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The American Football League championship game on January 25, 1997 was the final game of the 1996-97 AFL season, pitting the Cincinnati Bengals of the North Division against the Indiana Pontiacs of the South Division. The game, a 33-30 Bengal victory, is as of 2011 the only AFL championship game to go into overtime, and is considered one of the most exciting AFL title games ever played.
1996 Season and Playoffs
Cincinnati BengalsThe Bengals were the reigning AFL champions, having defeated the Dallas Cowboys the year before, and were led once again by a promising young core of players including fourth-year quarterback Jesse Hall, second-year running back Scottie Richards and third-year wide receiver Jeremie Arrick. The team also had a defense littered with talented veterans and promising young stars, and was coached by John Boehner, a former defensive coordinator himself, and featured respected veteran offensive coordinator Tom Osgood and a young defensive coordinator, Brett Estevez, who was only 34 but featured an aggressive and advanced scheme.
The Bengals played a style of football known as "Boehner Ball" which featured a run-heavy offensive attack behind the trusty Richards and his equally reliable backup, Sam Nash. In turn, the defense was brash and attacked at the line of scrimmage and had a physical, violent attitude. No defense got flagged for more penalties in 1996 than Cincinnati's, yet they also led the league in takeaways, yards allowed and points allowed. The Bengals ended the season with an 11-1 record, tied for best in the league with the Indiana Pontiacs, and had the No. 1 seed in the playoffs.
The No. 3 seed Green Bay Packers, led by first-year head coach Mike Brooks and coming off of a stunning road upset of Minnesota, gave the Bengals a tough out in Cincinnati in the AFL Semifinals and led 21-20 after three quarters. The Bengals, however, scored two touchdowns in the fourth quarter to win 34-21 and were headed to their second consecutive AFL title game. Boehner was made the AP Coach of the Year following his efforts.
Indiana PontiacsThe Indiana Pontiacs were led in 1996 by head coach Alan Regis and star quarterback George Jefferson, who led the Pontiac aerial attack to its most successful season in franchise history. The Pontiacs advanced to the playoffs for the fourth year in the row with the No. 1 seed in the South Division and a franchise-best 11-1 record. The Pontiac defense, referred to throughout the year as the "Indiana Interceptors," had four defensive backs who managed to nab three interceptions each during the season, thus leading the league with 12 picks and with a team total of 16 takeaways were only three behind the North Division's feared Bengals. The Pontiacs also featured electric wide receiver Tim Johnson, who led the league in receiving yards, and had a reliable running back in Jerome Morgan.
The Pontiacs defeated the Dallas Cowboys at home 37-10 in a blowout that would send them to their first AFL title game since the franchise was in Columbus as the Columbus Bulldogs in the 1970's.
The game was noteworthy for being the first AFL title match since 1985 to feature two No. 1 seeds from each division. The Bengals were also the returning champion, seeking to put together a repeat as Minnesota had done in 1993 and 1994. As a result, the matchup was much hyped, especially for the potential matchup between the high-scoring Pontiac offense and the nasty, hard-hitting Bengal defense.
As the title game was occurring following an even-numbered year, the Pontiacs were the designated home team, and wore their green primary jersey. The Bengals were the away team, wearing white jerseys.
The national anthem was performed by Wayne Newton, and the halftime show was done by rap sensation group Hoodligans. The Pontiacs were 2 point favorites, and had an opportunity to be the first South Division team to win an AFL title since Dallas in the 1989-90 season.
Jefferson 21 yard TD Pass to Johnson (Extra Point is Good) IND 7 CIN 0
Hall 3 yard TD Run (Extra Point is Good) IND 7 CIN 7
Oates 31 yard Field Goal IND 10 CIN 7
Oates 28 yard Field Goal IND 13 CIN 7
Richards 14 yard TD Run (Extra Point is Good) CIN 14 IND 13
Challs 30 yard Field Goal CIN 17 IND 13
Jefferson 21 yard TD Pass to Northcutt IND 20 CIN 17
Nash 2 yard TD Run CIN 24 IND 20
Oates 41 yard Field Goal CIN 24 IND 23
Challs 38 yard Field Goal CIN 27 IND 23
Jefferson 17 yard TD pass to Johnson IND 30 CIN 27
Challs 30 yard Field Goal IND 30 CIN 30
Challs 29 yard Field Goal CIN 33 IND 30
With the win, the Cincinnati became the second consecutive franchise in four years to repeat as champions (Minnesota won titles in 1993 and 1994) and took home their third title. Scottie Richards was named MVP of the title game due to his 161 rushing yards, one touchdown and his epic stiff-arm to stay in bounds on the final, game-tying drive in regulation.
The game also extended the winning streak of AFL title games for the North Division to seven - a North Division team had won every AFL title game since the Yorktown Argonauts stifled a Dallas repeat bid after the 1990 season. The South Division would not win an AFL title until Covenant defeated Minnesota following the 2002 season.
The Pontiacs missed the playoffs in 1997 but advanced to the semifinals in 1998 and 1999, failing to return to the title game both years. In 2001, they managed to advance to the title game after missing the playoffs the previous year but were defeated by the mighty, undefeated '01 Packers, again losing by only 3 points, 13-10.
The Bengals would lose to the Packers and Vikings in the playoffs in 1997 and 1998, respectively, but returned to win an AFL title in 1999 over the St. Louis Redhawks, giving John Boehner and his offensive stars Hall and Richards 3-0 record in the AFL title game.
Richards' 40-yard dash has become known as "the Stiff Arm" in AFL lore, a legendary play due to its important to the game's outcome, and Richards' ability to stay inbounds.