Last Sunday, the 49ers were in familiar territory. San Francisco defeated the Green Bay Packers, 37-20, to return to the Super Bowl. The Niners are no strangers to the big game, as they’ve been to six Super Bowls in team history.
With so many big moments in Super Bowl history, it’s amazing to consider how one play can change the course of a franchise’s history. In one of the 49ers’ Super Bowls, however, there was a play just like this. It also changed the path of their opponent, the Cincinnati Bengals, forever.
The 49ers’ Super Bowl record
The 49ers have won five Super Bowls, which ties with the Dallas Cowboys for second-most of all time. San Francisco won four Super Bowls with Joe Montana at quarterback and one with Steve Young.
The team appeared in an additional Super Bowl with Colin Kaepernick, which they lost. Now, the team is set to make its seventh appearance with Jimmy Garoppolo.
While they haven’t won a Super Bowl in some time, the 49ers are viewed as one of the most successful NFL franchises. Montana’s ability to lead the team to four titles made him one of the greatest quarterbacks ever. Now, the 49ers seem to be back near the top of the football mountain.
Though they’ve had a great season, no era in team history will likely ever equal the 49ers of the ’80s. Four Super Bowl wins in a decade was impressive. Two of those wins came against the Cincinnati Bengals, a team not usually known for its success.
The Bengals’ Super Bowl history
The Cincinnati Bengals have appeared in two Super Bowls — both losses to the 49ers. For most of franchise history, they’ve been one of the least competitive teams in the NFL.
The Bengals experienced somewhat of a resurgence (for them) under Marvin Lewis. The head coach led the team to the playoffs seven times in 16 years. Due to his lack of playoff success, Lewis was fired last season. The Bengals returned to their losing ways, winning one game this season and earning the No. 1 overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft.
It’s clear that one franchise has had a lot of success while the other has been at the bottom of the league for a long time. However, there was one moment where it looked like their fortunes were going to reverse.
The interception that would’ve changed the 49ers’ record forever
SB Nation’s Cincy Jungle fansite discussed a dropped interception by Bengals cornerback Lewis Billups in Super Bowl XXIII. It would’ve altered the fates of both teams as well as Billups:
In Super Bowl XXIII, with over 14 minutes left in the fourth quarter, the Bengals led 13-6. The 49ers’ Joe Montana took the snap, and John Taylor came up from the Bengals 14-yard line. He ran a “deep slant with Jerry Rice in the slot,” according to Cincy Jungle.
Montana threw the ball; cornerback Lewis Billups cut below Taylor’s route. Billups juggled the interception, which seemed like an easy grab, and then dropped it. The pass was incomplete, and Billups lowered his head in defeat.
The 49ers recovered and won the game. The Bengals lost and continued their descent into football obscurity. Saddest of all, Billups had multiple legal issues of his own doing. He later passed away in a car accident.
It’s impossible to say how Billups catching the ball would’ve impacted the lives of all parties involved. But it’s safe to say the Bengals and 49ers’ histories could have gone much differently.
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