Still, after a 20-16 loss to the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XXIII and eight consecutive playoff letdowns between the 1991-2005 campaigns, it's fair to say the franchise has had more downs than ups in the luck department and may be overdue. Here we take a look at the moment the Bengals were at their luckiest, back in the 1990 season.
After finishing fourth place in the AFC Central in 1989, Cincinnati battled back as contenders during the following year. In Week 17, the Bengals faced the 3-12 Cleveland Browns in a game with playoff implications. The division rivals traded consecutive scores and went into the fourth quarter tied at 14.
Quarterback Boomer Esiason, a franchise icon, tossed a 48-yard pass to Eric Ball, who scored what became the game-winning touchdown with six minutes and 20 seconds left in regulation. It was his second catch of the season.
At 9-7, the Bengals completed one half of the equation for an AFC Central title. They needed the Houston Oilers to beat the Pittsburgh Steelers' No. 3-ranked scoring defense with backup quarterback Cody Carlson, who made his first start in place of Warren Moon that day. Ironically, the Pro Bowl signal-caller dislocated the thumb on his throwing hand in a Week 16 contest against Cincinnati.
Carlson completed 22 of 29 passes for 247 yards, three touchdowns and just one interception against the Steelers' vaunted defense in a 34-14 victory. The Oilers earned a playoff spot and cleared the pathway for an AFC Wild Card matchup with the Bengals at Riverfront Stadium, where they had lost the game and Moon back in Week 16.
The chain reaction of results placed Cincinnati in a favorable position as the host for an opponent starting a backup quarterback in his first playoff game. The Bengals dominated at home and haven't won a postseason contest since that 41-14 blowout.
Looking back at the 1990 campaign, so much fell into place for Cincinnati to win its sixth division title in dramatic fashion. The sequence presents a setup that seemed destined to occur with a franchise star in the spotlight for one of his last big moments in a Bengals uniform.
Regardless, the Bengals helped create their good fortune. Without a win in the regular-season finale against the Browns, Cincinnati would've missed the playoffs at 8-8 in back-to-back terms, erasing the most recent postseason victory in franchise history.
Esiason's game-winning highlight moment featured one of the least-expected receivers on the field in Ball. He recorded the first receiving touchdown of his career on that play.
It's not easy rebounding from a close Super Bowl loss. The Bengals managed to do so within two seasons led by a top-five ground attack. As a whole, the team had its flaws. The defense ranked 19th in scoring and 25th in yards allowed. In his seventh year, Esiason didn't have a standout season statistically, with a league-leading 22 interceptions, but he came through in the clutch.
Following the 1990 season, Esiason spent two more years with the Bengals before a trade sent him to the New York Jets. He returned to Cincinnati for the 1997 season to take over for Jeff Blake but never made it back to the playoffs.
Almost 27 years after Esiason's 48-yard pass to Ball, quarterback Andy Dalton threw a 49-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Tyler Boyd, which knocked the Baltimore Ravens out of the playoffs and allowed the Buffalo Bills to end their 18-year playoff drought via tiebreaker.
At 7-9, Cincinnati didn't reap the benefits in playoff positioning like the Oilers in 1990, but the fanbase can only hope what goes around comes back around with a little more luck on their side this season.