There was nothing special about the Cincinnati Bengals’ trip to Cleveland in 1988.
Riding high following a 44-21 win against Houston that upped their record to 7-1, the Bengals went into the 38th edition of the Battle of Ohio with a chance to open a three-game lead on their rivals.
But the Browns blocked a punt for a touchdown and returned a kickoff 84 yards for another TD to deal the Bengals a 23-16 loss that tightened up the AFC Central Division standings.
“If the Browns don’t block a punt and return a long kickoff, the game’s different,” Bengals quarterback Boomer Esiason said after the game. “Special teams is a division of the game that a lot of people take too lightly. Hopefully when we look at the films, some people will be waking up to that.”
The Bengals took a 7-3 lead late in the second quarter when David Fulcher picked off Bernie Kosar and returned the ball 16 yards for a touchdown.
But Herman Fontenot returned the ensuing kickoff 84 yards to the Cincinnati 5, and two plays later fullback Tim Manoa scored on a 2-yard run to give Cleveland a 10-7 lead.
The Browns still led by three midway through the third quarter when Frank Minnifield blocked Scott Fulhage’s punt and Fontenot scooped the ball up at the 1 and fell into the end zone to make it 20-10.
And the Cleveland defense kept the Bengals out of the end zone the rest of the way to secure the win.
“We are in dire need of improvement if we expect perform in a way that won’t contribute to us losing,” Bengals special teams coach Mike Stock said at the time.
In addition the big plays on special teams, the Cleveland defense also came up big against the potent Cincinnati offense as the Bengals drove into the red zone four times and only came away with three Jim Breech field goals.
“It’s not that we didn’t have opportunities,” Bengals wide receiver Cris Collinsworth said. “We didn’t do what we’ve been doing all year.”
On the Bengals’ first trip inside the 20, the Browns came up with stops on third and 1 and fourth and a 1. And on two of the other three ventures into the red zone Cincinnati had first and goal before settling for field goals.
“I’ve been here nine years and it’s the finest defensive performance we’ve ever had,” Browns coach Marty Schottenheimer said. “We played the game the way it’s designed and supposed to be played.”
It was the first time in nine games the offense had failed to amass 300 yards, as it finished with 281. The Bengals won the turnover battle 2-0, but the blocked punt and long kick return more than evened things out as the Browns drew within a game of first place.
Oct. 30, 1988
At Cleveland Municipal Stadium
Cleveland 23, Cincinnati 16
Cincinnati 0 10 3 3 — 16
Cleveland 3 7 10 3 — 23
CL: Matt Bahr 34 field goal, 6:57
CI: David Fulcher 16 interception return (Jim Breech kick), 11:31
CL: Tim Manoa 2 run (Bahr kick), 12:36
CI: Breech 19 field goal, 15:00
CL: Herman Fontenot 1 blocked punt return (Bahr kick), 9:03
CI: Breech 32 field goal, 13:56
CL: Bahr 29 field goal, 5:40
CI: Breech 22 field goal, 9:35
Cincinnati – Boomer Esiason 12-25-0-173; Cleveland – Bernie Kosar 18-28-0-210
Cincinnati – James Brooks 10-65, Ickey Woods 9-30, Boomer Esiason 5-18, Stanley Wilson 7-15; Cleveland – Tim Manoa 23-89, Earnest Byner 4-14, Bernie Kosas 1-minus-4
Cincinnati – Eddie Brown 6-91, Tim McGee 2-29, Cris Collinsworth 1-18, Ickey Woods 1-16, Ira Hillary 1-11, Jim Riggs 1-8; Cleveland – Clarence Weathers 7-140, Earnest Byner 4-26, Brian Brennan 2-22, Reggie Langhorne 1-7, Derek Tennell 1-6, Ozzie Newsome 1-5, Herman Fontenot 1-2, Tim Manoa 1-2