Championship between the Cincinnati Bengals and the San Diego Chargers was colder from a wind chill factor at -59*. This was where  Air Coryell unceremoniously crash landed.

One man that happened to be in both games was Hall of Famer Forrest Gregg. He was the starting Tackle for the Green Bay Packers in the ’67 NFL Championship. Then he was the Head Coach of the Bengals in 1981 when they advanced to the AFC Championship Game. In a game where the winner would make the trek to Super Bowl XVI, they first had to endure the coldest game in NFL history.

Error
This video doesn’t exist

From the perspective of the ’81 San Diego Chargers

Error
This video doesn’t exist

One reason this game wasn’t remembered with the reverence of The Ice Bowl is it didn’t produce a champion. Another reason is it was buffered against 2 other memorable playoff games in January 1982. One was the Epic In Miami where the Dolphins and the Chargers played in 81* weather for 6 quarters in a 41-38 thriller. The other was The Catch or the NFC Championship between San Francisco and Dallas later that same day.

If you’re keeping score at home, yes the San Diego Chargers had to play in 140 degree temperature difference in one week’s time. Cincinnati won the game and went on to Pontiac, Michigan to face the 49ers in Super Bowl XVI. Yet it’s hard to forget -59* below zero.

Thanks for reading and please share the article.

SUPER BOWL XVI RUNNER UP 1981 CINCINNATI BENGALS

The NFL and the media leave some of the greatest stories in NFL history on the cutting room floor.  It gets old that the only stories recounted are those centered on the 49ers, Cowboys, Steelers, and Packers. The league is too vast to just talk of a few glamour teams when others deserve their due and have stories just as rich.

sbxviRemember when the Dallas Cowboys went from 1-15 to 7-9 in 1990 and CBS, ESPN, Sports Illustrated, etc. acted like Moses had just parted the Red Sea?  This turnaround was NOTHING, I repeat nothing compared to what the 1981 Cincinnati Bengals pulled off.  Imagine a perennial loser winning 6 more games than the season before, then 2 playoff games and coming within 5 points of winning the Super Bowl after having a losing season the year before.

Can a team really change its stripes??  Actually in 1981 the Cincinnati Bengals did.  Gone were the drab orange helmets with the dull “Bengals” written across it being replaced by simulated tiger stripes on the helmets, jerseys, and pants.  Back then teams rarely changed their uniforms at all…there wasn’t NFL Properties and Pro Shops back…huh?  *whispers off stage*…  We’re not talking actual stripes?  Oh about how a team plays…got it…Where were we?

sbxvi2The 1981 Cincinnati Bengals had one of the three greatest turnarounds in the history of the NFL.  From a 6-10 season to 12-4 AFC Champions,  and having lost in one of the most competitive Super Bowls of the first 16 games.  Don’t forget this is before ALL of free agency as we know it today which includes the defunct “Plan B” free agency of the late 80’s.  How did they do it?

Having been a member of the 1960’s Green Bay Packers, Head Coach Forrest Gregg infused Lombardi-esque work ethic and toughness into Cincinnati. This team’s belief in itself actually began in 1980 when they stood up to perennial division and league champion Steelers sweeping them in both games. THIS SWEEP ended the Steelers dynasty and allowed the Cleveland Browns to win the division.

Cleveland finished 11-5 to the Steelers 9-7 and since they split their games, Browns winning by 1 and Steelers winning the other by 3 points.. In the event of a tie breaker with the same record, Pittsburgh would have won the division. With new-found confidence they battled the Browns to the bitter end in the season finale, losing 27-24 in a great game where the lead changed hands 6 times.  Yet the seeds for the next year had been planted.

The 1981 team was bouyed by a youthful enthusiasm stemming from several good young players who didn’t have that Bengal loser baggage of the previous decade.  WR Cris Collinsworth was a rookie sensation with a 1,000 yd season. OT Anthony Munoz, building his Hall of Fame resume’ was in his 2nd year. Throw in DB Louis Breeden, rookie DBs the late Bobby Kemp, and Robert Jackson.  Rookie WR David Verser and this team was younger at many key positions.

sbxvi3Of course there were some old pros on hand too: Under the radar QB Ken Anderson became league MVP throwing for 29TD passes, and there was ageless CB Ken Riley (should be in the Hall of Fame). The late Dan Ross was a good TE. As with the WRs of this team they faced older CBs in the division who had a hard time chasing the Bengal kids on astro turf in 3 of the 4 stadiums within the division. A very hard time…

So they went into 1981 ready to go.  After a so-so beginning to the season they finished winning 7 of their last 8 games including a second straight sweep of the Steelers to nail the coffin shut on that dynasty forever which gave them 5 wins in the last 6 games against them.  The Bengals were headed to the playoffs…Who? The Bengals…

I’m still upset over the AFC Divisional Playoff game where leading MY Buffalo Bills 28-21 and frantically driving to tie the game late in the 4th quarter.   When on 4th down Joe Ferguson hit Lou Piccone who slid over the 1st down mat (when they drop the chains) on the sideline and the refs ruled the catch short of a first down. Horrible spot…one of the worst in history yet I digress…**remember what the dr. said…count to 10…and…sigh**

cc16On to the game this team is most remembered for, winning the 1981 AFC Championship game in -59* wind chill over the Chargers 27-7. Yikes!! The poor Chargers had to play in a temperature difference of 140 degrees just 1 week after the “Epic in Miami” which they stood NO chance of winning. There were heated buses outside Riverfront Stadium in case fans needed to heat up. Temperature difference withstanding, the divisional game against Miami went into 6 quarters in high humidity, so the Chargers were exhausted.

Well win more games and get home field advantage next time.

Since they weren’t used to the cold, the Chargers were dismissed easily by the Bengals. Then of course SuperBowl XVI against the San Francisco 49ers in the Silverdome. Where they came within a goal line stand of producing the greatest turnaround in Super Bowl history.  They were down 20-0 at the half and were held off 26-21 after a furious second half rally.

Boys and girls that is a turnaround!!  Here is the bauble for the achievement of becoming the 1981 AFC Champions.  Fall short of their goal?? I doubt they began the season thinking they’d seriously win the Super Bowl…

What do you think???

Thanks for reading and please share the article.

 

NFL Bracketology: 1978 Pittsburgh Steelers v. 1981 Cincinnati Bengals

Cincinnati Bengals coach Forrest Gregg led the Bengals past the rival Steelers and into Super Bowl XVI.

Alright, raise your hand if you know who was responsible for halting one of the most revered dynasties in NFL history?? It was the Cincinnati Bengals THAT ENDED THE STEELERS DYNASTY!

In 1979, the final season the Steelers won a Super Bowl, they lost to an 0-6 Bengals team 34-10. Then in 1980 the Bengals SWEPT the Steelers who went 9-7 allowing the Browns to win the AFC Central 11-5 ending the Steelers dynasty. Then for good measure, in 1981 the Bengals SWEPT the Steelers again to hammer the last nails in Pittsburgh’s dynasty coffin enroute to their Super Bowl XVI appearance. The Bengals beat the Steelers 5 out of 6 times and you’re asking why would they belong here?

Terry Bradshaw drops back during the first half of Super Bowl XIII.

That being said, the ’81 Bengals would have lost in a competitive game to the ’78 Steelers who were at the height of their power (offense, defense & experience). As a defense they peaked in 1976 but once the offensive rules were liberated, Terry Bradshaw came into his own as an elite passer and threw for 28 TDs in 1978.

The defense didn’t have to be as good as 1976 because the offense, still with 1,000 yard rusher Franco Harris, was the most complete in the NFL. Still they only allowed 195 points for the season (Denver was second with 198) and this team roared to a 14-2 record. Their dynasty apex (ed) somewhere during the 3rd quarter of Super Bowl XIII against the Dallas Cowboys.

In that game we watched Roger Staubach, after the Jackie Smith TD pass drop, start hitting receiver after receiver bringing Dallas back from a 35-17 deficit to within 35-31. Thank God Rocky Blier recovered that onside kick. The Steeler defense was running on fumes by the end of the game and it carried over into 1979 and especially in the 1979 playoffs. They were never as strong as this 1978 team.

The Cincinnati Bengals were built to compete with the Pittsburgh Steelers and were strong on the line of scrimmage. Pete Johnson and Charles Alexander would be able to run but not with as much success as Joe Greene, Jack Lambert, Steve Furness and John Banaszak would bend but not break.

Also in 1978 and 1979 the Steelers had to blitz more to get pressure on the quarterback.Look at the Super Bowl XIII and XIV highlights and you’ll see it. How do we know this? In Super Bowl XIII against Dallas, the Steelers blitzed with an 8 man front that Staubach burned for a 39 yard TD to Tony Hill to tie the game at 7-7.

Bengal QB Ken Anderson would have success throwing intermediate passes which are effective against this blitz. You forget that Bill Walsh and the west coast offense is really Paul Brown’s offense as it was taught to Walsh in Cincinnati.

You also forget that Ken Anderson had been a league passing champion in the mid 1970s and led Cincy to the playoffs in ’73 and ’74. So the Bengals had some success and would have been able to get deep at least twice in this game with lanky rookie Cris Collinsworth.

The difference is that LB Reggie Williams, DE Eddie Edwards, DE Ross Browner, and LBs Glen Cameron and Bo Harris were physical and emotional players but couldn’t make enough big plays against the 1978 Steelers and would lose. 34-18. Against the ’78 Steelers they wouldn’t win but I already showed you how they owned the Steelers after that…so don’t doubt their being mentioned in this tournament.