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A Look Back at the 1981 AFC Championship game: The Freezer Bowl

The coldest game ever!
Publish Date: 12/28/2023
Fact checked by: Simon Briffa

A football game was once played with a wind chill of -59 degrees; I am not kidding. It was played! In today’s society, the game would probably be moved back a day, so the temperatures were better, but in 1981 the show must go on. Maybe people were stupid back then, or perhaps they were just tougher?

A regular season to remember.

The Cincinnati Bengals entered the 1981 season as a team on the rise under head coach Forrest Gregg; they had finished strong in 1980, taking the Cleveland Browns to the wire on the last day of the 1980 regular season. That 1980 season was Forrest Gregg’s first with the Bengals, who were coming off back to back 4-12 seasons before the arrival of Gregg. In 1980 the Bengals would win six games, but the thing that stood out was how hard the team played under Gregg. The Bengals beat the Steelers twice in 1980, and the big problem was their inability to finish games as they lost a ton of games by less than a touchdown. Nobody expected the Bengals to do what they did in 1981; even though the Bengals were better in 1980, the AFC Central was as tough as a division as you will find in the history of the NFL. You had the Browns, who had been Divison champions in 1980, the Oilers who had made the playoffs as a wildcard and the Steelers who had won two of the last three Super Bowls played at that time. The Bengals shocked everybody by winning the Central Division and advancing to the AFC Championship game.

Video: 1981 Bengals

1981 Bengals

On the other hand, the Chargers were expected to advance to the Super Bowl at the start of the 1981 season as they had last at home 34-27 to the Oakland Raiders in 1980. The Chargers offense was one of the most explosive in NFL history led by Dan Fouts. The defense was not as good as it had been in 1980, but they still entered the season as the favorite to end up in the Super Bowl. The Chargers would struggle off and on during the 1981 season before finally winning the AFC West on the last day. In the Playoffs, they would face the Miami Dolphins in the Orange Bowl in a game that would be one of the greatest ever played. The Chargers would beat the Dolphins 41-38 in double overtime to advance to Cincinnati, a team they had already played in November.

People primarily forget that the Bengals in San Diego won the November game, but it gave us a clue about which team was better. The Bengals dominated the Chargers in eighty-degree weather in San Diego 40-17. So when somebody tells you the Bengals won the AFC Championship over the Chargers because of the weather, please don’t believe them, as the Bengals beat the Chargers worse in eighty-degree weather! The difference was that the Bengals defense was significantly better than the Chargers.

Video: The 100 Yard Pick Six - 1981

The 100 Yard Pick Six – 1981

January 10th, 1982

The sunshine was so bright on this Sunday morning that you would never know just by looking how cold it was; Cincinnati’s Riverfront Stadium felt colder than the inside of a meat locker. For Bengals coach Forrest Gregg, the horrible conditions sparked memories of the 1967 NFL Championship Game, the legendary Ice Bowl against the Dallas Cowboys. He played right tackle for Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers. At minus 13 degrees, the mercury had been lower for that game, but the minus 48 wind chill was not as severe as that facing his Bengals. “I was as cold today as I’ve ever been,” the Ice Bowl veteran later told the media.

For San Diego, they saw the most significant weather difference in the history of the NFL. A week earlier in Miami, they had won an epic overtime game in 84-degree heat that left players dehydrated. To them, Riverfront Stadium’s concrete bowl felt 140 degrees colder.

Charger players pulled in pantyhose and layered Saran Wrap between pairs of socks for better insulation inside the locker rooms. Unlike their opponents, Cincinnati’s offensive and defensive linemen chose not to don long sleeves. The tone was set for this game in pre-game, and that ton for the Chargers seemed to be survival; for the Bengals, it was to win the AFC Championship game. That difference would be evident once the game started.

Believe it or not, only thirteen thousand fans decided to stay home as 46K fans still filled the stands to see their Cincinnati Bengals try to qualify for their first Super Bowl appearance.

Everything that could keep someone warm was used or worn on this day. Players sat on 150,000 BTU propane-fueled benches that had been shipped from Philadelphia and huddled around more than a dozen kerosene-fueled heaters on the sidelines. On the sidelines, coffee dispensers joined Gatorade buckets.

Gregg had the advantage of playing in the Ice Bowl, and from what he remembered of that day, the passing game could work in this weather! Gregg allowed his quarterback, Ken Anderson, an 11-year veteran with a pair of gimpy knees, to pass. The Bengals capped a 51-yard drive with a field goal to go up 3-0. After the Charger James brooks fumbled the ensuing kickoff, Anderson threw a touchdown pass to tight end M.L. Harris, who caught the ball wearing the same brown, leather winter gloves he wore to the stadium. Harris had come with Coach Gregg from the CFL, so he was used to cold weather also.

During timeouts, some referees grew a little too toasty at the heaters. “You smell something burning?” someone asked back judge Jim Poole. The referee looked at his smoldering shirt and realized it was him! This game saw things happen that have never happened again in a football game.

The frozen pigskin was as slippery as a greased pig and hard as a rock. After a paltry 27-yard boot, San Diego punter George Roberts returned to the sideline and muttered, “It’s like kicking a cinder block.

Watching the great Chargers Quarterback, Dan Fouts throw the ball was painful as, more often than not, the ball would float and sail when thrown by Fouts. On the other hand, Anderson looked like it was 70 degrees out when he was throwing the ball.

The Chargers did respond to Cincinnati’s early lead with tight end Kellen Winslow’s 33-yard touchdown catch and scamper, but a 40-yard kickoff return by Mike Fuller set up a Bengals touchdown that gave Cincinnati a 17-7 lead. Two successive drives deep into Cincinnati territory ended with San Diego’s Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Fouts tossing interceptions, one of which occurred in the end zone. But yet Dan Fouts is in the hall of fame while Anderson waits, and it is borderline criminal that Anderson is not in Canton! Fouts did not have the ability to get it done on this day in these conditions.

A fourth-quarter touchdown throw from Anderson to tight end Don Bass sealed Cincinnati’s 27-7 win and its first trip to the Super Bowl.

Anderson, who would receive NFL Most Valuable Player and Comeback Player of the Year honors for the 1981 season, completed 14 of 22 passes for 161 yards; considering the weather conditions, Anderson’s performance was one of the greatest in NFL history.

Video: 1981 AFC Championship GOTW - Chargers vs Bengals - The Freezer Bowl

1981 AFC Championship GOTW – Chargers vs Bengals – The Freezer Bowl

While the NFC Championship game that started as this game ended will be remembered for being one of the greatest games ever played, this 1981 AFC Championship game will be remembered as one of a kind experience. It will probably stay that way because a game would not be allowed to go on today if it happened. The Bengals may not have won the Super Bowl, but they showed a toughness that will never be rivaled, but what else would you expect from a team coached by Forrest Gregg! The Bengals would go on to lose the Super Bowl two weeks later.

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