It all changed so quickly. Who would've thought, on that frigid night in January of 1997, that the next time the Jaguars and Patriots would meet in Foxboro, Mass., neither Mark Brunell nor Drew Bledsoe would be one of the starting quarterbacks?
When the Jaguars and Patriots tee it up this Sunday afternoon, the starting quarterbacks will be Byron Leftwich and Tom Brady. Brunell is now third on the Jaguars' depth chart and Bledsoe is pitching passes in Buffalo. Even old Foxboro Stadium, where the Patriots held off the Jaguars in the 1996 season's AFC title game, is gone, replaced by magnificent Gillette Stadium. The old field is now an adjacent parking lot. Ouch!
"One thing Jack has said is that the game goes on. You give it all you have. Some guys are fortunate to get a Super Bowl ring. That's why I still want to play this game," Brunell said as he took a bitter-sweet stroll down memory lane.
Eight seasons ago, he was the brightest star on the game's horizon. He was what every team wanted in a young quarterback: athletic, resourceful, exciting, poised, media-friendly and fan-pleasing.
He may still possess all of those qualities. We'll find out next season, when Brunell moves on to another team and, he hopes, is afforded an opportunity to reclaim his career.
But on that night in 1997, there was no thought of the day when Brunell would leave the Jaguars. All thoughts were on the amazing future the two had together. All right, so they lost the chance to go to the Super Bowl on an interception. Brunell and the Jaguars were just in their second season. They would return to this scene on multiple occasions, right?
Well, they made it back to the AFC title game, in the 1999 season, but the celebration ended there, again, and now they'll return to Foxboro for one last look before Brunell bids farewell to his Jaguars career.
"When I think of that game, I think of that play," Brunell said of Willie Clay's fourth-quarter interception in the end zone, with the Patriots clinging to a 13-6 lead in that '96 AFC title game. "I just didn't see him," Brunell added.
No one bothered to cry for Brunell or the Jaguars. They had made it into the postseason on the strength of a 9-7 record and a missed field goal by Morten Anderson in the final game of the year. Though it was agreed they were lucky to be where they were, it was also agreed they were about to become one of the elite teams in the league. For the Jaguars, it was all about the future.
"After the game, I was more disappointed in not being able to win that game than I was thinking about the future," Brunell said.
Now, with the disappointment of this season only three games away from being complete, Brunell is allowing his thoughts to wander ahead. What about next year, when the Super Bowl will be played in Jacksonville?
"It's crossed my mind," he said with a smile.
Meanwhile, the Jaguars began their on-field preparations for Sunday's game against the 11-2 Patriots, who beat Miami in a snowstorm last Sunday.
"It sounds like we may catch a break," coach Jack Del Rio said of the weather forecast, which is for clear skies and temperatures above freezing. "But it's going to be cold. You don't go to the Northeast this time of year and it not be cold."
This Sunday's game will be only the second NFL game in the last 25 seasons in which each team won its previous game by a shutout. It happened exactly 17 years ago this Sunday, on Dec. 14, 1986, when Seattle won at San Diego, 34-24, after each of those teams had won its previous game by a shutout.