Before the creation of the Cincinnati Bengals in 1968, there existed another team in Cincy under the same name from 1937-41. The first edition of the Bengals played through three different versions of the American Football Leagues (AFL) before folding after the '41 season along with AFL III. Almost three decades passed before the founder and previous owner/head coach of the Cleveland Browns, Paul Brown, decided he wanted to start another professional football franchise in the state of Ohio. Two years later, in '68, the Cincinnati Bengals existed yet again, this time in the fourth and final iteration of the AFL. Cincy merged into the NFL in '70 with the rest of the AFL and played the Detroit Lions for the first time in history that year.
The Lions hosted the football game at Tiger Stadium and crushed the Bengals by a score of 38-3. According to the New York Times, "The game was simple. The Lions did everything right and the Bengals many things wrong." Cincy didn't kick their lone field goal until the game clock read 19 seconds, and it's been argued that the 1970 version of the Lions might have been the best Lions team ever. If you read the article, the numbers are convincing for the '70 Lions: second in the league in points scored, first in turnover ratio, second in points allowed, second-best average points differential at 10.4.
Further, future Hall of Fame cornerbacks Lem Barney and Dick LeBeau played for that squad and had their best individual seasons in '70: Barney picked off 7 passes and returned 2 for touchdowns, while LeBeau recorded 9 interceptions on the season. The article points out other fun facts, like how Motown legend Marvin Gaye tried out for the Lions before the '70 season and how Detroit shut out the Green Bay Packers in both meetings that year: 40-0 at Lambeau in the season opener and 20-0 at home in the season finale. That must have felt good. However, Detroit's offense, which averaged almost 25 points per game on the season, couldn't muster anything in the playoffs, as the Lions -- the first wild card team in NFL history -- fell to the Dallas Cowboys in the opening round.
But that side note to the 1970 Detroit season digresses from the main point of this article: the Lions vs. the Bengals. Since their first meeting at the start of the Disco Decade, the two teams have met nine more times with the series record currently sitting at 7-3 in favor of Cincinnati. The Lions won the second meeting in 1974 but won only once more, in 1992. On the other hand, the Bengals won three straight in the 1970s, haven't lost in Detroit since the '70 game (currently winners of four in a row in the Motor City) and hold a four-game winning streak against the Lions dating back to 1998 heading into Sunday's game. Since I aim to pick past games that match up with the current game (i.e. I'm only looking at home games for Detroit against Cincy), there's slim pickings since I've already mentioned the only home victory for the Lions so far in the series.
So for this week, I've decided to relive a painful loss in the hopes that the Lions will learn from it and win at home against the Bengals for the first time in over 40 years.
Sept. 13, 1998 - Detroit Lions 28, Cincinnati Bengals 34
Both teams stumbled out of the gate in '98. The Lions had their behinds handed to them in Lambeau, losing to the Packers 38-19. At home against the Tennessee Titans, the Bengals didn't do much better, falling 23-14 in their season opener. Heading into Week 2, Detroit looked to right their ship and avenge the previous year, which watched them lose in the opening round of the playoffs during Barry Sanders' only MVP season. For the Bengals, they hoped to have a season where they finished over .500 for the first time in seven years.
If one wanted to define back and forth in terms of sports, they should look no further than the Lions-Bengals game in '98. Each team scored one touchdown per quarter before the game headed into overtime. In the first, Cincy opened things up with a 70-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Neil O'Donnell to wide receiver Darnay Scott. Detroit responded on their ensuing drive with a 7-play, 80-yard touchdown drive capped by a 1-yard rush by fullback Tommy Vardell. Earlier in the series, Vardell converted a third-and-1 at Detroit's 33 to keep the scoring drive alive. Tied at 7, the Bengals struck first and early in the second quarter with another O'Donnell to Scott touchdown pass to regain the lead. But the Lions responded later in the quarter thanks to a 2-yard touchdown run by Sanders.
After halftime, Sanders continued to control the game on the opening second half drive. Following a 13-yard pass from quarterback Scott Mitchell to wideout Herman Moore, Barry took the ball 67 yards on the next play to give the Lions their first lead of the day at 21-14. But as I said before, it was a back-and-forth affair, and the Bengals knotted the score at 21 after an 18-yard touchdown run by Corey Dillon in the middle of the third quarter. Heading into the fourth quarter, Detroit had possession but failed to convert on third down to start the final frame. On the second play of the fourth, the Lions punted the ball to Cincy, and their returner, rookie Damon Gibson, promptly took the ball 65 yards for a touchdown.
Trailing 28-21, the Lions failed to do anything offensively while holding the Bengals at bay on defense. Gaining possession with a little over seven and a half minutes remaining, Detroit proceeded to drive 70 yards in nine plays behind the solid passing of Mitchell. Barry finished the drive by scoring his third touchdown of the day on a 5-yard run, tying the game at 28 with 1:52 remaining. After holding the Bengals to a three-and-out, Detroit got the ball back at their own 28-yard line with one minute left. Following a 5-yard pass to Moore on first down, Mitchell heaved the football toward Barry across the field as the Bengals pulled him to the ground. The pass landed in the arms of Cincy's Ashley Ambrose and set up a 48-yard field goal attempt for kicker Doug Pelfrey. Pelfrey missed a 35-yarder early in the fourth, and on his second chance, Lions safety Ron Rice blocked the kick to send the game into overtime.
Anyone who remembers this game knows that OT didn't last long thanks to another interception by Mitchell. On the fourth play of overtime, Mitchell and wideout Johnnie Morton seemed to have a miscommunication on the route, and Bengals cornerback Corey Sawyer stepped up, grabbed the ball and returned it 53 yards for the game-winning touchdown. That play ended up being Mitchell's last in the Honolulu Blue and Silver, as coach Bobby Ross decided to start rookie Charlie Batch in Week 3. The only bright spot for the game ended up being Sanders, who finished with 185 yards rushing and 3 touchdowns on 26 carries. With those yards, he became the second player in history to reach over 14,000 yards rushing, joining Walter Payton.
Even though it was a bitter loss, you can watch the entire game here. It's cool to be able to do that, especially for me, a kid who was a bit too young to truly appreciate or remember the greatness of Barry Sanders.