September 20, 2010

1987: 49ers Defeat Bengals with Montana to Rice TD on Final Play

The San Francisco 49ers were coming off of a bad opening game loss to the Steelers as they took on the Cincinnati Bengals at Riverfront Stadium on September 20, 1987. Star QB Joe Montana (pictured at right) had passed for over 300 yards but was also intercepted three times and the 49ers trailed throughout. The Niners, under Head Coach Bill Walsh, had won at least ten games in five of the previous six seasons and had two Super Bowl victories and it was anticipated that they would contend once more.

The Bengals had won their opening game at Indianapolis. In their fourth season under Head Coach Sam Wyche, they had not won nearly as steadily as the 49ers but were coming off of a 10-6 record in ’86.

It certainly seemed that Cincinnati would keep up the momentum as they scored on their first possession, driving 80 yards in 13 plays capped by a two-yard touchdown run by FB Larry Kinnebrew. The next time they got the ball, the Bengals again put together a sustained scoring drive that ended with a 23-yard field goal by Jim Breech. The 49ers had just two short possessions that ended in punts and Cincinnati led by 10-0 after the opening quarter.

San Francisco finally put together an eight-play, 80-yard drive in the second quarter that resulted in Montana’s 38-yard touchdown pass to WR Mike Wilson. But the Bengals came back as QB Boomer Esiason tossed a 46-yard TD pass to TE Rodney Holman seven plays later. After another punt by the Niners, Breech capped the Cincinnati possession with a field goal, this time from 42 yards, and the Bengals took a 20-7 lead into halftime.

However, the 49ers dominated the third quarter. On their first possession, Montana passed to WR Jerry Rice for a 34-yard touchdown to narrow Cincinnati’s margin to 20-14. Then LB Keena Turner picked off an Esiason pass that led to Ray Wersching kicking a 24-yard field goal. The Bengals went three-and-out when they got the ball back and San Francisco responded with an 11-play drive that resulted in Wersching’s tying field goal from 31 yards.

In the fourth quarter, Cincinnati got a break when S David Fulcher recovered a fumble by Niners TE Ron Heller; four plays later Breech put them back in front with a 41-yard field goal. After the 49ers went three-and-out, the Bengals held onto the ball for ten plays that resulted in Breech’s fourth field goal of the day, this time from 46 yards.

When San Francisco went nowhere in three plays and had to punt with less than a minute remaining, it appeared that Cincinnati’s 26-20 lead was safe. The Bengals ran the clock down to six seconds. With fourth down on their own 30 yard line, Coach Wyche elected to run the ball rather than punt or take a safety, figuring that keeping the ball on the ground would use up the remaining time. RB James Brooks began to run a sweep but was stopped immediately by 49ers DE Kevin Fagan for a five-yard loss.

The play took up just four seconds, giving San Francisco one shot with 0:02 remaining and the ball on the Bengals’ 25 yard line. Montana lobbed the ball into the end zone where Rice leaped high to make the catch for a touchdown. Wersching kicked the extra point and the 49ers came away with a stunning 27-26 win.

Cincinnati outgained San Francisco in total yards (292 to 261) and significantly in rushing yardage (128 to 56), although both teams averaged less then three yards-per-carry.

Joe Montana hit on 21 of 37 passes for 250 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions. Mike Wilson led the receivers with 7 catches for 104 yards and a score, while Jerry Rice (pictured at left) had four receptions for 86 yards and two TDs. RB Roger Craig was the team’s top rusher with 35 yards on 12 carries.

For the Bengals, Boomer Esiason completed 14 of his 29 passes for 180 yards with a TD and one picked off. James Brooks and WR Cris Collinsworth caught three passes apiece, for 28 and 32 yards respectively, while Rodney Holman had the most receiving yards with 55 on his two catches that included the one long touchdown. Larry Kinnebrew gained 84 yards on 22 carries with a score to lead all runners.

In a season that was affected by a strike and games utilizing replacement players, the 49ers ended up with a 13-2 record to win the NFC West. They were upset by Minnesota in the Divisional round of the playoffs. Cincinnati had a disappointing 4-11 tally to place at the bottom of the AFC Central. These teams would next meet in the Super Bowl following the 1988 season.

Jerry Rice’s game-ending touchdown was just one of many highlights in a season (his third) in which he scored an astounding 22 touchdowns in just 12 games (due to missing the three games with replacement players, plus one that was eliminated altogether, during the strike) while catching 65 passes for 1078 yards. The total of receiving TDs set a new record that lasted 20 years, until 2007 – when New England’s Randy Moss had the advantage of playing in all 16 games to exceed Rice’s total by one. To further put it in perspective, Philadelphia’s Mike Quick was second to Rice in touchdown receptions in ’87 with 11 – exactly half as many.

31-year-old Joe Montana, in his ninth year, led the NFL in passing (102.1 rating), completion percentage (66.8), and touchdown passes (31); he tied with Seattle’s Dave Krieg in percentage of TD passes (7.8). Both he and Rice were consensus first team All-NFL selections.