The last time the Cincinnati Bengals won a playoff game, Boomer Esiason was under center and handing the ball off to Ickey Woods.
Looking to end a postseason win drought that dates to that 1991 victory, Andy Dalton and Jeremy Hill will try to help the Bengals avenge their worst loss of 2014 when they visit the AFC South champion Indianapolis Colts for a wild-card matchup Sunday.
Cincinnati (10-5-1) endured its roughest patch of the season with a loss at New England, a tie against Carolina at home and an Oct. 19 visit to Lucas Oil Stadium that ended with the team’s first shutout loss in five years, 27-0.
Indianapolis (11-5) limited the Bengals to 135 total yards, including 32 on the ground, sacked Dalton three times and forced Kevin Huber into a team record-tying 11 punts to earn the 500th victory in franchise history.
While Indy’s unpredictable defense showed it’s capable of a shutdown day, Andrew Luck and the offense also had a solid performance. Luck threw for 344 yards and a pair of touchdowns, and a trio of backs helped the Colts finish with 171 rushing yards.
"Man, there were a lot of problems," Bengals safety Reggie Nelson said to the NFL’s official website. "We got beat and they got the best of us, so it’s always good going back to a stadium, back to the scene of the crime."
Indianapolis, though, certainly would be wise to forget about that victory because Cincinnati is looking like a far different team than it did that day.
After the loss, the Bengals switched things up in the backfield by moving Hill ahead of Giovani Bernard on the depth chart, and they went 7-3 the rest of the way as their rookie runner flourished. Hill finished with 1,124 yards for the run-heavy offense, and his 441 in December were the most in the league in that span.
"We have a lot of respect for what they do," Luck said Wednesday of the Bengals. "They do a lot and they do it well. … These guys do everything and do it with confidence and competence. It’s a fun team to play."
Hill’s emergence has helped take some pressure off Dalton, who has led Cincinnati to a 40-23-1 record in his four seasons but has played poorly while losing in the wild-card round in each of the first three. A loss against the Colts would tie Dalton with Warren Moon for most consecutive opening-round defeats by a starting quarterback.
"Winning in general is how quarterbacks are judged," Dalton said Wednesday. "If you win a lot in the regular season but you haven’t won a lot in the postseason, then they’re going to say that you couldn’t do something."
Dalton will be hurt by the absence of his favorite target. Star receiver A.J. Green suffered a concussion in last Sunday’s 27-17 loss at Pittsburgh and has been ruled out. Green, who led the team with 69 catches for 1,041 yards, was also absent Oct. 19 and Cincinnati seemed lost without him.
Mohamed Sanu takes over as the No. 1 receiver, but top tight end Jermaine Gresham is questionable with a sore back. The injuries to the receiving corps may lead to increased workload for Hill.
Ben Roethlisberger had plenty of time to throw Sunday against a weak Bengals pass rush in a win that gave the Steelers the North title and gave Cincinnati the wild card. The Bengals, who had an NFL-low 20 sacks, need to get to Luck to have a shot at winning.
"Suppressing Andrew Luck is going to be kind of hard," Nelson said. "He always starts off kind of slow and the scary thing is, he can always get his team going."
While Luck has also thrived in the regular season, going 33-15 over his first three years, he has found some playoff success. Indianapolis beat Kansas City at home in the wild-card round last January before losing a divisional matchup at New England in which Luck was picked off four times.
Luck’s overall season was his finest so far with a league-leading 40 touchdowns – one better than the man he replaced in Indianapolis, Peyton Manning – to go with other career bests in yards (4,761), completion percentage (61.7) and yards per pass (7.7).
Although he failed to hit the 300-yard mark in five of the final six games after doing it nine times over the first ten, Luck may be poised to break out against a defense that was ranked 20th with 243.0 passing yards allowed per game.
Cincinnati, however, was tied for third in the league with 20 interceptions and will try to stop a team that won five of its final six games and closed with a turnover-free performance in a 27-10 win at Tennessee.
The Colts should also get a boost after receiver Reggie Wayne said he’ll be "100 percent" despite suffering a groin injury last Sunday. The veteran’s 779 yards and two touchdowns were a nice complement to T.Y. Hilton’s team-best 1,345 yards and seven TDs. Tight end Coby Fleener led Indianapolis with eight TD catches and also had over 700 yards.
"Do we want to take the next step? Yes," coach Chuck Pagano said Monday. "Do we want to reach the Super Bowl that’s going to be played in Arizona? Yes. We’re glad to be in (the playoffs), but (we’re) never satisfied until we hoist (the Lombardi Trophy)."