JACKSONVILLE – The Jaguars were at the very beginning when they arrived in Buffalo in late December 1996.
A Jaguars team a year removed from its 1995 expansion season – and just weeks removed from a losing record – was suddenly at Rich Stadium to face a Bills team that never had lost a postseason game in Orchard Park, N.Y.
It seemed an insurmountable obstacle for quarterback Mark Brunell and the Jaguars to beat quarterback Jim Kelly and the star-studded Bills – a team that had thrilled the fans in western New York for almost a decade – and to do it on a frozen field in hostile conditions.
But by the time the Jaguars boarded their buses to return to Jacksonville, Buffalo's AFC Dynasty was over.
Watching Kelly throw to wide receiver Andre Reed and handoff to running back Thurman Thomas on the Bills' first drive made it seem as if the Bills never had left the heyday of the K-Gun Offense that went to four consecutive Super Bowls from 1990-1993.
It was 7-0 when Thomas caught a quick screen pass from Kelly and slipped past Jaguars safety Dana Hall for the first touchdown of the game.
For that matter, it still looked as if the Bills were a contender watching nose tackle Ted Washington, linebacker Chris Spielman and safety Kurt Schulz toss three quick three and outs at a Jacksonville offense that had been highly efficient during a five-game winning streak to earn the Wild Card Berth.
When the Bills regained possession midway through the first quarter, Jaguars fans held their breath and prayed for a big play miracle that might give them hope.
Defensive end Clyde Simmons wasn't new to the NFL playoffs, though this was his first playoff game with the Jaguars. On first-and-10 from the Bills 24, the former Philadelphia Eagles Pro Bowler broke through the line of scrimmage and extended his ladder-like arms and huge hands just as Kelly tossed to Thomas. The ball never arrived, with Simmons returning the interception 19 yards for the game-tying touchdown.
Jacksonville rejoiced. Buffalo gasped. Game on.
Kelly didn't flinch on the next drive, and Thomas' two-yard touchdown run made it 14-7, Buffalo. Brunell then drove the Jaguars for a field goal that cut the Bills' lead to 14-10 late in the first quarter.
The defense kept the Jaguars close in the second quarter, responding to a Brunell interception with a fourth-down stand deep in Jacksonville territory. The Bills went for it on third-and-2 and linebacker Eddie Robinson made a big play in the hole. Jaguars defensive end Jeff Lageman threw Kelly backward on fourth-and-1 to end the drive.
A game filled with big plays at dramatic moments turned on one few remember. Brunell lined up under center Dave Widell facing a deafening crowd, a cold wind and third-and-14 from the Jaguars 23. Under pressure from defensive end Phil Hansen and Washington, Brunell passed over the middle to tight end Pete Mitchell, whose 47-yard catch-and-run reception gave the Jaguars a first down at the Bills 30.
Everyone watching remembers what happened next. Running back Natrone Means bounced off two defenders and raced 30 yards for a touchdown and the Jaguars' first lead of the game.
Buffalo gasped again.
The game went back and forth with field goals from Bills kicker Steve Christie and Hollis, but the aggressive young Jaguars wouldn't collapse – even when Bills cornerback Jeff Burris broke a 20-20 tie with an interception and touchdown on the third play of the fourth quarter.
Means carried seven times on the ensuing possession to get the Jaguars to the Bills' goal line. The Bills looked exhausted and couldn't shake a Jaguars team that needed legendary Atlanta Falcons kicker Morten Andersen to miss a chip-shot field goal the week to be in New York for the Wild Card Game. The Jaguars looked energized, especially after wide receiver Jimmy Smith took a quick pass and dove into the end zone to tie the game at 27.
The Bills were done; they just didn't know it yet. Jaguars safety Chris Hudson knocked Kelly out of the game, the final play of Kelly's storied career, with a big hit a few plays after Smith's touchdown. Cornerback Aaron Beasley recovered near midfield.
Hollis' game-winning 45-yard field goal swirled in the wind, but true to a team that looked like destiny's darling, it hit the right upright and fell over the crossbar for a 30-27 Jaguars victory in their first game – and Kelly's last – in Buffalo.
If that was how the story of the 1996 Jacksonville Jaguars ended, it would have been fairytale finish. But the best was yet to come.
WEEK 9 · Sun 11/07 · 1:00 PM EST