JACKSONVILLE – Three days before Christmas 1996 the Jaguars had only one present in mind:
Since starting the franchise's second season a woeful 4-7, the Jags had rebounded. Thanks to a four-game winning streak, they needed only to beat the 3-12 Atlanta Falcons in Jacksonville in the regular-season finale to make the postseason.
It didn't seem an audacious ask. The Falcons were near the bottom of the NFL in every statistical category and were hours from leaving the season behind and headed for a couple of months away from football. How dialed in could they be?
It appeared it might even be an easy day when Jaguars quarterback Mark Brunell connected with wide receiver Jimmy Smith for 14 yards, wide receiver Willie Jackson for 13 yards and wide receiver Keenan McCardell for 17 yards early. Running back Natrone Means mixed in 22 rushing yards and Brunell gave the Jaguars a 7-0 lead with an 11-yard scramble for a touchdown.
Half the first quarter was already gone.
Things began to unravel, however – and the Jaguars' high-octane offense was stuck in neutral. They went three-and-out on their next two drives and settled for two second-quarter field goals after long, sustained clock-eating drives came up short.
It was only 13-3 at the half and though the Falcons weren't playing great, it was nerve-wracking for the home crowd who expected to see a fifth consecutive win in commanding fashion.
Another 13-play drive to open the third quarter stalled at the Falcons six-yard line and another Mike Hollis field goal extended the lead to 16-3. It didn't feel nearly enough.
That feeling was compounded on the next series. Falcons quarterback Bobby Herbert came out swinging and moved the Atlanta offense from its 28-yard line to the Jaguars 4. On third down from there, he found the speedy Eric Metcalf alone in the middle of the end zone, having gotten past safety Robert Massey.
Now, it was 16-10 – and the Falcons had a glimmer of hope. Perhaps they could head into the offseason with a win – and enjoy the beach and the golf course a bit more.
Brunell orchestrated a fourth consecutive drive with at least ten plays – and for the fourth consecutive drive settled for a field goal when his pass for McCardell was batted away.
Up 19-10, the Jaguars suddenly didn't have an answer for the Falcons. Running backs Jamal Anderson and Craig Heyward beat into the middle of the defense, pounding runs of six yards on the first three plays of the series. Hebert was masterful with crisp passes to wide receivers Bert Emmanuel and Terrance Mathis. Before you knew it, the Falcons were in the end zone thanks to a powerful surge by Heyward on first and goal from the two-yard line.
It was 19-17 in Jacksonville and the Falcons were soaring after back-to-back touchdown drives. You could almost see the momentum walk across the field from the Jaguars' sidelines to that of the Falcons.
Five minutes and 39 seconds stood between the Jaguars and their playoff dreams. Brunell took over at his own 25-yard line and sailed a pass to Smith too high. Brunell, wary of throwing an interception, ran for the first down. Falcons linebacker Clay Matthews, in his 19th NFL season, made sure he didn't get it.
Suddenly, the incredible run through December – the passion built in Jacksonville as the Jaguars pounded out win after win in pursuit of the playoffs – was on the line.
Anderson put the Falcons on his back: one yard, four yards, 14 yards. Heyward pounded out runs of six and seven yards and the Falcons were in position to win the game as they milked the clock and set up their future Hall of Fame kicker for an easy chip-shot field goal.
Morten Anderson had connected on 51 consecutive field goals from 30 yards or less. The playoffs were all but gone.
There was a tangible sense of loss hanging in the air over Jacksonville Municipal Stadium where a capacity crowd expected to take an early Christmas present home with them.
Anderson trotted out, lined up and swung for the goal post. Defensive linemen Jeff Lageman and Clyde Simmons and Don Davey reached for the sky, hoping to tip the ball or push it off course. None did.
The ball sailed towards the uprights, the playoffs looked lost and then the ball turned ever so slightly and went just outside the left upright.
Morten missed! The Jaguars were going to the playoffs and an improbable season that would have more unexpected moments was still on the holiday table in Jacksonville.
It is and will probably remain one of the biggest moments in Jaguars history.
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