JACKSONVILLE – The 1996 Jaguars resembled their 1995 expansion selves when they arrived in St. Louis to face the Rams midway through their second season.
The Jaguars had yet to discover the passing attack with quarterback Mark Brunell and wide receivers Jimmy Smith and Keenan McCardell. That trio's emergence was a few weeks away.
On the game's first drive, it seemed it might be the visitors' day.
Brunell on that first drive moved the ball effortlessly between running backs, tight ends and receivers. Starting at their own 33-yard line, the Jaguars used 10 plays to set themselves up for an early lead.
Rams safety Anthony Parker ruined those good feelings when he stepped in front of Brunell's pass to McCardell at the Rams 8, and it felt even worse 92 yards later when Parker crossed the goal line for a 7-0 St. Louis lead.
Brunell and the offense went right back to work from their 22, with running back James Stewart powering the offense near midfield before Brunell started dishing the ball to his receivers. The Jaguars quickly drove again, but on third-and-2 from the Rams 12, Parker stepped in front of McCardell again and returned it to the 26-yard line.
It seemed it was going to be that kind of day.
With the Rams leading 10-0, Brunell didn't hesitate. He found McCardell for 13 yards on first down and completed seven of nine passes on a drive that ended with a one-yard run by Stewart making it 10-7, Rams.
The Rams went three and out for the third time in four series – giving the Jaguars a chance to tie or take the lead before halftime. They faced third-and-6 at the St. Louis 36 when Brunell targeted Smith at the goal line. The ball was tipped by cornerback Jeremy Lincoln and intercepted by safety Keith Lyle.
Still, even after three first-half interceptions the Jaguars trailed by a field goal and the Rams couldn't move against their defense.
St. Louis went three and out to open the third quarter, then Brunell threw deep to McCardell for 52 yards and a first down at the St. Louis 11. Two plays later, Stewart scored his second touchdown of the game and the Jaguars led 14-10.
Lost in the turnover madness were stellar outings by McCardell and Stewart. After his 52-yard catch, McCardell had seven catches for 128 yards – and Stewart had 17 carries for 73 yards and two touchdowns. Things were suddenly looking up for Head Coach Tom Coughlin's young football team.
It wouldn't stay that way.
Powered by rookie running back Lawrence Phillips, the Rams moved down the field. Quarterback Tony Banks' 29-yard pass to wide receiver Eddie Kennison gave the Rams a 17-14 lead midway through the third quarter.
From the Jaguars 14, Brunell went right back to McCardell and Stewart, and the Jaguars found themselves at the Rams 23-yard line on the first play of the fourth quarter.
On first down, Brunell passed to tight end Pete Mitchell, but safety Gerald McBurrow intercepted at the 7 and Brunell's fourth interception of the game deflated the Jaguars sidelines. Though the Rams used more than five minutes of the game clock, the score remained 17-14 when the Jaguars took possession at their 24.
Brunell had no trouble positioning the Jaguars for a chance to re-take the lead, repeatedly passing to McCardell and handing to Stewart. The Jaguars were playing the kind of football Coughlin craved, the kind that can chew up the game clock and get on the scoreboard.
On first-and-10 from the St. Louis 10-yard line, Stewart was dropped for a three-yard loss. Brunell and McCardell already had connected a team-record 14 times. But on this pass, Keith Lyle jumped the rout at the two-yard line to secure the victory and send the Jaguars home 3-5.
Remarkably the Jaguars almost overcame Brunell's franchise-record five interceptions because of McCardell's franchise-record 16 receptions for a franchise-record 232 yards and Stewart's franchise-record 112 yards and two touchdowns.
It was a record-setting day in St. Louis.