The Tennessee Titans did it again. They celebrated another championship on the Jaguars' home field.
Three years ago, it was an AFC title. Today, it was the first-ever AFC South Division title, which the Titans claimed with a 28-10 win over the Jaguars, combined with a loss by the Indianapolis Colts.
"We've had a lot of challenges all year since that slow start," Titans coach Jeff Fisher said, referring to a turnaround that began with a win over the Jaguars on Oct. 13, and culminated with a win at Alltel Stadium today. The Titans, who began the season 1-4, will claim homefield advantage for the playoffs with a win in Houston next Sunday.
Meanwhile, the loss left the Jaguars certain to suffer their third consecutive losing season, and the Titans' dominance of the Jaguars today left 51,033 at Alltel disgruntled.
"We've had our fair share of it," quarterback Mark Brunell said of fan booing, "and when you're losing you're going to hear it, not just in Jacksonville, but anywhere. Certainly things have changed."
Yes, almost everything about the Jaguars has changed since Brunell captured the hearts of Jacksonville with a Cinderella-like run to the AFC title game in 1996. Then, Brunell was the darling of the crowd. Today, Brunell was the target of repeated boos.
Brunell's day came to a head in the third quarter, with the Titans leading, 14-3. Brunell's pass over the middle for Bobby Shaw was intercepted by linebacker Peter Sirmon and returned 32 yards for a touchdown. It was the clincher.
"They were in the right coverage for it and it was a bad mistake on my part," said Brunell, who suffered a right hamstring injury and left the game in the fourth quarter. He was replaced by rookie David Garrard, who could get his first pro start next Sunday in Indianapolis.
"I thought he did some good things. He kept his poise; he had his eyes out. He competed and he'll learn from that. You have to give him credit for that touchdown. He did a good job for the circumstances," coach Tom Coughlin said of Garrard.
"We got good effort. We got good focus. You have to inspire yourself within. We didn't create anything that gave us a boost. We tried to create that spark; the fake punt," Coughlin said of a fourth-down run by Garrard out of a trick formation that was similar to the one Fisher used successfully on the Jaguars in Nashville earlier this season. Garrard, however, was tackled short of the first-down marker.
"The intensity in practice was very good. If we could've done anything to get a spark out of our team in the first half," Coughlin added.
Cornerback Fernando Bryant had an opportunity to provide that spark on the second play of the game, when he stepped in front of the receiver and appeared poised to intercept a Steve McNair pass with an open sideline ahead. But Bryant dropped the ball.
"No question, we had to play lights out to win. The way the first half was played, it was obvious that was not the case," Coughlin said, referring to a first half during which the Jaguars were completely dominated.
"It seems like Tennessee always has our number. They seem like they're always a play ahead. I can at least speak for the offensive side of the ball when I say it seemed they had an answer for everything we tried today," wide receiver Jimmy Smith said.
Smith, one-third of the Jaguars' "Big Three," caught three passes for 14 yards and an insignificant touchdown with eight seconds to play. Brunell was 12 of 23 for 114 yards, an interception and a 48.1 passer rating. Running back Fred Taylor, the third member of the "Big Three," suffered a sprained ankle in the first half and carried the ball only three times for 17 yards and caught two passes for seven yards.
All of the fun belonged to the Titans. Running back Eddie George scored on two short runs and broke the 1,000-yard rushing mark for the sixth time in seven years. McNair became the fifth quarterback in NFL history to pass for 18,000 yards and rush for 3,000 yards in a career. And rookie defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth, who became a controversial figure last spring when the Jaguars declined to draft Haynesworth based on personality concerns, turned in the best performance of his rookie season.
"I can't say enough about how proud I am of the entire team and coaching staff, being able to rally and put this thing together," Fisher said. "We're in the playoffs now and it's a great first step."
For the 6-9 Jaguars, it was their most significant step backward this season. It marked the first time this season the Jaguars have suffered a double-digit loss.