With the pinnacle game of the NFL season nearby, I am going back through the archives to discuss the top 10 Super Bowls of all time. Our No. 4 game came down to a game-winning drive, so let's look back on the 1988-89 season and Super Bowl XXIII.
The San Francisco 49ers were working on being the team of the '80s. They had won two Super Bowls already and were ready for No. 3. Despite consistent playoff appearances, they were trying to make it back to the Super Bowl for the first time in four years.
The 49ers started off winning four of their first five, putting them in contention early. They slipped however, losing four of their next six to sit at 6-5 and were in danger of missing the playoffs. However, they would reel off wins in four of the next five games, clinching the NFC West at 10-6.
The team used both QBs Joe Montana and Steve Young, but Montana played most of the season, compiling 2,981 yards and 18 touchdowns. Pro Bowlers Roger Craig (2,036 all-purpose yards, 10 touchdowns) and Jerry Rice (1,306 receiving yards, nine touchdowns) paced the rest of the top 10 offense. The team was led on the other side of the ball by two other Pro Bowlers, FS Ronnie Lott (74 tackles, five interceptions) and LOLB Charles Haley (69 tackles, 11.5 sacks).
The divisional playoffs versus the Minnesota Vikings were the Montana-to-Rice show. The duo combined for three straight touchdowns, giving San Francisco a 21-3 lead. Two touchdown runs by Craig in the fourth quarter sealed the 34-9 victory.
The NFC Championship Game, in freezing cold weather, again showed off the offensive power of Montana to Rice. The two hooked up for a 61-yard touchdown and a 27-yard touchdown. San Francisco stayed in control, handily beating the Chicago Bears and earning a Super Bowl berth with the 28-3 win.
The Cincinnati Bengals were coming off a miserable 4-11 season in 1987. They managed to put it behind them and started off 1988 winning six in a row. They fell off slightly, losing three of their next five. Cincinnati quickly rebounded, winning four of their final five to finish 12-4, clinching the AFC Central.
The NFL’s No. 1 offense was led by Pro Bowl and MVP QB Boomer Esiason, who threw for 3,572 yards and 28 touchdowns. Rookie RB Ickey Woods provided a change of pace, rushing for 1,066 yards and 15 touchdowns, and WR Eddie Brown was the top receiving target with 1,273 yards and nine touchdowns.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Bengals were led by NT Tim Krumrie (152 tackles, three sacks), as well as CB Eric Thomas (64 tackles, seven interceptions).
The Bengals began their playoff run against the Seattle Seahawks. Behind 126 yards and one touchdown from Woods and two TDs from RB Stanley Wilson, Cincinnati was able to hold on to their 21-0 lead and won 21-13.
The AFC Conference Championship saw the Bengals clamp down against the Buffalo Bills. They held the Bills to 181 yards on offense and forced three turnovers. Despite trailing by only four points at halftime, Buffalo managed merely 53 second-half yards. Cincinnati prepared for a Super Bowl trip with a 21-10 win.
Heading into the game, Cincinnati learned that they would be without the rushing services of Wilson, who was suspended for cocaine use.
When the game kicked off, it marked the third time in the Super Bowl two teams were facing off against each other again. San Francisco had won the first matchup 26-21, in Super Bowl XVI.
The two teams would trade field goals in the first half, going into the halftime 3-3. It was the first in Super Bowl game to be tied at halftime. The teams would trade field goals again in the third quarter. On San Francisco’s ensuing kickoff following their field goal, Stanford Jennings would return it 93 yards for the first touchdown of the game. Cincinnati would take the 13-6 lead into the fourth quarter.
San Francisco struck right back, marching 85 yards on four plays, culminating in a 14-yard touchdown to Rice, and the game was tied once again 13-13.
The game stayed tied until 3:20 left in the game, when Jim Breech’s 40-yard field goal ended a 10-play, 46-yard drive and gave Cincinnati the 16-13 lead.
San Francisco would start their next drive on their eight-yard line thanks to penalties. Owning up to his “Joe Cool” nickname, Montana would calmly lead the team on an 11-play, 92-yard drive.
Montana completed four straight passes, moving the 49ers to the Bengals 35-yard line. A penalty backed them up to the 45-yard line, but Montana to Rice worked once again. The two hooked up for a 27-yard completion, followed by an eight-yard pass from Montana to Craig to move the 49ers to the 10-yard line.
The penultimate play came from Montana to Taylor, who caught the pass in the end zone, giving San Francisco the 20-16 lead with under a minute to go. The San Francisco defense would hold, and the 49ers walked away with their third Super Bowl in the 1980s.
Last-minute heroics make Super Bowl heroes. For the San Francisco 49ers, they had plenty on the 1988 squad that came back and won Super Bowl XXIII. That’s what makes it the fourth best Super Bowl on The Sportmeisters Top 10 Super Bowls list.