Senior writer John Oehser’s first-person look at 25 memorable games in Jaguars history continues with this look at a 19-17 victory over the Atlanta Falcons to clinch the first playoff appearance in in franchise history.
Date: December 22, 1996
Site: Jacksonville Municipal Stadium.
Records entering game: Jaguars 8-7, Falcons 3-12.
What happened: The Jaguars secured their first playoff appearance in historic, dramatic fashion – clinching a wild-card spot with a 19-17 victory when Falcons kicker Morten Andersen missed a 30-yard field goal with four seconds remaining. The Jaguars, who entered the game on a four-game winning streak that followed a 4-7 start and who needed a victory to clinch a playoff spot, took leads of 7-0, 16-3 and 19-10 on an early 11-yard touchdown run by quarterback Mark Brunell and four field goals by kicker Mike Hollis (23, 26, 22 and 42 yards). But the stalled, point-blank drives that led to Hollis’ field goals nearly proved costly for the Jaguars. The Falcons scored two second-half touchdowns and running back Craig Heyward’s two-yard touchdown run with 5:39 remaining cut the Jaguars’ lead to a suddenly tenuous 19-17. Falcons linebacker Clay Matthews sacked Brunell to force a Jaguars punt, preventing the Jaguars from running out the clock. The Falcons drove from their 30 to the Jaguars 12 in the waning moments in methodical fashion and appeared poised for the upset, but Andersen – a future Hall-of-Fame kicker – slipped as he planted. The kick sailed wide to send the Jaguars to the postseason for the first time in franchise history.
Jaguars leading passer: Brunell (18-29, 222 yards, 0 touchdowns, 0 interceptions).
Jaguars leading rusher: Natrone Means (27 carries, 110 yards, 0 touchdowns).
Jaguars leading receiver: Jimmy Smith (five receptions, 75 yards).
Falcons leading passer: Bobby Hebert (17-25, 172, 1 touchdown, 0 interceptions).
Falcons leading rusher: Heyward (16 carries, 69 yards, one touchdown).
Falcons leading receiver: Bert Emanuel (six receptions, 67 yards).
That the Jaguars were positioned to make the playoffs was remarkable. The team was in its second season – and was still adjusting to life under Head Coach Tom Coughlin. Then, with five weeks remaining in the season, things changed.
Wide receiver Keenan McCardell: “We got a lot of confidence in each other. We realized we could play. Some guys had to step up and they did. That winning streak was what got us so confident going into the playoffs. We were clicking. We had veterans who had been on teams, like [cornerback] Robert Massey, saying, ‘C’mon, man … we just got to get in. We’re hot right now.’ That was the talk in the locker room. [Veteran defensive end] Clyde Simmons kept saying, ‘C’mon, this is the perfect time to get hot right now.’ Guys like [veteran defensive linemen Jeff] Lageman and Don Davey saying, ‘Come on, this is the perfect time.’ That motivated some of the younger guys to keep playing hard. ‘The season’s not over. All we need to do is get in. Get in.’ They kept pushing us to get in.’’
Means: “I think it might have been [defensive back] Bucky Brooks who said something to the effect of, ‘We can go out and lay down and get ready for the offseason or we can go out here and make a run.’ It was just one of those special situations where we were fortunate enough to catch lightning in a bottle.”
Right tackle Leon Searcy had signed as an unrestricted free agent from the Pittsburgh Steelers the previous offseason.
Searcy: “The first half of the season, we had full-pads Friday and went goal-line on Friday. That was insane to me. I said at the beginning of that season, ‘How am I going to survive this?’ [Steelers Head Coach Bill] Cowher and Coughlin were different. I had no choice but to compare the two. I didn’t say it to a lot of people, but I said, ‘In Pittsburgh, we didn’t run the ship like this. We don’t try to kill players during the week thinking they were going to perform on Sunday. We put our work in and then on Sunday, we’re ready to ball. It’s the complete opposite here. They’re trying to kill you and expect you to play on Sunday.’ When we were 3-6, I came into the meeting room. We called Coughlin ‘the Principal.’ I had a note on my stool: ‘Please see Coach Coughlin.’ I said, ‘Oh, what the hell is this about?’ I go into his office and he says, ‘Leon, what’s our record right now?’ I said, We’re 3-6, coach.’ He said, ‘How do you think you’re playing?’ I was honest. I said, ‘I’m playing average.’ He said, ‘You’re damned right you’re playing average. We didn’t pay you this kind of money to play average.’ He said, ‘I need you to be a leader on this team.’ I told him straight up, ‘Coach, you’re killing us. We’re not winning games because guys are tired. They can’t finish in the fourth quarter because they’ve got no legs.’ I don’t know if he took my advice or not, but he lightened up a little bit – and after that we had a little run. I would never take credit, but he changed a little bit. He wasn’t always on the accelerator. He pumped the brakes on some stuff. Once he realized the talent he really had, he had to let up. He had [wide receiver] Jimmy [Smith]. He had Keenan. He had me. He had [left tackle Tony] Boselli. He had Mark Brunell. We had talent. Don’t abuse it. Once he realized we were going to work anyway and he didn’t have to put the pedal to the metal on us all the time, he trusted us a little more. We started winning and we started being a little more fresh. That team was a band of misfits, but we had fought our way to get ourselves in a position to go into the playoffs. If anybody told you they knew we were going to get into the playoffs, they’re lying. We were playing with a poker’s hand. We were all in for the games and we just competed, competed, competed. That ’96 season didn’t start off that way, but toward the end – the tail part of that season – we just kept fighting. Those games were nail-biters. We were barely winning, but we were winning. I don’t want to say fate or anything like that, but we just found a way to get it done and put ourselves in position.”
The Jaguars, despite multiple extended drives, squandered multiple touchdown opportunities. Those missed chances gave the Falcons a chance – and with Hebert leading Atlanta down the field late in the fourth quarter, the playoff dream seemed to be fading. For Brunell, who had thrown incomplete with a chance to extend the previous drive, it was particularly difficult.
Brunell: “If the quarterback plays poorly, you’re going to lose the game more times than not – and I played poorly in that game. Not only did I play poorly, but I had a chance on our last drive to complete a comeback [route] … if we keep the ball, we finish out the game. I think I bounced the comeback. It’s one thing if it’s covered and you run and you don’t get it … all right … I get it. If you have an open receiver and it’s a pitch-catch … I remember on the sidelines thinking, ‘Oh, no … what have I done?’ Morten lines up and Morten doesn’t miss. Not from there.”
Elsewhere on the Jaguars sideline, emotions were similar.
Boselli: “I was sitting on the sidelines about the opposite 45-yard-line on the last drive. Our defense could not stop them, and I was like, ‘Just get a stop.’ It was like a slow death. I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh. We’re going to blow this.’ They [the Falcons] weren’t very good and we played our worst game in like five weeks. I’m thinking, ‘We’re going to throw this away.’ I remember sitting there in disbelief. He lined up for the kick and I’m like, ‘It’s a given. It’s Morten Andersen.’ He wasn’t missing it.”
Wide receiver Jimmy Smith: “I was on the sideline watching them drive the ball down on our defense. If it wasn’t for [defensive end] Tony Brackens chasing down a screen they would have scored a touchdown. I can’t remember who I was around, but I remember I started thinking about how much stuff I had to pack to get back to Mississippi. I was thinking about renting a U-Haul. We’re talking about one of the greatest kickers in NFL history. I don’t think a soul in that stadium had a feeling he wasn’t going to make that kick.”
McCardell: “I can still remember it clearly. [Wide receiver] Eric Metcalf caught a couple of passes on that drive. I think they dropped a ball that would have put them in real good field position for a field goal. I’m on my knees, just praying he misses it. I was like, ‘Man, we got this far, and this is how it’s going to end?’”
On the field, it was frustration.
Lageman: “You’re just trying to make a play. They were methodical. It wasn’t like they hit a big play, or we had a busted coverage. It was dink, dink, dink, dink. As a defensive lineman, you’re trying to impact the game whether it be batting a pass that we can pick, getting a sack/caused fumble … you’re trying to do everything you possibly can. It was quick tempo, so you didn’t have a chance to make the impact. It was frustrating because you’re thinking, ‘There’s our chance.’’’
Linebacker Kevin Hardy: “I don’t remember the drive, but I know in general the feeling was, ‘We’ve got to get a stop. We’ve got to get a stop.’’’
And then, Andersen lined up.
Searcy: “I was on the sidelines trying to figure out where I was going for the offseason. He was automatic, especially from inside the 30. I was thinking, ‘OK, what do I need to do this offseason … where am I going to go? Where am I going to travel?’ I thought it was a wrap. But when he missed it, I was elated.”
Brunell: “I watched it. I watch them all. I can’t help it. It’s excruciating to watch those.”
Hardy: “I’m thinking, ‘Game over’ because they’ve got Morten Andersen, one of the best kickers ever. A lot of things go through your mind, but I remember thinking, ‘It comes down to this; we won four and now it’s like were going to fall short in the moment.’’’
Lageman: “It wasn’t just that it was Morten Andersen. It was that it was essentially a chip-shot field goal. You were thinking, ‘There’s no way he’s going to miss unless we make a play.’’’
Safety Chris Hudson: “You’re hoping he would miss, but you had your doubts. He was pretty much the pro of the pros. That was his forte.”
Means: “This is Morten Andersen. His name speaks for itself. I’m sure, like most people, I was thinking that we were getting ready for a long offseason.”
Lageman convinced then-special teams coach Larry Pasquale to let him play on field-goal block for the final kick.
Lageman: “I wasn’t supposed to be on the field for the final kick.’ Larry had been my special teams coach when I was a rookie for the Jets, so I knew Larry. I told Larry, ‘I’m staying. I’m going to be on the field.’ I didn’t do a very good job. I got hit low and wasn’t able to elevate, but at that moment – as big as that moment was – there was no way in the world you were going to deny me the opportunity to be part of that play.”
Hardy: “Normally on extra points or field goals I was behind the line of scrimmage in a linebacker position and I was a watch-the-fake guy. That particular field goal was for the game, so we had a push on where you push the defensive tackle and try to push him through the gap. Once you push you try to jump and get your hands up. Everybody was going all out. I don’t remember who I was pushing – maybe [defensive tackle] Kelvin Pritchett. I just remember pushing and trying to get my hands up. (Laughing) The next thing I know everybody is cheering because he missed it.”
Yes, he missed. Really…
Means: “I remember seeing that ball come out of there crazy and looking back and seeing him on the ground. Everything just went crazy after that.”
Lageman: “I tried to get in the gap, the guy knifes me and I’m literally bent over at the waist. I can’t see anything. All I hear is the crowd. When you hear the crowd, you’re thinking, ‘He missed it. Or we blocked it.’ Or something good happened because the crowd is going crazy. It was a blur after that.”
It was a blur. And it was bedlam.
Searcy: “I don’t remember who jumped on me when he missed that field goal. I want to say it was [kicker Mike] Hollis. But we were excited. Nobody gave us a shot in hell to be that position and we fought our way into the playoffs.”
Hardy: “When it happened, I was in disbelief. It was just euphoria. I remember the next day. There was a picture in the paper, and it showed everybody trying to get their hands up. I love that picture because it showed everybody reaching and going all out and trying to get their hands on this thing.”
Lageman: “The cool thing about that miss, that moment, was you weren’t expecting to make the playoffs in 1996. You were hoping to play well and maybe find a way to get to .500. The unexpected when it happens is always more special because it’s unexpected.”
Smith: “The moment was, ‘Hey, we won the game.’ Then the thought was, ‘This is more than just getting this last win in this last game, we’ve got another game. We’re going to the playoffs.’ It started to dawn on us – that we were playing the following week. We had a feeling of, ‘’Man, we’re just happy to be in the playoffs’ – until [Jaguars Head] Coach [Tom] Coughlin came into the locker room and said, ‘Look, we’re not going to be just happy to be in the playoffs.’ That got our attention.”
McCardell: “I just remember sprinting out onto the field. There’s a picture of [defensive end] Tony Brackens pushing me up into the air. It was a special moment for us; all we wanted to do was get in, because we felt like we were hot. All week we’re like, ‘We’ve just got to get this one so we can get in.’ We played good enough to win that game, then to say they were going to come back in the last series, go down and kick a field goal to break our hearts… the story was being written for that. It just didn’t happen. The man upstairs didn’t want that. We were destined. This ball is a funny shaped ball. It bounces crazy and it bounced our way that day.”
Boselli: “I remember the ball going off wide left. It was pandemonium. Everyone’s hugging. Fans are going crazy and then we’re going into the locker room and Tom saying, ‘We’re in the playoffs. We’re going to Buffalo.’ Immediately, I said ‘Oh, gosh, I have to play Bruce Smith.’’’
The Jaguars would win their first two postseason games, beating Buffalo and Denver. They also made the postseason every season from 1996-1999. It began with the final game of the ’96 regular season.
Brunell: “Without that miss, we have a different history. The fact that we got to the playoffs in our second year, that was big. We had some guys who had some really good seasons, we got on a roll and we got into the playoffs. I don’t want to use the word “magical” because it sounds a little too Disney, but I remember when we were 3-6 and 4-7 and the wheels are falling off. People were upset at Tom. We weren’t reaching expectations. We should have been a lot better. There wasn’t much improvement over the previous year. I remember us basically taking the approach, ‘Hey, let’s just go out there and play; we’re sitting here at 4-7, so let’s just go play one game at a time. Let’s chip away and see what happens.’”
Boselli: “We’re a different team because of that. We wouldn’t have had that same confidence or swagger the next year. Our careers are different. I got to play Bruce Smith in the playoffs on national television ... no one knew us. Me getting to be able to do that was amazing. Who knows what happens if that doesn’t happen?”