Best Cincinnati Bengals Teams of All Time: From the 1981 Squad to the 2021 Super Bowl Runner-Up

    The Cincinnati Bengals have reached the Super Bowl three times, but one of those teams is the clear-cut choice as the best in franchise history.

    The Cincinnati Bengals are one of 12 current teams that have yet to win a Super Bowl, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a clearcut pick for the best team in franchise history.

    And it doesn’t mean the 1981, 1988, and 2021 Super Bowl squads are the top three on the list.

    With the help of FTN’s Defense-adjusted Value Over Average — or DVOA, which measures a team’s efficiency by comparing success on every play to a league average based on situation and opponent — there is a stronger indicator of where each Cincinnati team ranked in comparison to the rest of the league.

    But yardage rankings — total offense, pass offense, rush defense, etc. — are factored in as well, as are win totals, quality of teams beaten, win streaks, and anything else that would be at the top of a résumé for each season.

    So, which are the best 10 teams in franchise history?

    Ranking the Greatest Teams in Cincinnati Bengals History

    Honorable mention: 1990, 1986, 2014, 2012, 1970

    10) 2009

    The Bengals went undefeated in the division for the first — and still only — time and finished 10-6 to nip the 9-7 Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers for Lewis’ second division title.

    But as impressive as the 6-0 mark in the AFC North was, Cincinnati was not at its best when it mattered most, losing four of its final five games, including a 24-14 Wild Card loss at home against the New York Jets.

    The defense carried the team all season, finishing fourth in total defense, sixth in pass defense, seventh in rushing defense, and sixth in scoring defense.

    The offense ranked in the bottom third of the league in total offense (24th), pass offense (26th), and scoring offense (22nd).

    The DVOA rankings show a much more flawed team than most people remember, with Cincinnati ranking 18th on offense, 14th on defense, and 21st on special teams.

    9) 2013

    After back-to-back road losses in the wildcard round, the Bengals went 11-5 and won their first division title of the Andy Dalton-A.J. Green era.

    The season turned after a 6-4 start as Cincinnati got hot and won five of its final six games, with the only loss coming on Sunday night at Pittsburgh in Week 15 (the Kevin Huber broken jaw game) to finish 11-5 and win the AFC North by three games.

    The Bengals finished in the top 10 in total offense (10th), pass offense (eighth), scoring offense (sixth), total defense (third), pass defense (fifth), rush defense (fifth), and scoring defense (fifth).

    Their average weekly point differential of 7.8 was the second-highest of any team on this list.

    In DVOA, they were 15th on offense, fourth on defense, and 12th on special teams.

    But another first-round playoff loss — this time at the hands of a Chargers team they had beaten five weeks earlier in San Diego — spoiled the season and significantly increased the heat, at least from the public, on Marvin Lewis as he fell to 0-5 in postseason games, including 0-3 at home.

    8) 1973

    The Bengals won their final six regular-season games to finish 10-4 for the first double-digit win season in franchise history.

    That run included a 27-0 thrashing of the Minnesota Vikings, who won the NFC before falling to the Miami Dolphins in Super Bowl 8.

    And it was the Dolphins, who were coming off a perfect 1972 season, who ended Cincinnati’s run in the first round of the playoffs. Trailing 21-16 at halftime, Cincinnati failed to score in the second half and fell 34-16.

    While there were only 26 teams in 1973, the Bengals had impressive rankings across the board — total offense (fifth), pass offense (eighth), rush offense (seventh), scoring offense (11th), total defense (eighth), pass defense (13th), rush defense (eighth), scoring defense (11th), and turnover margin (sixth).

    7) 2005

    The Bengals ended a 14-year playoff drought with a division championship and an 11-5 record.

    An offensive juggernaut with Carson Palmer, Chad Johnson, T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Chris Henry, and Rudi Johnson, Cincinnati lacked balance with a defense that ranked 26th in yards allowed. But that was offset by a franchise record-tying 44 takeaways and a league-leading +24 turnover margin.

    The team ranked fourth in offensive DVOA but 20th defensively and 14th on special teams. Despite the offensive-defensive disparity, the Bengals were viewed as a Super Bowl favorite.

    MORE: Ranking the Best Quarterbacks in Cincinnati Bengals History

    Their chances crumpled, however, when Pittsburgh defensive lineman Kimo von Oelhoffen slammed into Palmer’s left knee on the quarterback’s first pass attempt of the game — a 66-yard completion to Henry, who also was hurt on the play.

    Without Palmer and Henry, Cincinnati still led 17-14 at halftime and drove to Pittsburgh’s 15-yard line on its opening possession of the third quarter. However, a botched hold on a 34-yard field goal attempt led to a scoreless second half as the Steelers scored 17 unanswered points on their way to winning Super Bowl 40.

    As hot as the season started, Cincinnati finished outside the top 10 in total offense (15th), pass offense (15th), rush offense (13th), total defense (11th), and pass defense (22nd).

    6) 1975

    Paul Brown’s final team went 11-3 for a .786 winning percentage that remains the best in franchise history.

    The ’75 Bengals finished in the top five in total offense (second), pass offense (first), pass defense (second), and turnover margin (fifth). They also were sixth in scoring defense, seventh in total defense, and ninth in scoring offense.

    Cincinnati started the season 6-0 before falling 30-24 to the Steelers. Pittsburgh accounted for two of the Bengals’ three losses that season on the way to winning a second-consecutive Super Bowl.

    Despite a 14-10 win against the Raiders in the regular season, the Bengals, as a  Wild Card team, had to travel to Oakland for the first round of the playoffs, where they fell 31-28.

    Cincinnati’s 11 wins came by an average of 12.1 points per victory.

    5) 2015

    Another promising season fell apart with a quarterback injury as Dalton suffered a broken thumb in Week 14 at home against the Steelers.

    With Dalton playing at an MVP level, the Bengals started 8-0, setting a record for the longest winning streak in franchise history.

    AJ McCarron kept the season rolling by going 2-1 in relief of Dalton, with the lone loss coming in overtime on the road in a battle for the No. 1 seed with the eventual Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos.

    The Bengals ranked fourth in offensive DVOA, ninth on defense, and eighth on special teams to finish 12-4. They won the division and earned a first-round home playoff game against the Steelers.

    Trailing 15-0 entering the fourth quarter, McCarron rallied the Bengals for a 16-15 lead on a 25-yard pass to Green with 1:50 remaining.

    But then came the Meltdown at Paul Brown.

    Jeremy Hill fumbled in clock-killing mode, and Vontaze Burfict and Pacman Jones committed 15-yard penalties seconds apart, giving the Steelers a free 30 yards to put them in position for the game-winning field goal.

    4) 2021

    All three Super Bowl appearances by the Bengals have come after last-place finishes the previous season, but 2021 might have been the most surprising of the trio.

    Cincinnati had gone 6-25-1 in the previous two seasons, and quarterback Joe Burrow was coming off an ACL injury.

    After an encouraging but inconsistent 5-4 start, the Bengals won five of seven to sew up the division title, setting the stage for a magical postseason run that included the first road playoff win in franchise history at Tennessee and the largest comeback in championship game history at Kansas City.

    The good fortune ran out late in Super Bowl 56 when linebacker Logan Wilson was called for a phantom holding call inside the 10-yard line, allowing the Los Angeles Rams to score the title-winning touchdown with 85 seconds to go.

    As special as the playoffs were, the Bengals were fairly average in the regular season, ranking 16th in offensive DVOA, 17th in defense, and eighth on special teams. They also were middle of the pack in turnover margin, ranking 16th.

    3) 2022

    You might be surprised to see a squad that didn’t reach the Super Bowl ranked ahead of one that did, but the 10-game run to reach a second consecutive AFC Championship Game wasn’t just the longest winning streak in team history … it was the best stretch of football in franchise history.

    And the Divisional Round win at Buffalo arguably was the best postseason performance in team history.

    Had it not been for an ill-advised late hit out of bounds to set up the Kansas City Chiefs for the game-winning field goal, the Bengals may have matched the 2021 team as a Super Bowl participant.

    KEEP READING: Ranking the Best Head Coaches in Cincinnati Bengals History

    The 2022 Bengals finished sixth in total DVOA (they were 16th in 2021).

    It’s the only team in Bengals history to finish in the top seven in both offensive DVOA (fourth) and defensive DVOA (seventh). They also finished in the top seven in scoring offense (seventh), scoring defense (sixth), and turnover margin (sixth).

    It was a solid team across the board, with the only crack being the punting struggles of Kevin Huber and Drue Chrisman, which dragged down an otherwise good special teams unit to 18th in DVOA.

    2) 1981

    The season that berthed the “Who Dey” chant began with the biggest comeback in franchise history and ended with the first Super Bowl appearance.

    Trailing Seattle 21-0 after the first quarter of the opener, head coach Forrest Gregg benched Ken Anderson in favor of Turk Schonert, who rallied the Bengals for a 27-21 win. Gregg went back to Anderson in Week 2, and he responded by winning the NFL MVP and leading the Bengals to a franchise-record 12 wins and a trip to Super Bowl 16.

    The Bengals finished second in offensive DVOA, second in total offense, third in pass offense, and fourth in scoring offense.

    After a 5-3 start, Cincinnati won nine of its next 11 games, with the only losses coming against the 49ers in Week 14 and again in the Super Bowl.

    The Bengals nearly bookended the season with 20-point comebacks, trailing 20-0 at halftime of the Super Bowl, but their bid for a title fell one yard and five points short in a 26-21 loss.

    1) 1988

    Not only is Sam Wyche’s 1988 squad the greatest in franchise history, but it’s arguably one of the best teams without a Super Bowl title in NFL history.

    Led by NFL MVP Boomer Esiason, the Bengals started hot at 6-0 and finished as the No. 1-ranked team in total offense, rushing offense, scoring offense, and DVOA.

    It remains the only season in franchise history in which three players had at least 1,200 scrimmage yards: Eddie Brown 1,268; Ickey Woods 1,265; and James Brooks 1,218.

    A team-record nine players were voted to the Pro Bowl that year, and the team went 10-0 at home in the regular season and playoffs.

    The 448 points that the team scored remained a franchise record until the 2021 team put 460.

    But the 1988 squad still holds franchise records for touchdowns (59, five more than the 2013 and 2021 teams), rushing touchdowns (27), and rushing yards (2,710)

    And while the offense was what made the team so successful, Dick LeBeau’s defense held one of the best offenses of the era to 13 points through the first 58+ minutes of Super Bowl 23 before Joe Montana drove the 49ers 92 yards for the game-winning touchdown with 34 seconds left.

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