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On This Date in Sports September 20, 1987: Two seconds too much

In collaboration with the Sportsecyclopedia.com

The San Francisco 49ers stun the Cincinnati Bengals 27-26, as Jerry Rice catches a 25-yard pass from Joe Montana on the final second at Riverfront Stadium. Cincinnati had jumped out to a 20-7 halftime lead, only to see the Niners rally to tie the game in the third quarter. The Bengals had bungled running a play at their own 30 instead of punting to run out the clock.

In Super Bowl XVI, the San Francisco 49ers and Cincinnati Bengals met at the Pontiac Silverdome. The year prior both teams had lost ten games, making it at the time one of the most incredible matchups in the history of the big game. In the five years since, the Bengals had struggled to maintain their success, while the 49ers had won a second Lombardi Trophy in 1984.

The 49ers began 1987 with two eastern road games as they faced the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 1 and lost 30-17 at Three Rivers Stadium. The Bengals meanwhile coached by former 49ers offensive coordinator Sam Wyche opened the season with a 23-21 victory over the Indianapolis Colts on the road. Coming off a 10-6 season, the Bengals were hoping to make the playoffs for the first time since 1982. That season was torn asunder by a two-month player strike. As the Bengals were hosting the 49ers in Week 2, the threat of another work stoppage loomed over the league.

The game started perfectly for the Bengals as Larry Kinnebrew scored from the two. Later they would ass a 23-yard field goal from Jim Breech to make it 10-0. The 49ers got on the board with a 38-yard pass from Joe Montana to Mike Wilson. Cincinnati answered quickly as Boomer Esiason hit Rodney Holman on a 46-yard scoring play. The Bengals would add a 42-yard field goal by Breech to go up 20-7 at halftime.

In the third quarter, San Francisco got back in the game, as Jerry Rice caught a 34-yard touchdown pass from Joe Montana. Meanwhile, the defense was able to force turnovers, as Ray Wersching hit a pair of field goals one from 24 and another from 31 to tie the game. The Bengals regained control of the game in the fourth quarter. Jim Breech would hit a pair for field goals one from 41 and the other from 46 to give the Bengals a 26-20 lead.

The Bengals had the ball late in the fourth quarter, trying to run out the clock. Boomer Esiason had a solid game, passing for 180 yards with a touchdown and an interception. With six seconds left the Bengals had the ball at their own 30 facing fourth down. Instead of risking a blocked punt, Sam Wyche made the very odd decision to try to run a play and bleed the clock. However, James Brooks was thrown for loss quickly, leaving Joe Montana two seconds to make one play to win the game from the 25. That time was just enough as he tossed a pass up that Jerry Rice caught in the end zone on the game’s last play, as Ray Wersching’s PAT officially won the game 27-26.

The players would go on strike following Week 2, as replacement players were used for three games before the regular players returned. The win would propel the 49ers to another strong season, as they had the best record in the NFL at 13-2. The Bengals meanwhile never recovered from the deflating loss, as they went 4-11, A year later they would meet again in Super Bowl XXIII, with Montana again breaking Cincinnati’s heart with a touchdown pass to John Taylor with 36 seconds left.