December 12, 2003
Remembering That Early Jaguar Glory
BY: Bob George/BosSports.net
"The fans in New England have waited 37 years for this day!" -- Bob Kraft, accepting the Lamar Hunt Trophy at Foxborough Stadium, January 12, 1997
One sidebar which is usually overlooked, if you have finally gotten over Bill Parcells leaving after the Super Bowl and can actually think straight, is the fact that the Patriot opponent that night was a second-year expansion team. When you take away things like blown 60-amp fuses, fumbles returned for touchdowns and grave mistakes in the kicking game, you are left with a team which, along with its NFC cousin in that same year, nearly set the league back 50 years and expansion football forward 50 years.
Actually, you can take nothing away from Jacksonville and Carolina. Both teams were legit conference runners-up. The Panthers were flogged in Green Bay, 30-13, but the Jaguars battled the Patriots extremely tough before a late fumble recovery return for a touchdown by Otis Smith settled things for the Patriots, 20-6. Having to face his former assistant coach was tough on the Tuna, and Tom Coughlin no longer coaches this team. That's too bad, with apologies to current coach Jack Del Rio, but Coughlin did wonders for this franchise in putting it on the NFL map so early. The fact that he is a former BC head coach makes him even more endearing to this area.
Jacksonville makes its first visit to Foxborough since that AFC title game. The two teams met only twice since, with the Patriots winning a 26-20 barnburner in 1997 at AllTel Stadium, then dropping a 25-10 playoff tilt the following year. Seeing Jacksonville come back to Foxborough conjures up memories of that glorious, albeit artificially significant night in Patriot history. Parcells' shenanigans that followed really took the luster off of this classic battle, one of the great nights in New England sports history.
The fact that Jacksonville was even in this game at all was a miracle, except in the minds of the Jaguars themselves. They were trying to duplicate the feat of the 1985 Patriots, to win three road games on their way to the Super Bowl. They managed two wins before losing at New England. But the two games that they won engendered more disrespect for their fledgling franchise than the Patriots got two years ago on their way to their first title.
After a late surge in the regular season gave them a 9-7 record and the five seed in the playoffs, the Jaguars headed to Buffalo for a Wild Card round game. The Bills laughed at them, literally. Thurman Thomas said "As quickly as they got here, that's as quickly as they're gonna go home!" Nobody at Rich Stadium ever dreamed of a Jaguar upset win.
Thanks to former San Diego running back Natrone Means and his 175 yards rushing, the Jaguars rose up and shocked the Bills, 30-27. Not only was this the first second-year expansion team to play in a playoff game, it was the first team to beat the Bills in a postseason game at Buffalo. The Bills were left speechless, and the Jaguars left for Denver screaming, "We're for real! Time to prove it! Time to prove it!"
Whatever disrespect they got in Buffalo was nothing compared to what awaited them in Denver. Woody Paige of the Denver Post, who is like Dan Shaughnessy of the Globe except that he jumps ugly on opponents instead of his own kind, wrote a horrid article the day before the Divisional Playoff game. The article denigrated the city of Jacksonville in general, portraying it as a hick, redneck city, and called the team "Jagwads". Coughlin said later that this article was what spurred his team on and helped bring about a 30-27 conquest, which was the biggest NFL playoff upset since Super Bowl III. Denver was the top seed, but went home with their tails between their legs, and the Jaguars had to wait to buy airline tickets for either Pittsburgh or Providence.
Patriot Nation had to be deliriously happy for Jacksonville knocking Denver out of the playoffs. The fact that John Elway owned the Patriots during his whole career was one thing, but the Bronco loss also meant that the winner of the New England-Pittsburgh game the next day would host the AFC title game. The Patriots won the Foxborough Fog Bowl, 28-3, and thus played host to Jacksonville the following week for the right to advance to Super Bowl XXXI.
On a frigid evening where the wind chill factor would go down to zero, the Patriots took the early lead after a muffed Bryan Barker punt resulted in a one-yard touchdown run by Curtis Martin two plays later. The Jaguar defense stiffened the rest of the night, and Drew Bledsoe, ill with a touch of the flu, never got untracked all night long. An Aaron Beasley interception set up a Mike Hollis field goal which made it 7-3 Patriots as the game headed into the second period.
Mike Bartrum later recovered a muffed punt, and the Patriots drove to the Jacksonville nine before Adam Vinatieri lined up for a chip shot field goal. Then suddenly, about two-thirds of the stadium lights went out. The game was held up for about a half-hour. While Jacksonville froze on the sidelines, the Patriots huddled up and went through their halftime adjustments. Vinatieri nailed the field goal, and it was 10-3 Patriots. Late in the half, a converted fourth down to Ben Coates and a 46-yard pass to Shawn Jefferson set up another chip shot by Vinatieri. It was 13-3 Patriots at halftime.
The teams battled back and forth for most of the second half, with only Hollis managing a field goal to make it 13-6. With about six minutes left in the fourth quarter, Mark Brunell drove the Jaguars to the Patriot six-yard line. Facing third and goal, Brunell tried to hit Jimmy Smith on a crossing pattern in the end zone. He never saw Willie Clay, who darted in front of Smith and made the pick. Brunell nearly cried right there on the field. But the Jaguars had plenty of defense to prevent Bledsoe from doing any damage.
With just over two minutes left, the Jags took over at the Patriot 39. Brunell handed off to Jimmy Stewart on a draw play. He cut through the left side of the line, but Chris Slade met him head on and slapped at the ball. The pig popped up in the air and right into the hands of O-T-I-S, who rambled untouched 46 yards for the game-clinching touchdown. Foxborough Stadium went into a delirious frenzy, and the Patriots had their AFC Championship.
Turnovers did in the Jaguars, but they played the Patriots incredibly tough. Means had great games against Buffalo and Denver, but the Patriots knocked him out of the game in the second quarter. Brunell was able to scramble at will in the first two games, but the Patriots kept containment on him all game long. Yet the Jaguars stayed within a touchdown until late in the contest. Coughlin and his defense rose up to the occasion and prevented Bledsoe, Martin, Coates and Terry Glenn from being huge factors in the game.
Today, the Jaguars are 4-9. Like the Patriots, they also shut out their last opponent, beating Houston 27-0. Only Brunell, Jimmy Smith and Tony Brackens remain from that playoff game. Byron Leftwich has played Brunell out of a job. Fred Taylor is a marquee running back who, if healthy, is one of the best in the game. Hugh Douglas and John Henderson anchor a tough defensive line. Mike Peterson is perhaps the best middle linebacker you've never heard of.
What will be nice about Sunday is that you can pretty much expect a game like that classic of seven Januarys ago. Low scoring, defensive struggle, tight game. The Patriots will be motivated to win their 12th game, which would be a new franchise record, and take one more step towards being the top seed in the playoffs. Bill Belichick will make sure that no Patriot looks at the Jags and think, "easy win".
Because it won't be. Just like January 12, 1997. The Patriots hope to survive Jacksonville one more time.
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