The Cincinnati Bengals were the top-seeded team in the AFC as they hosted the Seattle Seahawks in a Divisional Playoff game on December 31, 1988. The Bengals were 4-11 in 1987 but climbed to the top of the AFC Central with a 12-4 record in ’88. Head Coach Sam Wyche’s team operated a high-powered offense that was the league’s most productive and was directed by QB Boomer Esiason, who received multiple MVP honors but struggled with a sore shoulder late in the season. The running game topped the NFL and featured veteran RB James Brooks plus unheralded rookie FB Ickey Woods (pictured above), who entertained fans with the “Ickey Shuffle” after each of his 15 touchdowns. The defense was less heralded, utilizing a 3-4 alignment anchored by All-Pro NT Tim Krumrie.
Seattle, coached by Chuck Knox, topped the AFC West with a 9-7 record, which reflected the team’s inconsistency. QB Dave Krieg missed time with a shoulder separation and 34-year-old WR Steve Largent had injury problems that limited his effectiveness. The Seahawks were better at running the ball with RB Curt Warner and FB John L. Williams, but the team was typically outgained by its opponents as the defense ranked 24th in the NFL.
It was a cold and cloudy late afternoon at Riverfront Stadium, where the Bengals had not lost all season, with 58,560 fans in attendance. Cincinnati had the game’s first possession and went 85 yards in 11 plays. Boomer Esiason completed passes to WR Cris Collinsworth for 30 yards and WR Eddie Brown for 23 and Ickey Woods ran effectively. FB Stanley Wilson ran gained the last three yards for a touchdown and Jim Breech added the extra point.
The teams traded punts before a long pass by Dave Krieg was intercepted by CB Eric Thomas. In a series that extended into the second quarter, the Bengals drove 75 yards in 10 plays. Esiason started off with a pass to TE Rodney Holman for 11 yards and James Brooks (pictured below) followed up with a 26-yard run to the Seattle 38. Woods and Brooks ran the ball to the 15, Esiason again connected with Holman for a gain of nine, and two plays later, Wilson ran for another three-yard TD. Breech converted to make the score 14-0.
A short series by the Seahawks that ended with a punt was followed by a five-play, 56-yard Cincinnati possession. Woods took off for 30 yards on the first play, Brooks had a 17-yard carry, and Wilson gained eight to reach the Seattle one. Two plays later, it was Woods reaching the end zone and Breech’s PAT had the Bengals up by a comfortable 21-0 score, and that remained the tally at halftime. Cincinnati had dominated on the ground, rolling up 165 rushing yards in the first thirty minutes, to none for Seattle.
The teams exchanged punts to start the third quarter. Seattle finally put together a promising drive as Krieg completed passes to WR Brian Blades for 13 yards and John L. Williams for 24. A sack by LB Reggie Williams had the Seahawks facing a third-and-21 situation at the Cincinnati 45, but a pass interference penalty erased the deficit and advanced the ball to the 21. Krieg passed the Seahawks to the three, but a fourth-and-two throw was broken up in the end zone by CB Rickey Dixon and the visitors came up empty.
The Bengals responded with a long drive of 95 yards with Woods and Brooks largely carrying the load. Esiason completed three passes, the first to Holman for 24 yards and the last to Brooks for nine yards to set up a fourth-and-two situation at the Seattle three. Woods came up short on the next play and the Seahawks had the ball back on downs, but at their own two with the period almost over.
Two plays into the fourth quarter, a Krieg pass was intercepted to give the Bengals the ball at their own 40, but two plays after that Esiason fumbled while being sacked and NT Joe Nash recovered for Seattle. Krieg threw to Blades for 17 yards and TE John Spagnola for seven to reach the Cincinnati seven, and three plays later the Seahawks finally got on the board on a seven-yard pass to Williams. Norm Johnson added the point after.
A three-and-out series by the Bengals resulted in a punt and the Seahawks drove 69 yards in nine plays. Krieg connected with WR Paul Skansi for 11 yards in a third-and-ten situation and a completion to WR Ray Butler for 32 yards advanced the ball to the Cincinnati 12. Three plays later, Krieg kept the ball himself for a one-yard TD, but, critically, Johnson missed the extra point and Seattle remained behind by eight points with just under six minutes to play.
Another short Cincinnati series resulted in a punt, but this time the Seahawks were unable to move the ball as Krieg threw three incomplete passes and the visitors punted as well. With the help of a 20-yard run by Woods, the Bengals reached the Seattle 44 on their next series before punting and pinning the Seahawks back at their two yard line with 2:40 remaining on the clock. Krieg was able to complete four passes, but not his last three as the drive – and Seattle’s season – ended at the Cincinnati 44. The Bengals won by a final score of 21-13.
Cincinnati had the lead in total yards (345 to 294), with 254 yards of that total coming on the ground as opposed to just 18 rushing yards for the Seahawks. The Bengals also had the edge in first downs (22 to 19) and time of possession (35:19 to 24:41). Seattle turned the ball over three times, to two suffered by Cincinnati.
Ickey Woods gained 126 yards on 23 rushing attempts that included a touchdown and James Brooks added 72 yards on 13 carries. Stanley Wilson contributed 45 yards on 7 rushes that included the two short TDs. Boomer Esiason completed just 7 of 19 passes for 108 yards and no TDs but also gave up no interceptions. Rodney Holman was the only Cincinnati receiver with more than one catch, pulling in three passes for 44 yards.
For the Seahawks, Dave Krieg was successful on 24 of 50 throws for 297 yards and a touchdown while being intercepted twice. John L. Williams (pictured at left), who gained just 10 rushing yards on 7 attempts, caught 11 passes for 137 yards and a TD. Brian Blades contributed 5 catches for 78 yards. Curt Warner was held to 11 yards on 8 carries.
“They (the Bengals) did a good job the first half, we didn’t, and that’s where we lost the game,” summed up Dave Krieg for the Seahawks.
The Bengals won again the next week as they defeated Buffalo for the AFC Championship, but then lost a closely-contested Super Bowl to the 49ers. Seattle dropped to 7-9 in 1989 and didn’t return to the postseason until 1999.
The loss to Cincinnati also was Chuck Knox’s last postseason coaching appearance. His teams (the Rams and Bills in addition to the Seahawks) reached the playoffs a total of eleven times, compiling a 7-11 record (3-4 with Seattle).