It was a bone-chilling cold in Cincinnati for the AFC Championship game on January 10, 1982 – so much so that NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle considered postponing it. However, after consulting a medical specialist in cold weather conditions, he allowed the contest to be played. The scheduled halftime show by the Zanesville High School marching band was a casualty of the frigid conditions, however. The temperature was nine degrees below zero at game time with a wind chill of minus 59 (give or take a few degrees). Winds which gusted up to 30 mph played havoc on the passing game.
The host team, the Cincinnati Bengals, was coming off three straight losing records before making a stunning run through the 1981 schedule and topping the AFC Central at 12-4. Newly garbed in tiger-striped uniforms, Head Coach Forrest Gregg’s club packed plenty of scoring punch. QB Ken Anderson had a MVP season and benefited from the presence of rookie WR Cris Collinsworth, who teamed up well with veteran WR Isaac Curtis and TE Dan Ross. Big (6’0”, 249) FB Pete Johnson rushed for 1077 yards, caught 46 passes for 320 more, and scored 16 touchdowns. The defense lacked big names but was solid. The Bengals defeated the Buffalo Bills in the Divisional round to advance to the conference title game.
The visiting San Diego Chargers, under Head Coach Don Coryell, won their third straight AFC West title with a 10-6 record. Despite losing key players in WR John Jefferson and DE Fred Dean in trades forced by salary disputes, the Chargers were still a formidable team. To be sure, the defense missed Dean’s pass rushing skill, but the offense still maintained an outstanding aerial attack directed by QB Dan Fouts. Jefferson was ably replaced by WR Wes Chandler, who was obtained from the Saints and joined WR Charlie Joiner and TE Kellen Winslow. RB Chuck Muncie rushed for 1144 yards and rookie all-purpose RB James Brooks was productive as well. San Diego won a thrilling overtime game in Miami in the Divisional round which featured plenty of offense.
There were 46,302 hardy fans in attendance at frigid Riverfront Stadium. The Bengals stuck to their short, precision passing game to good effect. Cincinnati started off the scoring with a 10-play, 51-yard drive that followed a punt by the Chargers. Ken Anderson threw to Dan Ross for a first down at the San Diego 33 along the way and Pete Johnson then ran for 11 yards. The series stalled at the 13 yard line and Jim Breech kicked a 31-yard field goal.
A fumble by James Brooks on the ensuing kickoff was recovered by TE Don Bass to set up Cincinnati’s next score. It took just two plays as Anderson (pictured at right) connected with TE M.L. Harris for an eight-yard touchdown. The Chargers put together a scoring drive in the second quarter, advancing 55 yards in six plays. Fouts threw to Kellen Winslow for a 33-yard TD and the Cincinnati margin was narrowed to 10-7.
The Bengals came right back, however. WR David Verser returned the kickoff 40 yards and Cincinnati proceeded to go 55 yards in seven plays. Anderson passed to Isaac Curtis for a 15-yard gain that gave Cincinnati a first down at the San Diego one yard line and Johnson ran from there for a touchdown.
Two drives by the Chargers into scoring territory in the second quarter were blunted by the Bengals defense. First, a Fouts pass was intercepted by CB Louis Breeden at the Cincinnati six yard line, and later a throw into the end zone was picked off by safety Bobby Kemp.
In the third quarter, another turnover by the Chargers was turned into points by the Bengals. DE Ross Browner recovered a fumble by Chuck Muncie and Cincinnati took nine plays to drive 39 yards. Anderson completed a pass to Ross for 19 yards and also had a 13-yard run for a first down. Breech kicked a 38-yard field goal to extend the lead to 20-7.
Following a missed field goal attempt by the Chargers in the fourth quarter, the Bengals finished them off with a 14-play, 68-yard series that featured the ground game. Along the way, they converted a fourth down in San Diego territory with an eight-yard run by Johnson. Don Bass completed the drive by catching a pass from Anderson for a three-yard touchdown. The Bengals ended up winning handily by a score of 27-7.
Statistically, Cincinnati’s domination was less apparent as they edged the Chargers both in total yards (318 to 301) and first downs (19 to 18). However, San Diego turned the ball over four times, to one by the Bengals, and was very much off its typical level of performance. In a rarity for the Chargers, they ran the ball more often than they passed and their 301 total yards were the fewest generated in any game during the season. The Bengals also benefited from Jim Breech’s two field goals in as many attempts while San Diego’s Rolf Benirschke missed both of his tries.
Ken Anderson completed 14 of 22 passes for 161 yards with two touchdowns and none intercepted. Pete Johnson rushed for 80 yards and a TD on 21 carries. Dan Ross led the receivers with 5 catches for 69 yards.
For the Chargers, Dan Fouts (pictured below) was successful on just 15 of 28 throws for 185 yards and a touchdown with two costly interceptions. Chuck Muncie gained 94 yards on 23 rushing attempts. Wes Chandler had 6 pass receptions for 79 yards.
“This was the finest game I’ve ever seen a team play under such unbelievable conditions,” said Forrest Gregg, who as a player for Green Bay was part of some very big games in extreme winter conditions.
“The weather was no excuse,” said Don Coryell. “Football is played in all conditions, always has been and always will be. We were soundly beaten by a very fine team. We just didn’t do our job.”
The Bengals lost to another upstart team, the San Francisco 49ers, in the Super Bowl. They went 7-2 during the strike-shortened 1982 season to again make the playoffs but lost in the first round. San Diego was 6-3 and made it to the second round of the revamped postseason before falling.