As a veteran coach who was well in tune with player behavior and psychology, Sam Wyche had a feeling his undefeated Bengals were headed for trouble in New England in Week 7 even though the Patriots were 2-4 and without injured starting quarterback Steve Grogan.
And Wyche was right as Boomer Esisason threw a Bengals-record five interceptions in a 27-21 loss.
“We were healthy and they were banged up, and we just let our guard down,” Wyche said. “It was a trap game, and we tried to preach it all week, but our biorhythms weren’t in sync that day as much as we had been.
“About Week 6 or 7 is when you usually see a lot of upsets,” Wyche added. “You see a lot of good teams hit a valley at the point, and a lot of bad teams get challenged by their coaches to prove they are better than their record.”
It’s unclear whether the New England coaches lit a fire under the players, but there was a definite spark provided by the backup quarterback.
“(Grogan) was injured so they pick up this kid from Canada, some short guy named Flutie,” Wyche laughed in reference to former Heisman Trophy winnner Doug Flutie.
“He came in and hit a couple of passes on us down the field, just like in his college days,” Wyche added.
Flutie was an efficient 10 of 14 for 165 yards, although he didn’t throw any touchdown passes and the Patriots ground game only averaged 3.7 yards per carry. But New England won the turnover battle six to zero, which was more than enough to overcome Cincinnati’s 365 to 311 edge in total yards.
Three of Esiason’s five interceptions came on balls tipped at the line or deflected in the secondary, but it was one of the others that stands out most in Wyche’s mind.
“The play I really remember was a simultaneous catch that they called an interception in the end zone,” Wyche said. “It was the left corner of the end zone, and I can still picture the flight of the ball. It should have been a touchdown for Cris (Collinsworth).”
The Bengals were trailing 7-0 and facing a third-and-18 at the New England 37 when Esiason threw a deep ball to Collinsworth in the corner of the end zone. Patriots cornerback Fred Marion got his hands on the ball first, but Collinsworth wrestled it away as they went to the ground.
The back judge ruled it an interception, and the call was upheld by instant replay, resulting in the Bengals’ third turnover in their first three possessions of the game.
Cincinnati would turn it over twice more before halftime and eventually fall behind 20-0 in the third quarter before the offense got rolling with an Ickey Woods touchdown run and a couple of scoring strikes from Esiason to Eddie Brown that got the Bengals within 27-21 with 4:57 to go.
But the Patriots essentially ran out the clock after that to pull off the upset.
“I remember our locker room was electric,” Wyche said. “It was a ‘this isn’t going to happen to us again’ type of attitude. There was never any type of feeling like we were collapsing because the attitude and character of that team was unbelievable.
“We knew we still had a good team,” Wyche said. “And as soon as the game ended everyone was ready to get right back to work to prove it.”
Oct. 16, 1988
At Sullivan Stadium
New England Patriots 27, Cincinnati Bengals 21
Cincinnati 0 0 14 7 — 21
New England 7 7 6 7 — 27
N: John Stephens fumble recovery in end zone, 4:52
N: Mosi Tatupu 3 run (Teddy Garica kick), 14:41
N: Reggie Dupard 3 run (kick failed), 4:58
C: Ickey Woods 1 run (Jim Breech kick), 10:00
C: Eddie Brown 26 pass from Boomer Esiason (Breech kick), 14:01
N: Dupard 10 run (Garcia kick), 8:34
C: Brown 16 pass from Esiason (Breech kick), 10:43
Cincinnati – Boomer Esiason 18-28-5-239; New England – Doug Flutie 10-14-0-165
Cincinnati – Ickey Woods 13-43, Stanley Wilson 7-40, Boomer Esiason 4-35, James Brooks 6-22; New England – John Stephens 16-56, Doug Flutie 7-36, Reggie Dupard 5-32, Robert Perryman 13-29, Mosi Tatupu 2-5
Cincinnati – Eddie Brown 3-67, Rodney Holman 4-53, Ickey Woods 3-42, Stanley Wilson 3-35, Tim McGee 1-25, Stanford Jennings 1-9, Jim Riggs 2-6, James Brooks 1-2; New England – Cedric Jones 3-60, Lin Dawson 3-57, Robert Perryman 2-22, Irving Fryar 1-20, John Stephens 1-6