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Monday night magic


We move on today in the series counting down the all-time Top 10 Jaguars home games, and at No. 7, we come to the first Monday Night Football game in franchise history.

It was also a game that solidified the Jaguars' status as a contender.

Because while the Jaguars had made the playoffs a season before, and while they previously had beaten the Pittsburgh Steelers, beating their AFC Central rival, 30-21, at then-Alltel Stadium on prime-time on September 22, 1997, showed the nation the Jaguars weren't a fluke.

They were a solid team, and they were growing into a consistent one. And this heart-stopping victory over the Steelers helped further establish that.

"An iconic moment in Jags history that helped cement a great early rivalry," Quinton White of Jacksonville wrote.

Fans voting for the Top 10 home games echoed that sentiment – that while there may have been bigger, more-exciting games in the last 16 years, this one was special for the energy and the meaning.

"The first home Monday night game," David from Orange Park wrote. "The city was buzzing and the atmosphere in the stadium was electric."

The Jaguars weren't exactly new to electricity. They had surprised the NFL world the previous season, rallying from a 4-7 start to make the playoffs and advance to the AFC Championship Game. During that run, quarterback Mark Brunell had established himself as an early face of the franchise, and an identifiable player to the nation.

But when the '97 season opened, Brunell wasn't in the lineup.

After sustaining a preseason knee injury, Brunell missed the first two games. Rob Johnson, a fourth-round selection in the 1995 NFL Draft, started the season opener in Baltimore, and led the Jaguars to a memorable comeback before sustaining a high-ankle sprain. Steve Matthews started in Week 2, and threw for 252 yards in a 40-13 victory over the New York Giants.

Brunell's return remained a story throughout, and when he was back in the lineup for the Steelers game, it set the tone for a remarkable night.

The Jaguars never had lost to the Steelers in Jacksonville, winning at home during the 1995 expansion season and the '96 season opener, but the Steelers had won each of the last two division titles.

And while the Jaguars had become a story the season before, they had yet to appear on Monday Night Football, then the pre-eminent weekly stage.

That made the night of September 22 special even before the game began.

"Electric night at Alltel Stadium," Sunil Joshi wrote.

Each team entered 2-0 and the crowd was ready for a match-up of unbeatens.

"Loudest I ever heard it at a Jag game," Eric Koch of Orange Park, Fla., wrote.

It started positively for the Jaguars, who took a 7-0 lead on one-yard touchdown run by Natrone Means. The Steelers tied it 7-7, but by halftime, the Jaguars led 17-7 after an 11-yard touchdown pass from Brunell to wide receiver Jimmy Smith and a 20-yard field goal by Mike Hollis.

The Steelers, with running back Jerome Bettis bruising the Jaguars' defense for 65 third-quarter rushing yards, rallied in the second half.

Wide receiver Yancey Thigpen caught a four-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Kordell Stewart to cut the Jaguars' lead to three, 17-14, and after a 45-yard field goal by Hollis, Pittsburgh took its first lead when Stewart passed one yard to Mark Bruener.

Hollis, who missed field goals from 29 and 38 yards, connected from 27 yards with 4:14 remaining for a 23-21 Jaguars lead, but the Steelers drove and set up for a 40-yard field goal with six seconds remaining.

Then, the game got really memorable.

The snap from center Jim Sweeney hit holder Mike Tomczak in the knee. Tomzcak got the ball down, but the squibbed kick was blocked and Jaguars third-year safety Chris Hudson returned the ball 58 yards for a game-clinching touchdown.

"This is big," Brunell told the Associated Press afterward. "This is one of our best ones. One, because it was Monday night. Two, because it was the Steelers. Three is the way we won.

"It came down to the last play, and it was very good for the city of Jacksonville."

Hudson passed Steelers Head Coach Bill Cowher on the way to the end zone, at which point Cowher appeared to clench a fist.

"I can still see Cowher, his chin and his fist as clear as I had seen it then," wrote Matt from Rockville, Md.

Jimmy Osburn of Jacksonville called it "my all-time favorite Jaguars game."

"That rivalry was so heated," Osburn wrote. "I remember Bill Cowher beginning to step onto the field to make the tackle on Hudson. The stadium looked like an hour-glass out of the corner of my eyes for a moment as the crowd instinctively moved downward. He made the right decision to step back off the field."

The image of Cowher on the final play remains vivid for many Jaguars fans.

"The stadium has never been as loud as that night – and to see Bill Cowher&39;s face as Chris Hudson ran by him was priceless," Tony Placzkowski of Jacksonville wrote.

"The look on Coach Cowher's face as the ball was being returned on a botched kick was something of legend," Matthew Samples of Rockport, Ky., wrote. "I can watch that replay over and over again."

The victory moved the Jaguars to 3-0, a game ahead of the Steelers in the AFC Central, but the young, developing Jaguars weren't quite ready to take over supremacy in the division. They lost at Pittsburgh in overtime that November, and though the Steelers wouldn't win in Jacksonville until 2000, they won a fourth consecutive division title.

 The Jaguars finished 11-5 in 1997, losing to Denver in the first round of the playoffs, but while '97 didn't end with a glorious playoff run or division title, it featured a game that introduced the franchise to a national prime-time audience and provided late-game dramatics that remain memorable nearly a decade and a half later.

"Jaguars proved they could handle the MNF stage," Jim Adams of Jacksonville wrote, and Adam Kelley of St. Johns, Fla., added, "If everyone who says they were there actually were, the stadium would have been over 200,000.  What a night."

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