The Cincinnati Bengals waited until the end to put away the Cleveland Browns, 21-14, Sunday afternoon, then settled in for an even longer wait to see if they made the playoffs.
It was worth the wait.
The Bengals claimed their second AFC Central Division title in three years when Houston beat Pittsburgh, 34-14, in the Sunday night game. The three teams finished 9-7, giving Cincinnati the title by virtue of a better record in head-to-head games.
It’s the second time Cincinnati has made the playoffs in seven years under Coach Sam Wyche, who led the Bengals to the Super Bowl in 1988. The Bengals have been eliminated in the last week of the regular season four times under Wyche.
“It feels good to finally have one go our way,” Wyche said after the Houston game.
The first step towards the title was the victory over Cleveland, decided on a 48-yard touchdown pass play from Boomer Esiason to Eric Ball midway through the fourth quarter.
The Bengals then went home to watch Seattle beat Detroit, 30-10, taking away the possibility of a wild card for Cincinnati. Their hopes rested entirely on a Houston victory.
“We led our division for 14 of the 16 weeks,” quarterback Boomer Esiason said. “If there’s any justice in this world, somehow we’ll be in the playoffs. In the last four or five weeks, we’ve played our best football as a team.”
Esiason got his wish seven hours later when Houston finished off Pittsburgh, setting up a first-round playoff game next weekend between the Bengals and Oilers.
Although the Bengals weren’t at their best Sunday, they were just good enough to outlast a Cleveland team completing the worst year in franchise history at 3-13.
The Browns rallied from a 14-0 halftime deficit to throw a scare into the Bengals. Kevin Mack ran two yards for a touchdown and Pagel connected with Brian Brennan on a 16-yard touchdown pass play in the first five minutes of the second half.
But the Bengals took control again with a play they couldn’t get right in practice last week.
On third and two from the Browns’ 48, Esiason faked a handoff to Ickey Woods and lobbed a pass down the left sideline to Ball, who was uncovered. Ball caught the pass in stride and sidestepped Stephen Braggs at the 12 to score on only his second catch of the season.
“In practice Friday we had to run that play over four times because Eric couldn’t get the hang of it,” Esiason said. “I remember the offensive line getting ornery, saying, ‘Why do we have to keep running it over?’ I looked at Eric before the play today and said, ‘This is the short-yardage play.’ He said, ‘I know, I know.’ ”
This time, it worked perfectly.
“The Browns’ defense was playing the run,” Ball said. “All I did was block the corner, swing out and get behind them. They were certainly expecting the off-tackle run by Ickey. That’s all we’d run.”
Cleveland had two chances to tie, but wasted both with mistakes.
The Browns drove to fourth and four at the Cincinnati 23, but Eric Metcalf dropped a pass from Pagel. Cleveland got the ball one more time and moved to the Cincinnati 32 with less than a minute left. David Fulcher intercepted an overthrown pass by Pagel at the six to clinch the victory.
Cleveland wasted an opportunity in the first quarter when four running plays from the Cincinnati one came up short.
Bengal rookie linebacker James Francis put Cincinnati ahead midway through the second quarter when he intercepted a pass by Pagel that was intended for Brennan and returned it 17 yards for his first NFL touchdown.
Lewis Billups tipped a pass by Pagel on the Browns’ next possession and Barney Bussey intercepted, giving the Bengals the ball at the Cleveland 39. Six plays later, Esiason hooked up with Rodney Holman on a 22-yard touchdown pass play.
The Browns stunned Cincinnati with a pair of touchdowns in the first five minutes of the second half.
Esiason tied a team record with his 22nd interception of the season, which was returned by Felix Wright to the 19. Mack carried three times, the last for two yards and a touchdown.
Cincinnati ran three plays and punted, and the Browns went 52 yards in five plays for the tying touchdown on a 16-yard pass play from Pagel to Brennan.
Both teams failed to convert scoring chances with the game tied. Jerry Kauric was wide left on a 48-yard field-goal attempt for the Browns, and James Brooks fumbled at the Cleveland six-yard line early in the fourth quarter.
After the game, some of the Bengals said they couldn’t bear to watch the Oiler-Steeler game. Wyche said he was going to go out with his family for Chinese food and wouldn’t hurry back.
Said Esiason: “I’m not going to be sitting in front of a TV. I can only hope that when I see the 11:30 news or when I wake up tomorrow morning, they’ll tell us Houston won that game.”
Whenever Esiason got the news, it was good.