The AFC Central was always a heated division, with bitter, bitter rivalries growing between the classic four teams: Cleveland, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and Houston. In the late 1980s, all the teams in the AFC Central were contenders (with the exception of Pittsburgh on a few occasions), and in 1989 it was one of the most hotly contested divisions ever.
Besides, what division had quarterbacks named Boomer, Bubby, Bernie and Moon? Sounded like the world’s strangest law firm.
Boomer Esiason of the Bengals probably had the best season of these four, as he threw for 28 touchdowns, only 11 interceptions, 3,525 yards with a completion rate of 56.7%. He also had the best quarterback rating of the group, with 92.1.
Warren Moon was next, in his last pre-run and shoot year with Houston, and he checked in with a solid 23 TD – 14 INT season in which he passed for 3,631 yards and a 60.3% completion rate.
Bernie Kosar was starting to wear down, as his best years were behind him, but 1989 was his last hurrah. Kosar finished with an 18 TD – 14 INT ratio, throwing for 3,533 yards and completed 59.1% of his passes.
And lastly, the immortal Bubby Brister, who ended 1989 with a 9 TD – 10 INT ratio, 2,365 yards, completed 54.7% of his passes and had the worst rating with 73.1.
Strangely, Cincinnati finished with primarily the best offensive/defensive stats of the group, but they finished last in the division.
AFC Divisional Playoff game against Buffalo: The Browns came away with a 34-30 win.
Cleveland entered the year with fans finally letting go of the Super Bowl dream somewhat, as the Browns had been knock-knock-knockin’ on heaven’s door for three straight years, and it was apparent Bernie Kosar’s best years were behind him. Cleveland finished 3-3 in the division, blasting Pittsbugh 51-0 in the season opener, but falling 17-7 to the same team in Week 6. They were beaten by Cincinnati both times, and won once against Houston. As of 2014, 1989 remains to be their most recent division title.
At season’s end, the Browns managed to place first in the division with a 9-6-1 record, and after beating Buffalo in the divisional playoffs, Cleveland lost the AFC Title game to Denver for the third time in four years. But Denver went on to lose the super bowl 55-10, so how well would Cleveland have done?
Jerry Glanville, more than a character than a head coach. After getting fired from Houston, he moved on to Atlanta.
Oh, those Houston Oilers. Houston was the absolute Antichrist according to the other AFC Central teams, and they were sort of the villains of the division and conference at that time thanks to the abrasive “knock ’em out” style of play that Jerry Glanville encouraged. Houston’s last year with a conventional offense until 1996, Warren Moon finished with a solid season, as did the rest of the offense, but the same couldn’t be said for the defense. Despite finishing 3-3 in the division and 9-7 overall, the Oilers were outscored 365-412.
The Oilers entered Week 16 with an 8-6 record, but a 61-7 slaughter at the hands of the Bengals and a 24-20 loss to the Browns cost them a shot at a division title.
In the AFC Wild Card Game, Houston was upset by the Pittsburgh Steelers, and Jerry Glanville was soon fired.
The 1989 Steelers were an interesting puzzle. In their first two games against the Browns and Bengals, Pittsburgh lost by a combined score of 92-10. That’s pretty much everyone remembers about their season, and then a mysterious 14 games in between those two losses and the playoff game against Houston in which the Steelers went 9-5, beating Miami in torrential rain and barely losing to Houston at home, in a blizzard.
Pittsburgh finished 1-5 against the division, predictably the worst within. But they barely qualified for a playoff spot, where they promptly upset an Oilers team that had already beaten them twice, shocking them in overtime 23-20. Pittsburgh then lost to the eventual AFC Champions, Denver, 24-23.
Ah, the Cincinnati Blunders. I mean, Bungles. I mean-screw it. One season after coming off a crazy, high-powered season in which Ickey Woods danced his way across the U.S.A with the nauseating Ickey Shuffle, the Bengals were poised to once again make a run at a title. I mean, look at the stats. They rushed for the most yards, passed for a lot, they had Ickey Woods, a tough defense, Boomer Esiason, the best point differential in the division (119), and only lost one time to an AFC Central opponent (losing only to Houston in Week 10), so how’d they do?
They finished in last place with an 8-8 record.
Amazingly, the Bengals went a horrifying 3-7 against foes that weren’t inside their own division, and were the only team in the Central who didn’t qualify for a playoff spot.
1989 was also the season of the famous Sam Wyche incident. During a game against the Seattle Seahawks, fans were throwing things onto the field. Wyche rushed over, grabbed the microphone from the official, and said:
Will the next person that sees ANYBODY throw anything onto this field, point ’em out…and get ’em out of here – you don’t live in Cleveland, you live in Cincinnati!
And 50,000+ Bengal fans went wild. Cincinnati also had a famous game in Week 16 where they poured it on Houston, 61-7, kicking a field goal in the final seconds. After the game, Wyche called Glanville “stupid” and the team “undisciplined”. The Bengals-Oilers rivalry remained relevant for one more year, as Houston beat Cincinnati 48-17 in Week 6, consequentially, the Bengals ran it up in Week 16, 40-20. The Bengals then had the bottom fall out, with Houston beating them to a pulp consistently for years.
That concludes the story of the 1989 AFC Central, children. It was an insane, rivalry-driven division in which every team had a hatred for one another. The three most penalized teams in the league all sat there.
Note: 1990 AFC Central
The next year, the division was just as tough, but Cleveland was out of the picture with a 3-13 record. Houston, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati all finished with 9-7 records, with Pittsburgh missing the playoffs, and the Bengals crushing Houston in the Wild Card, 41-14. The division was still heated, but it wasn’t as filled with good headline opportunities and memorable moments.