Super Bowl XXIII Against the Cincinnati Bengals
The final game on our list is a highlight reel moment for Hall of Fame quarterback Joe Montana, as well as a goodbye to the greatest coach in 49ers history, Bill Walsh.
The 49ers met the Boomer Esiason-led Cincinnati Bengals in Super Bowl XXIII on January 22, 1989. The game was played at Joe Robbie Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida.
The 49ers entered the game with a 10-6 regular season record, no sure thing to have even made the playoffs. The 49ers had scratched and clawed through the season to reach the big game. Conversely, the Bengals had won 12 games that season and easily beat the Seattle Seahawks and Buffalo Bills to reach the Super Bowl against the 49ers.
Walsh’s team had all of the usual suspects but was in a drought of sorts, losing in the playoffs for three straight years. Montana, receiver Jerry Rice and running back Roger Craig would redeem themselves throughout their team’s playoff run.
Esiason was the Bengals superstar QB as he threw for over 3,500 yards in the regular season with 28 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. By today’s standards those numbers are great, but Esiason was the bona fide leader of the Bengals.
The teams traded field goals in the first half of a relatively uneventful game, save for some nasty injuries on each side.
The Bengals scored the first touchdown on a 93-yard kickoff returned for a touchdown in the third quarter. The 49ers found themselves trailing 13-6 as the game moved into the fourth quarter.
Less than a minute into the fourth, Rice scored a 49ers touchdown on a 14-yard pass from Montana and the 49ers had tied the game. Both defenses held throughout the quarter before the Bengals kicked a 40-yard field goal with just minutes remaining to take a 16-13 lead.
Montana walked into the huddle with 3:10 left in the game, confident his 49ers would prevail. Ninety-two yards were between the 49ers offense and the end zone. The 49ers offense went to work.
Completing short passes to effortlessly move down the field, the 49ers offense had the Bengals defense on its heels. As the referees spot the ball at the ten yard line, the 49ers called timeout to discuss the final play calls in the red zone. Both Walsh and Montana agree on “20 Halfback Curl, X Up” to target running back Roger Craig.
Montana took the snap, looked right quickly, and snapped his head left just in time to see receiver John Taylor on a quick slant up the seam and into the end zone. Montana ripped the pass between Bengal defenders and Taylor completed the play, cementing Montana and the 49ers’ legacies in one drive-capping touchdown.
After the game, head coach Bill Walsh, in a tearful locker room goodbye, would announce his retirement from the position. The “Genius” had reached his limit and was passing the team off to coach George Seifert.
The 49ers went on to win more Super Bowls and have impressive games under new players and coaches but none more incredible than Montana’s drive to win the Super Bowl as Walsh stepped away.
All of the games on this list are pieces of a storied franchise waiting to reclaim it’s glory. Each game, whether through on-field domination, history making storylines or losses that remind us the pain of competition are examples of the 49er organization and its connection to the history of the NFL.
These 49ers games continue to impact an NFL landscape that is incomplete without mentioning these performances from the Red and Gold.
Which games make your list of the top 20 in San Francisco 49ers franchise history?