Senior writer John Oehser’s “oral history” of 25 memorable games in Jaguars history continues with this look at a 25-10 victory over the New England Patriots in an AFC Wild Card Playoff following the 1998 season – the first home postseason victory in franchise history
Date: January 3, 1999.
Site: Alltel Stadium; Jacksonville.
Records entering game: Jaguars 11-5, Patriots 9-7.
What happened: The Jaguars, playing a home playoff game for the first time in franchise history, registered a methodical 25-10 victory over a gutty New England Patriots team in an AFC Wild Card playoff game at Alltel Stadium. The Jaguars, who won their first AFC Central title in 1998 with an 11-5 regular-season record, controlled the game despite quarterback Mark Brunell being hobbled on a high-ankle sprain and despite struggling to score in the red zone. Running back Fred Taylor, who scored a franchise-record 17 touchdowns in a remarkable rookie season, had the best postseason game of his career and rushed for 162 yards and a touchdown on 33 carries. The Jaguars were helped, too, by the absence of Patriots quarterback Drew Bledsoe because of a fractured finger. Scott Zolak started for a Patriots team that made the postseason as a 9-7 wild card, and completed 21 of 44 passes for 190 yards and no touchdowns with an interception as the Jaguars defense held the Patriots to 204 total yards. The Jaguars, after taking a 6-0 lead on first-quarter field goals of 35 and 24 yards by kicker Mike Hollis, took a 12-0 lead with Taylor’s 13-yard second-quarter touchdown run. A one-yard third-quarter touchdown run by running back Robert Edwards and a 27-yard field goal by kicker Adam Vinatieri cut the Jaguars’ lead to two early in the fourth quarter before Brunell hit wide receiver Jimmy Smith with a 37-yard touchdown pass with 12:24 remaining for a 19-10 Jaguars lead. Field goals of 34 and 21 yards by Hollis late in the fourth quarter pushed the Jaguars’ lead to the final margin and secured the first home playoff victory in franchise history.
Jaguars leading passer: Brunell (14-34, 190 yards, zero touchdowns, one interception).
Jaguars leading rusher: Taylor (33 carries, 162 yards, one touchdown).
Jaguars leading receivers: Smith (five receptions, 56 yards, one touchdown); Keenan McCardell (six receptions, 72 yards).
Patriots leading passer: Zolak (21-44, 190 yards, zero touchdowns, one interception).
Patriots leading rusher: Edwards (17 carries, 28 yards, one touchdown).
Patriots leading receiver: Troy Brown (four receptions, 46 yards).
This game might get lost in Jaguars lore, but its status as the first postseason home game in franchise history made the day special. Adding to the day was the opponent. The Patriots had beaten the Jaguars in the AFC Championship game following the ’96 season.
McCardell: “It was the first time to get a chance to play at home in the playoffs, which was fun. We were playing a good team and a team we needed to beat for the 1996 situation; we felt like we should have won there. We came out and we wanted a little vengeance. We played well. I broke my hand late in the game, hit my hand on a helmet. But it was a game where we realized we weren’t letting these guys come in here and walk out with a ‘W.’ Everybody was straight focused. Nothing more, nothing less. Whether it was a one-point win or a 30-point win, we just wanted to make sure those guys didn’t come out of this stadium with a win.”
The Jaguars, after winning their first AFC Central title, weren’t at full strength entering the postseason. Brunell missed the last two regular season games with a high-ankle sprain but returned against the Patriots.
Brunell: “I couldn’t move around very much. You probably could have made an argument that I should have not been playing – and maybe I shouldn’t have, because that sucker hurt. I had more tape on that thing … I might as well have been in a cast, but I really wanted to play. It was a playoff game. The magnitude of the game … if I could be upright and be on my feet, I wanted to play in that game.”
With Brunell dealing with an injury, the Jaguars’ plan was to depend heavily on Taylor. That was fine with the offensive line.
Searcy: “We didn’t want to be labeled a finesse team. I remember talking to [left tackle Tony] Boselli specifically about it: Anytime a team throws as effectively as we did, you can get labeled. Finesse means you can’t run the ball. We prided ourselves on being physical because when you think about the Steelers, you didn’t think finesse. We wanted that identity for ourselves. We took a lot of pride in running the ball, and it had a lot to do with our coach, [Offensive line] Coach [Mike] Maser. Maser didn’t want us to be pinged as a finesse team. All the drills we did were mainly focused on getting after people.”
The Jaguars did get after the Patriots in the ’98 Wild Card game, a game that capped a memorable rookie year for Taylor. The No. 9 overall selection in the 1998 NFL Draft from Florida, Taylor started the season slowly. There even was talk that he wouldn’t live up to his draft status.
Taylor: “I heard whispers in the media, from fans … you hear things. After the preseason someone wrote, ‘Taylor is a bust.’ It was premature, but I saw it. It’s not that it was difficult, but I was trying to make the adjustment to the pro game.’”
A conversation with Jaguars wide receiver Willie Jackson helped.
Taylor: “I remember it like it was yesterday, Willie telling me during practice after the second preseason game, ‘Fred, what are you doing? That ain’t you. Just be yourself. I know you’re feeling the pressure from the coaches but run like you run – the reason they drafted you.’ He was like, ‘Just try it. What can it hurt? Let’s see what happens.’ I said, ‘All right, big bro.’ I didn’t have a lot of success in the third preseason game, but it felt good. And that last preseason game against Dallas I was like, ‘This feels better.’” [Jaguars Head] Coach [Tom] Coughlin was like, ‘You’re a big back. Hit it up in there.’ That’s what Stew (running back James Stewart) did. I wasn’t Stew. I was more elusive.”
Taylor rushed one time for two yards in a victory over Chicago in the regular season opener, then rushed for 44 yards on six carries in a Week 2 victory over Kansas City. Midway through the first quarter of a Week 3 victory over the Baltimore Ravens, Stewart left with an injury. Taylor on his first carry after entering the game ran around left end for a 52-yard touchdown.
Taylor: “When Stew went down in the Baltimore game, I got a shot. I touched the ball one time against Chicago and I was frustrated, but I understood Stew was the guy. I carried the ball a little more against Kansas City and had some decent runs. I felt good about that part, and I said, ‘OK, things are starting to change.’ The next game, Stew went down. Tony [Boselli] and I, we joke about it. He looked over and was like, ‘Here comes the rookie. Oh, crap. Here comes the rookie.’ They didn’t know. I hadn’t shown anything. I get out there and my first touch goes for a 52-yard touchdown. My confidence went sky high. I was like, ‘All right … I can do this.’ I felt like I had arrived.”
Taylor rushed for 1,233 yards and a career-high 14 touchdowns as a rookie, and also caught 44 passes for 421 yards and three touchdowns.
Taylor: It was really just pure talent, just going out there and going out to practice. I was just showing up, excited and happy to be there, happy to be a part of it. We were winning. We were 11-5. So, things were good. I was on a high. I didn’t know what to expect. I knew they were depending on me, but I was up for that challenge. I was still just living the young man’s life. I felt like I was still in college. The success was the same, except it was my show. I didn’t know the game as I was to learn it later.”
Taylor wasn’t 100 percent entering the game, but he realized what everyone with the Jaguars believed – that if they were to advance in the postseason, they needed to run. And Taylor needed to play well.
Taylor: I had some forearm problems going into that game. I had a bursa sac problem, so I was playing with this huge arm pad. That particular day, Coach [Coughlin] challenged me. He talked about how much we were going to have to run the ball and what the Patriots wanted to come in and do. I accepted the challenge. I was just excited about being in the playoffs. I didn’t want to let anybody down after having played well during the season. I was like, ‘All right. This is what the playoffs are all about. Let’s do it.’’’
The Patriots, like the Jaguars, entered the game less than 100 percent, with Zolak playing at quarterback for the injured Bledsoe. The Jaguars took a 12-0 lead, but the lead was 12-10 early in the third quarter when the Jaguars faced first-and-10 at the Patriots 37.
Brunell: “[Patriots cornerback] Ty Law was covering Jimmy. Anybody covering Jimmy – anybody – was similar to anyone going against Boselli: no concerns. I never looked over and said, ‘Oh, crap … it’s Ty Law.’ It was, ‘That’s Jimmy.’ I don’t know if he was [in] press [coverage] or off, but I remember going over the top and that sealed it for us.”
Brunell threw deep to Smith, whose 37-yard touchdown gave the Jaguars a 19-10 lead that essentially secured the victory.
Smith: “Ty Law’s a Hall of Famer and he was a tough defensive back. We caught them in the right coverage and he didn’t have help over the top. He was pressed in my face, so me and Mark … no one was going to cover that in the entire NFL. If there wasn’t a safety on my side of the field, you could forget it. We had tremendous confidence in our ability to win 99 percent of the time. He was following me that game. A few plays earlier, I was on the other side of the field and Mark threw one that hit me dead in the hands. The sun got to me. I was devastated that I dropped that pass. I think it was a couple of plays later, we were able to come back on the left side of the field. Mark came to the line. I forget what play we had called, but Mark called it off and went a quick step and just threw the ball up there so I could go get it. That was one of the plays where I had to just turn on the afterburners and go get that ball. Ty Law wasn’t a speedster. He just had tremendous coverage ability. I knew I could outrun him. We caught them with a safety in the middle of the field and it was over.”
The victory sent the Jaguars to the AFC Divisional Playoff round for a second time in three seasons. They lost to the New York Jets, 34-24, at the Meadowlands in East Rutherford, N.J. The Jets lost to the eventual Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos in the AFC Championship game.
McCardell: “We were playing well. We went to New York, we were in that game. It was a weird game. We were so mad the next week [after the loss to the Jets]. Denver beat us in 1997 to kick us out of the playoffs, and we wanted to go back in 1998. A couple of us watched the game and they [the Broncos] played so bad. The Jets had all the opportunity to beat those guys and we were watching it and saying, ‘This is for the birds. We would have kicked their butts.’ They played that bad and we were so mad we lost to the Jets. They were good, but we were better. We would have beat Denver.”