Johnny, how cold was it? It was so-o-o-o cold that.... Well, let's put it this way: It was the coldest Jan. 10 in Cincinnati history and probably the coldest game played in the NFL since the discovery of the wind-chill factor. It was nine below zero at the start of Sunday's American Football Conference championship game in Riverfront Stadium, with northwest winds gusting up to 35 mph, and by the third quarter the old w-c factor had dipped to an estimated 59° below zero. Now that's cold. "I can't ever remember a colder day than this one," said Cincinnati Coach Forrest Gregg after his team had iced the AFC title with a 27-7 win over San Diego. Gregg is an expert on the subject because he played for the Packers in the fabled 1967 Ice Bowl in Green Bay against the Cowboys. On Sunday in Cincinnati the Amundsen polar expedition wouldn't have made it to the 50-yard line.
The curious thing is that it was obviously cold on only one side of the line of scrimmage. The Cincinnati offensive linemen even played in short-sleeved jerseys, attire more suitable to the Hula Bowl. Bengal Quarterback Ken Anderson whistled his passes hard and accurately into the teeth of the arctic winds while his San Diego counterpart, Dan Fouts, seemed to be sailing kites. "You can't throw a ball you can't grip," said his tight end, Kellen Winslow. "The ball wasn't hard to handle," said Anderson. Anderson threw no interceptions; Fouts had two costly ones. And of the Chargers' four fumbles, two fell from their frostbitten fingers into the hot hands of the enemy, both leading to Bengal scores. "There should be no doubt from now on about the value of the home-field advantage," said Gregg in apparent praise of the Queen City's brutal climate. Could that be it? The Midwesterners were better acclimated to the frigid conditions than the Californians. But how could that be? Nearly half of the Bengals played their college football in Sunbelt states. Two of those bare-armed linemen, Anthony Munoz and Max Montoya, are out of USC and UCLA, respectively. And the two wide receivers, Isaac Curtis and Cris Collinsworth, reside in Santa Ana, Calif. and Titusville, Fla., respectively.
No, the fact is the Bengals were just tougher, smarter and better. Cincinnati's defense frustrated the Chargers every bit as often as the wind and the chill, and the Bengal offense would have pursued its relentless game plan if the two teams had played on an ice floe, which was virtually the case.
The Bengals outsmarted the Chargers from the very outset when, after winning the toss, they elected to kick off and defend with the wind at their backs, hoping that the nor'wester would blow down the vaunted San Diego passing attack and force the Chargers to kick into it from a disadvantageous field position. San Diego nearly upset this scheme by running Chuck Muncie for a first down on two straight sweeps. Then Fouts decided to test the air. His first pass was blown away from Winslow, his second was in the flat to Wes Chandler for a minuscule one-yard gain and his third danced in the air like a balloon before it dropped short of Charlie Joiner. Success! Now Punter George Roberts would be obliged to kick a leaden ball with a frozen foot into an icy gale. His wobbler was good for only 27 yards, and the Bengals started a drive from their own 36 that would end with a 31-yard Jim Breech field goal. Breech, a cheerful little (5'6") Californian, was the only kicker who had any success at all in this game. He would boot another field goal in the third quarter, convert three extra points and even make a tackle on a kick return, something he likes to do from time to time to "show my teammates I'm more than just another flaky kicker."
The Bengals scored again less than a minute after Breech's first field goal when James Brooks fumbled the kickoff after a hit by Cincy's Rick Razzano. Wide Receiver Don Bass, once, but certainly no more, the team's forgotten man, fell on the ball at the Charger 12. Two plays later, Anderson found M.L. Harris, the second tight end in a two-tight-end formation, alone in the end zone for the score. The game wasn't eight minutes old and the Bengals had a 10-point lead.
The Chargers had the wind at their backs in the second quarter and scored almost instantly when Fouts, narrowly escaping Eddie Edwards' rush, lofted a screen pass to Winslow, who broke a succession of tackles for a 33-yard touchdown. That was about the last anyone would see of Winslow—or the Chargers—the rest of the day. On Cincinnati's next possession, Anderson demonstrated that a chill wind in your face need not be a factor. He completed four passes to four different receivers, the last an admitted floater that Curtis caught on the one. Pete Johnson, down now to a svelte 248 pounds (from 249), pounded into the end zone over and through 255-pound John Woodcock for a 17-7 lead.
It was the little-known Bass who put the game in cold storage with 6:52 left to play when he made a brilliant reception of Anderson's three-yard touchdown throw. For a man who made only cameo appearances in three other games this season and who was in on only 10 plays—six of them kickoffs—on Sunday, his contributions to this, his team's biggest victory, were out of all proportion. He had been directly responsible for two of the three Bengal touchdowns. A third-round draft choice out of Houston in 1978, he was a starter until a knee injury sidelined him in the 1980 season. He had expected to spend the afternoon on the Bengals' heated bench, but on Saturday he was told he would at least play on the kickoff team, a dubious honor tendered him, he reasoned, because of a fumble recovery he had made in Cincinnati's regular-season 40-17 win over this same San Diego team. History quietly repeated itself on Sunday, and Bass was prepared to accept this latest fumble recovery against the Chargers as his sole, though hardly insignificant, contribution. Then he was instructed to enter the game in the fourth quarter as a wide receiver. He was convinced he was in purely as a blocker along with tight ends Dan Ross and Harris because the Bengals had first down on the Chargers' four. Bass weighs 220 pounds, nearly 30 more than the skinny Collinsworth and 20 more than another wide receiver, David Verser, who had a sore thumb anyway.
After Johnson gained a yard, Anderson, on instructions from the bench, called a pass play—146 All-Cross, which has both tight ends and a running back flooding the strong side while leaving the wide receiver to fend for himself. Anderson said later that Halfback Charles Alexander was his primary target but Bass got open. "I made a head move on [Cornerback Willie] Buchanon to the outside and then hooked inside," Bass said. "I knew he had to respect the outside move because he had no help there. Turns out he had no help on the inside either. It was sweet." It was Bass's first touchdown reception of the season. It was also his first pass reception, period. And how many balls have been thrown his way this year? he was asked. "You just saw it," he replied.
The short-sleeved Bengal linemen simply outmuscled the not-exactly-sturdy Charger defense, and for once the Charger offense, the most productive in NFL history, didn't run up 30 or 40 points. The Cincinnati defense, confronted with a team that had gained 6,744 yards in the regular season, had a game plan of its own. "We have probably the most complex defense in the NFL," said Linebacker Reggie Williams. "We are as versatile as the San Diego offense." The Bengals harried Fouts with variations of their basic 3-4 defense, which included occasional five-linemen lines, in one of which defensive ends Eddie Edwards and Mike St. Clair lined up as inside linebackers and then blitzed.
The defense also "ignited," to use Williams' word, on Winslow and Muncie, the league's leading receiver and touchdown maker, respectively. Winslow was faced with a variety of coverages—both zone and man—and with blitzes on his side that forced him to remain on the line as a blocker. The plan for Muncie was to keep him from breaking to the outside, where his speed is troublesome. Also, if he could be turned inside where the crowds congregate, his chances of fumbling would be enhanced. And, says Williams, "We knew that historically he has a reputation for fumbling the ball." True to form, Muncie fumbled twice, once when a blitzing Williams drove his helmet into the ball, propelling it into the hands of Defensive End Ross Browner. That led to Breech's second field goal, a 38-yarder in the third quarter. Overall, the Bengals outgained San Diego by only 17 yards, but they won the turnover game 4-1.
The bitter weather scarcely cooled the ardor of Cincy fans, who had waited 14 years for a championship. They stomped their cold feet thunderously in the game's dying seconds and showered the frozen field with debris. An even wilder scene took place in San Francisco, where 49er fans had waited 36 years for their championship. So now the former have-nots, both of them 6-10 teams last year, are in the Super Bowl. It must have been a cold day in hell, too.