Super Bowl XXIII

January 22, 1989
Joe Robbie Stadium in Miami, Florida

San Francisco 49ers 20
Cincinnati Bengals 16

This was the second Super Bowl meeting for these two teams in the ’80s. And this may have been the best Super Bowl of the ’80s. The game is remembered for the 49ers’ fourth-quarter game-winning drive. This was the final NFL game coached by the 49ers’ Bill Walsh as well as the final Super Bowl that Pete Rozelle presided over as NFL Commissioner.

For the 49ers, it was their first Super Bowl appearance since they defeated the Miami Dolphins in Super Bowl XIX. They had made the playoffs in the three seasons between Super Bowl XIX and Super Bowl XXIII, but were eliminated each time in the first round, primarily because of the poor performances by their offensive stars in those games; quarterback Joe Montana, receiver Jerry Rice and running back Roger Craig all failed to produce a single touchdown.

In the 1988 season, San Francisco won the NFC West with a 10-6 regular season record, but it was a long uphill battle. The team had a quarterback controversy with Montana and Steve Young each starting at quarterback during the season. But after a 6-5 start, Montana led the 49ers to win 4 of their final 5 regular season games.

The Bengals were also a team on the rebound. During the 1987 strike-shortened season, quarterback Boomer Esiason and head coach Sam Wyche had openly feuded, and the team finished with a miserable 4-11 record. A lot of Bengals fans would have been happy to see them both leave the team, but they worked out their differences in the off-season and Esiason ended up having the best season of his career en route to Super Bowl XXIII. During the regular season, he threw for 3,572 yards and 28 touchdown passes with only 14 interceptions, while also rushing for 248 yards and a touchdown on 43 carries. Esiason’s performance made him the top rated quarterback in the league with a 97.4 passer rating and earned him the NFL Most Valuable Player Award. The Bengals also had rookie phenom – fullback Ickey Woods was their top rusher with 1,066 yards and 15 touchdowns, while also catching 21 passes for 199 yards and gaining a lot of media attention with his “Ickey Shuffle”, a dance routine he did in the end zone to celebrate his touchdowns.

The Bengals went on to defeat the Seattle Seahawks, 21-13, and the Buffalo Bills, 21-10, in the playoffs.

Meanwhile, Bill Walsh guided the 49ers to their crushing playoff wins over the Minnesota Vikings, 34-9, and the Chicago Bears, 28-3. With the win over the Bears, the 49ers became the first road team to win an NFC Championship Game since the 1979 season.

Prior to the game, Coca-Cola distributed 3-D glasses at retailers for viewers to use. At the onset of the halftime show, primary sponsor Diet Coke aired the first commercial in 3-D (Coca-Cola had originally planned to use the 3-D Diet Coke commercial as part of the 1987-1988, aired in 3-D season finale of Moonlighting, but withdrew plans due to the 1988 Writers Guild of America Strike).

This game also marked the debut of the USA Today Super Bowl Ad Meter. The first winner of the annual survey was an ad from American Express starring Saturday Night Live stars Dana Carvey and Jon Lovitz, who went to the game with different credit cards – Carvey with AmEx rival Visa, Lovitz with American Express.

After both teams traded punts, San Francisco scored first on a 41-yard field goal from kicker Mike Cofer.
The next score didn’t come until there was 1:15 left in the half. The Bengals got a 34-yard field goal by Jim Breech. The two teams went into their locker rooms tied 3 – 3, the first halftime tie in Super Bowl history, and the lowest halftime score since the Pittsburgh Steelers took a 2 – 0 halftime lead over the Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl IX.

On the opening drive of the second half, the Bengals got another field goal, making the score 6-3. But San Francisco was able to tie the game, 6-6, with another field goal themselves. With less than a minute left in the third quarter, it appeared that this would become the first Super Bowl ever to go 3 quarters without either team scoring a touchdown. But on the ensuing kickoff, Bengals kick returner Stanford Jennings returned the ball 93 yards for a touchdown to give the Bengals a 13 – 6 lead.

But the 49ers immediately responded with a touchdown of their own, on an 85-yard, 4-play drive, capped by a Joe Montana 14-yard touchdown pass to Jerry Rice. The game was tied, 13 – 13.

The Bengals got a 40-yard field goal, giving them a 16-13 lead with 3:20 left in the game. The 49ers returned the ensuing kickoff to their own 15-yard line with 3:10 on the clock, but an illegal block penalty on the play pushed the ball back half the distance to the goal line to the 8.

Montana then led an 11-play, 92-yard drive to score the winning touchdown. Assuming that the Bengals would expect him to throw the ball near the sidelines (to enable the receivers to step out of bounds to immediately stop the clock), Montana first threw a pair of completions in the middle of the field, one to Craig and one to tight end John Frank. His next pass went 7 yards to Rice, which was then followed up by a pair of runs by Craig to reach their own 35-yard line. Montana then completed a 17-yard pass to Rice to advance the team to the Bengals 48-yard line, and followed it up with a 13-yard completion to Craig to move them to the 35-yard line.

But on the next play, Montana threw his first incomplete pass of the drive. After that, Cross committed an illegal man downfield penalty, which at the time was a 10-yard foul, moving the ball back to the 45-yard line and bringing up second down and 20 to go with just 1:15 left in the game. But Montana overcame the situation on the next play with a 27-yard completion to Rice, who caught the ball at the 33, evaded 3 Bengal defenders, and ran to the 18-yard line before Horton managed to tackle him to prevent a touchdown. An 8-yard pass to Craig then advanced San Francisco to the 10-yard line. Then with 39 seconds left in the game, Montana finished the drive with a 10-yard touchdown pass to Taylor, giving the 49ers the lead for good. Finally, San Francisco’s defense sealed the victory after Esiason’s pass to Collinsworth was broken up as time expired.

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