Under conditions that Forrest Gregg, the winning coach, described as "devastating," the Cincinnati Bengals had enough body heat and big plays today to dominate the San Diego Chargers, 27-7, in the coldest American Football Conference championship game in history.
As their reward for containing the most proficient offense in the NFL, the AFC champion Bengals will play their next game in the 70-degree comfort of the Silverdome in Pontiac, Mich., Jan. 24 in the Super Bowl.
In temperatures that ranged from 9 below zero at kickoff to 4 below in the fourth quarter, with a wind chill factor of minus 54, Bengal quarterback Ken Anderson completed 14 of 22 passes for 161 yards and two touchdowns. The first touchdown pass went to tight end M.L. Harris for a 10-0 Bengal lead midway through the first period; the other one went to tight end Don Bass, who had not caught a pass this season.
Bass also recovered a first-quarter fumble by James Brooks, the Chargers' kickoff return man, to set up the Bengals' first touchdown in a game that featured four Charger turnovers and an abysmal performance by quarterback Dan Fouts, who could not cope with the cold.
"I wouldn't send my dog out in that kind of weather," said San Diego tight end Kellen Winslow, who caught three of Fouts' 15 completions today. Winslow's receptions included a 33-yard touchdown pass-run with a screen early in the second period.
"Dan could not get a grip on the ball because his fingers were frozen," Winslow said. "Anderson is a little more used to it. The cold didn't bother me, but it did bother the quarterback. We could have played in 70 below if Dan could have gripped the ball. But if he cannot throw it, we cannot catch it. It's as simple as that."
To his credit, Fouts refused to use the cold as an excuse for so many flutter balls and ill-conceived throws into heavy Bengal coverage. "Sometimes I was able to throw the ball, sometimes I wasn't," he said. "It was even for both sides. We have no excuses."
Well, just one. Charger Coach Don Coryell complained about the wind blowing from an open stadium door behind the goal post into his players' faces when the Chargers had the ball in the first period. The Bengals had won the toss and elected to defend, forcing San Diego to move first into the wind.
The door was closed late in the first quarter, and for all intents and purposes, the Bengals slammed it tighter when they showed utter disdain for the wind by driving 55 yards for a touchdown, Pete Johnson's one-yard run behind left tackle Anthony Munoz.
"That was a big, big, big series," Gregg said. "We scored against the wind when everyone thought we couldn't make it."
And the way they scored, with five passing plays in the seven-play drive, sent a message to the chilly Chargers. The Bengals were not about to let a little wind and a little cold interfere with their warmest wishes, the first Super Bowl appearance in the franchise's 14 years.
That touchdown gave the Bengals a 17-7 advantage with 9:57 left in the second period, and then the Bengal defense did its part.
The Chargers had third and three at the Bengal 33 a few minutes later. Winslow tried running his pattern up the middle but a Bengal defender had a death grip on his jersey--lots of harm, no penalty--and Fouts was forced to throw toward veteran Charlie Joiner.
The ball was underthrown and cornerback Louis Breeden stepped in front and intercepted the pass. The Chargers held on downs and were threatening again with a first down at the Cincinnati 21 with 1:21 left in the first half.
Fouts eluded pressure and ran out of the pocket to his right. There was lots of open field in front of him, but he elected to throw toward Winslow in the right side of the end zone. Fouts said he was trying to fire high so Winslow, 6 feet 5, could leap and catch it.
"The ball just hit a wind pocket and came right down," said Bobby Kemp, the Bengals' strong safety, who caught it and ran the interception back to the 19. Winslow landed on his very sore shoulder and needed attention from the trainers. He played the second half, but did not catch another pass.
The Chargers' problems continued on their first possession of the third period. Linebacker Reggie Williams hit Chuck Muncie, Muncie fumbled and Ross Browner recovered at the Cincinnati 41. Nine plays later, Jim Breech kicked his second field goal of the day, this one 38 yards, for a 20-7 Bengal lead with 7:47 left in the third period.
The Bengals' only turnover came late in the period when Willie Buchanon recovered a fumble by tight end Dan Ross at the Charger 10, ending a drive that would have chilled San Diego for good.
But the Bengals forced San Diego to try a 50-yard field goal, and Rolf Benirschke's numb foot got off a low line drive that barely went 25 yards.
The Bengals had one more scary moment. Anderson had to leave the field for two plays on the next series after he was knocked wobbly trying to run the football, something he did rather nicely all day with 39 yards in five carries.
But on third and seven at the Charger 46, his replacement, Jack Thompson, beat a blitz with a quick pass to fullback Johnson for a 14-yard gain and a vital first down.
Anderson returned and did nothing but hand off to Johnson and Charles Alexander, who lugged the ball to a first and goal at the Charger four. From there, Anderson found Bass open over the middle. Bass leaped high--"I threw it real hard; I don't know how he caught that ball," Anderson said--and the Bengals had a 27-7 lead with 6:52 left.
"I was lined up tight in the flanker position," said Bass, who hadn't played much this season after having offseason knee surgery that kept him on injured reserve until Oct. 9.
"The man on me (Buchanon) had outside position on me. I gave him a move to the outside and he had to respect it because he had no help out there. Then I turned it inside, and it turned out he had no help inside, either. Am I happy? Hell, I didn't even find out I was on the kickoff team until yesterday morning. It's very sweet, definitely."