Senior writer John Oehser’s “oral history” of 25 memorable games in Jaguars history continues with this look at a 30-27 victory over the Denver Broncos in an AFC Divisional Playoff – one of the biggest postseason upsets in NFL history
Date: January 4, 1997
Records entering game: Jaguars 10-7, Broncos 13-3.
Site: Mile High Stadium; Denver, Colo.
What happened: The Jaguars scored perhaps the biggest, most-memorable victory in franchise history by getting one of the biggest postseason upsets in NFL history – a dramatic 30-27 victory in an AFC Divisional Playoff over the top-seeded and heavily-favored Denver Broncos. Few expected the Jaguars to have a chance and Denver Post columnist Woody Paige famously – or infamously – wrote a column the morning of the game calling the Jaguars, “The Jagwads.” The Broncos dominated early and looked very much like the Super Bowl favorites -- taking a 12-0 lead on a one-yard touchdown run by Vaughn Hebron and an 18-yard touchdown pass from Hall of Fame quarterback John Elway to Hall of Fame tight end Shannon Sharpe. But the Jaguars, as they had done the week before in a Wild Card upset over the Buffalo Bills, rallied in stunning fashion on the road. They scored on five consecutive possessions – three field goals by Mike Hollis, an eight-yard run by running back Natrone Means and a 31-yard pass from quarterback Mark Brunell to wide receiver Keenan McCardell – and shut out the Broncos during the same span, taking a 23-12 lead early in the fourth quarter. A two-yard run by Hall of Fame running back Terrell Davis cut the Jaguars’ lead to three, but Brunell – after a weaving, career-defining 29-yard run through the Denver defense to the 21-yard line – threw a 16-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Jimmy Smith in the left side of the end zone for the clinching points with 3:39 remaining.
Jaguars leading passer: Brunell (18-29, 245 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions).
Jaguars leading rusher: Means (21 carries, 140 yards, one touchdown).
Jaguars leading receivers: McCardell (five receptions, 59 yards, one touchdown), Smith (three receptions, 71 yards, one touchdown).
Broncos leading passer: Elway (25-38, 226 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions).
Broncos leading rusher: Davis (14 carries, 91 yards, one touchdown).
Broncos leading receiver: Anthony Miller (five receptions, 67 yards).
The game remains one of the biggest postseason upsets in NFL history, with the Jaguars entering the game as 12.5-point underdogs. The Jaguars had been here before – beating the Buffalo Bills the week before as 8.5-point underdogs.
Linebacker Kevin Hardy: “Once again, no one gave us a chance – and once again, you had another Hall-of-Fame guy in John Elway and the offense was loaded with talent. For me, as a rookie, I’m just going out and playing football. I was taking it all in as far as the guys I’m playing against, but once the game started it’s another game. I just knew we were in the game and we had an opportunity to win.”
Smith: “No one gave us a chance of getting to the AFC Championship game. We had a tough route, going against Jim Kelly [of the Bills] and John Elway on their home fields. The chips were stacked against us, big time.”
McCardell: “They (the Broncos) were dead-set on being Super Bowl champions. They felt like they had a great team. We felt a little discredited. We had veterans, guys who had played in some big games, some rivalry games. We had veterans who were like, ‘Don’t worry about it. Relax. Let’s go. Just keep playing football.’ We didn’t get rattled; I guess it was because we weren’t supposed to be there.”
For left tackle Tony Boselli, whose dominant performance the week before against Hall of Fame defensive end Bruce Smith defined the victory over the Bills, the game was particularly meaningful. He had grown in up Boulder, Colorado, near Denver.
Boselli: “I was going home. I can remember sitting in the fifth deck with my dad (growing up). In Colorado, it wasn’t college football. It was the Broncos. It was like a religious experience. Every Sunday at 2 o’clock, I was watching the Broncos. We had played them in ’95 and lost. Now, we were going back, and I think I had to get like 60 or 80 tickets for my whole family, extended family and every friend I had ever had wanted to go.”
But the game wasn’t going to be easy for Boselli. One week after playing Smith, he was matched up against Broncos defensive end Alfred Williams.
Boselli: “Bruce had 16 sacks that year, but Alfred Williams had 14 sacks, so back-to-back weeks I’m playing the top two sackers in the NFL. Alfred was really, really good. I’m like, ‘Can we make this a little easier?’”
Boselli had another issue – this one tougher to handle than a Pro Bowl opponent.
Boselli: “We get to Denver. My dad comes down and I see him at the hotel. It’s like an hour until we eat and all of a sudden, I get the worst headache I’ve ever had in my life. I’m nauseous and I can’t even keep the lights on in my room. Mark (Brunell)’s my roommate and he’s like, ‘Are you ready to go to dinner?’ I’m like, ‘I can’t eat dinner.’ He comes back up and says, ‘Hey, it’s meetings.’ I go, ‘I can’t make it to meetings.’ So, [Jaguars athletic trainer]’ Mike Ryan came up and I’m sick as a dog – literally violently sick. I’m like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’ After team meetings, Mark and all the guys in Bible study came up and prayed for me. I went to bed and woke up the next morning and I felt better. I had breakfast and could barely eat. I didn’t feel great. I’m with [lineman] Jeff Novak at breakfast and trying to eat something and we’re reading the Woody Paige article, which made me kind of laugh. We’re heading to the stadium and still don’t feel great. I walked into the training room and I said, ‘Mike, something’s not right. I have no energy. I don’t feel good. My head’s hurting.’ He said, ‘All right. Let’s get you some IVs.’ He put a bunch of IVs in me and I threw up everywhere.’ I remember [Head Coach] Tom [Coughlin] looking at me like, ‘You’re playing. Just get over what’s going on.’ The IVs did make me feel better. I must have gotten dehydrated from altitude sickness or something. I grew up there and I never had it my life. To this day, I think the prayers did something because I thought I was going to die. So, God definitely did something.”
The Jaguars looked rattled at the beginning – and the Broncos looked dominant. The Jaguars trailed 12-0 early – and the Broncos were in total control.
Smith: “We had to settle down. Deep down, we didn’t think we were supposed to be there. We were just trying to have a good game. Then we came out unscathed and had a chance to make it a game – and then things started happening.”
Boselli: “We go out, I don’t feel 100 percent with all these fluids in me – and we are getting our tails kicked. It’s loud and we can’t move it. They’re going up and down the field – and all of a sudden I have to pee because I have all these fluids in me. I must have peed on the sidelines four times in the first half because I had all these fluids in me. I remember Mike Ryan putting towels around me and I’m peeing. We get a field goal, but they’re still dominating the game. Then we get a stop and we get stopped and we’re coming off the field. I’m walking to the bench and all of a sudden, I hear, ‘OFFENSE.’ Michael Dean Perry had decided to be lazy. We got the ball back and I don’t know what happened, but they never stopped us again. We were unstoppable. We went from being barely able to get out of our own way to where Natrone was running like the greatest running back ever, and Mark was Joe Montana, Fran Tarkenton and Steve Young all in one.”
The Jaguars pulled to within 12-3 on a 46-yard field goal by Hollis, then got a break when the Broncos were called for 12 men on the field when Dean Perry failed to reach the sidelines just before the Jaguars snapped to punt. That led to an eight-yard touchdown run by Means, and the Jaguars for a second consecutive week had withstood an early run by the opponent and had a very real chance. Means on the play stepped away from a defender at his feet and ran around the left side of the line for an easy touchdown.
Means: “We were just looking to get some push in the middle. You get down to the goal line and everything caves in. The defense is trying to win and constrict running lanes. Every once in a while, the defensive ends will get bright-eyed and see themselves coming down the line and making a tackle for a loss in the backfield. I just remember the guy lost contain. It all happened so fast. I was like, ‘I’m going to jump over the top,’ but as soon as I go to jump over the top I’m saying, ‘I can get out the back door.’ Then I’m coming down the line and walking in. I don’t think they thought I could get outside. I think those guys underestimated the jump-cut ability of old Means on that play.”
The Jaguars then took a 13-12 lead on a second field goal by Hollis with :10 remaining in the second quarter.
Lageman: “We didn’t change anything. We just started to play better.”
Boselli: “I remember going into halftime and it’s 13-12 and we’re winning. We’re up 13-12 and I’m thinking, ‘This is the greatest thing ever.’ We’re all pumped. We came out in the second half and dominated the second half, but I was never comfortable. I grew up watching the Broncos and I was like, ‘Elway’s going to make a run at us.’’’
The Jaguars, as they had the week before, controlled stretches of the Broncos game by running effectively. Means, after rushing for 175 yards against the Bills, continued to produce in Denver.
McCardell: “Nate came in the huddle and was like, ‘This is my time.’ We gave him the football and he was playing extremely hard. He took over the game and it looked like the old Natrone.”
Means: “Going into that game, they were the No. 1 rushing defense in the NFL. But Coach Coughlin told us the reason they had that ranking was because teams fell behind because of their potent offense and they would stop running the ball. I remember all that week he kept saying, ‘No matter what happens, we are going to run the ball.’ That was one of the things that played an extensive part of that run for us. We took pride in that.”
Smith: “We got into a race and they just couldn’t catch us. Time ran out on them.”
The Jaguars’ one-point halftime lead felt tenuous. But the Jaguars capped their first possession of the third quarter with a 31-yard touchdown pass from Brunell to McCardell, who made an acrobatic catch in the back of the end zone.
Boselli: “One of the greatest plays in the history of this franchise was the throw to Keenan in the back of the end zone where somehow Keenan gets two feet in with people draped on him. It was one of the greatest plays ever.”
McCardell: “It was a double move. I went down the sideline. Me and [Broncos cornerback] Lionel [Washington] talk about it all the time when I see him. Mark gave me an opportunity. I made the move. I saw the ball and I was like, ‘I’m running out of room right now.’ I went through the goal line and I said, ‘Damn, I’m five yards deep.’ I’m like, ‘Uh-oh. I’ve got to time this.’ I wanted to go up and catch it with my hands, but Lionel went up and I kind of nudged him and played the ball. I body positioned the ball and caught it. I was trying to make sure I kept my feet inbounds. When I went up and I nudged him, I said, ‘I got this. I’m in.’ No doubt I knew I was in. Things slowed down. Everything was in slow motion and I was like, ‘I’m going to be in.’ I knew we needed a play and I was going to be a playmaker. I’d always been a playmaker and I was going to make this play for us. When I made the touchdown, Lionel was like, ‘He’s out.’ I started laughing and I was like, ‘Yeah, right.’”
McCardell’s touchdown and a 22-yard field goal by Hollis extended the lead to 23-12 and the Jaguars still led – 23-20 – later in the quarter when Brunell turned second-and-10 at midfield into first-and-10 at the Broncos 21 with a 29-yard scramble.
Brunell: “Typical me at that time: Drop back, don’t find anything, first guy’s not open … hey, let’s run. This seems to be working. But it was more: ‘Let’s keep this drive going and get a first down.’ I started to the right, cut back to the left and I got a little room. I knew it was big because it put us in really good shape to score.”
Lageman: “Mark’s legs … I mean, holy ----. He made [Broncos linebacker Bill] Romanowski look silly. That was Mark’s, ‘Here I am.’ His legs in that game … wow.”
Means: I was out there trying to throw a block. The thing about Bruny, his ability to make plays and improvise was out of this world, but he was such a likeable guy. You could just sit down and talk to him about anything. It was like talking to an old buddy. He was just a very likeable guy, I don’t know anyone who didn’t like Brunell. He did everything the right way. The run he was on in those playoffs, in the last five games … he and Keenan and Jimmy were amazing. They were locked in. They were on the same page. They were making plays.”
Brunell: “But it wasn’t the run as much as it was really that throw to Jimmy – or I should say the catch by Jimmy.”
Two plays after Brunell’s run, the Jaguars faced third-and-5 at the Broncos 16. Brunell went to the line and saw the Broncos playing press coverage on Smith.
Brunell: “What was fun about it and so surprising to me about it was, ‘Really? You haven’t learned yet that you shouldn’t press Jimmy? You watch tape. You’ve seen this guy.’ If they just back off five or six yards, I don’t go there. If they don’t press, they’re probably in zone and if it’s two safeties back there I’m working to Keenan just trying to keep the drive alive. The fact that they go press, it’s man and the safety’s in the middle of the field … that’s where I go. It’s an easy call. That was our go-to.”
Smith: “[Broncos safety] Steve Atwater went out of the game. Means was pounding on their defense through the first line of defense into the secondary quite often. They had a special teamer at safety. It was third down and we called a play originally designed to go to Keenan – unless I get pressed. That was the first time I remember us calling that play in that game; they were in the perfect defense for the play. There was a timeout. Right before we broke the huddle he was like, ‘Jimmy, if we get press, I’m coming to you.’”
Brunell: “I wasn’t telling Jimmy anything new. I was just reminding Jimmy, ‘This is what we do.’ I didn’t have to say anything. He knew. You’re under center, you look and make eye contact. At that point, you don’t have to say a word. We know. I just throw it. That was Jimmy’s game. Any time we got man single safety, we were going to Jimmy because they couldn’t cover him. That was my favorite part of our offense, was having the freedom to get to whatever I wanted to get to.”
Smith: “I didn’t think it was going to happen. They hadn’t pressed me all game. The entire game we hadn’t gotten that coverage. I ran to the line and saw [cornerback] Tory James run up to the line and I was like, ‘What’s this?’ I looked in the secondary and didn’t see Atwater back there. The safety was in the middle of the field and I said, ‘Oh my goodness.’’’
Brunell’s pass nestled into Smith’s arms in the back corner of the end zone. The Jaguars had a double-digit lead with 3:39 remaining.
Smith: “If I would have had another minute, I probably would have gotten scared. I didn’t have enough time to get scared. Me and Mark had connected on those plays so much throughout the season that it was like riding a bike. I didn’t have to think. I didn’t have to do anything but just do what we’d been doing. I didn’t get a great release. It was just a great throw by Mark Brunell. He (James) was on me pretty good. All I had to do was make sure I came down with that catch.”
The Broncos scored on their next series, but an onside kick failed. The Jaguars ran out the clock on one of the biggest upsets in NFL history – and a victory that remains perhaps the biggest in franchise history.
Brunell: “That’s No. 1. I’ve had other games that personally were right there, but for the organization that one was big.”
Boselli: “It was one of the coolest feelings I ever had. As a team and individually, walking off that field and knowing my family was there and this is the stadium I grew up in. A bunch of my family members snuck into the locker room. I don’t know how. The locker room was crazy. The best thing was I had a lot of family members who were all Broncos fans who acted like they were Jaguars fans because they didn’t think we were going to win. They were like, ‘Ah, good luck.’ Then afterward they were depressed we beat them. It was an amazing moment.”
Hardy: “To this day, people bring that game up. At the time, you don’t realize what you’re going. It was just like the end of the Falcons game (to clinch a playoff appearance in Week 17). It was euphoria, but we were on the road and nobody was cheering but us. We had some fans at the top of the stadium. My parents were there. It was unbelievable that that moment was happening. When we got in the locker room, Lageman grabbed me by my shoulder pads by the inner part of my collar. He said, ‘You better savor this; this kind of stuff doesn’t happen too often in this league.’ When he said that I thought, ‘What are you talking about? We’re on a roll. We’re going to the Super Bowl.’ That’s what I’m thinking: ‘We’ve got one more and we’re going to the Super Bowl.’ Even though I remembered what he said, it didn’t truly sink in until 2000, 2001 and 2002 when those playoff runs are done. Then you understand how difficult it is to make it to the playoffs and to win a couple of games to make it to the championship game or the Super Bowl.”
Lageman: “I did that to a couple of young guys, because it was special. First, you beat Buffalo in Buffalo and then you go to Denver and beat the No. 1 seed. My family was there in the top deck, nose bleed. The Florida Times-Union had a picture of me looking up, and that’s what I was looking at. People thought I was looking up to the sky. I was looking to the Jaguar faithful at the top of the stadium. It was awesome.”
The aftermath was as special as the game. Fans lined the roads from the airport as team buses worked their way back to downtown Jacksonville after landing. At what was then Jacksonville Municipal Stadium, an estimated 20,000 fans attended an impromptu celebration for the second-year team.
Searcy: I didn’t realize the magnitude of how big a win it was until we got back to Jacksonville. When we landed, and we got on the bus, and we’re going down the highway, people are literally pulling to the side with their lights on blinking the bus and screaming, ‘Go Jags. We love you.’ I was like, ‘What the hell?’ I swear for a good two or three miles it was people pulling over to the side of the road. I get chills thinking about it now. Then one of the coaches said, ‘We’re going into the stadium.’ I was like, ‘What are we going into the stadium for? I’m trying to get home. What do we have? Walkthroughs at one in the morning?’ They didn’t tell us why, but when we went across the bridge, we saw the whole stadium lit up. I said, ‘Are there people in the freaking stadium?’ The whole one side of the stadium was damned near full. I don’t know how many people it was, but it had to be 30,000 or 40,000 people on one side. I was amazed and astonished at how many people showed up. It was special. That was a special moment, knowing that we were in the AFC Championship game and one game from the Super Bowl.”
Lageman: “I thought when I signed here that we maybe do that in Year 3 if they were to do a good job. I thought we might have an opportunity to experience that in ’97. Never in a million years did I think it was ’96. I don’t care if your franchise has been around for 100 years, it’s hard to do. For an expansion team to do it in Year 2 …”
The Jaguars in 1996 were unquestionably a Cinderella story – and fans remember the team fondly. Players remember the season fondly. Still, for some, a 20-6 loss to the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship game the following week still lingers.
McCardell: “That season will always be special. We should have been in New Orleans playing Green Bay (in the Super Bowl). We went to New England and played a great Patriots team, but that day we didn’t play the way we played all year. I don’t know if the moment got to us, but it wasn’t the way we should have played. It wasn’t typical of Jaguars football of that season. We played bad and we still should have won the game. If we score late, it’s a different ballgame. It was one of those games where you go back, and you realize we should have been in New Orleans. That would have been a real Cinderella story. One play here, this changes this whole outcome. That game right there really hurt the most for me, because I felt we were better than what people really realized. It wasn’t that we were playing above our heads. We were just, talent-wise we were starting to show folks, ‘Were better than you.’’
In addition to being a huge victory for the short-term, Brunell said the Denver victory – and indeed, the entire 1996 late- and postseason run – set up the team’s ensuing run of three more playoff appearances.
Brunell: “It put us on the map. We got on the cover of Sports Illustrated. That was cool. For me personally, it got me a contract the next training camp. It was pretty big. We became at that point a good offense: ‘Oh, the Jaguars … they have a good offense down there.’ If we don’t have Buffalo and we don’t have Denver, we’re going into ’97 a different offensive football team. Instead of going into that season saying, ‘Hey, we’re really good,’ we would have gone into ’97 thinking, ‘We could be good.’ That’s a big difference. I know coaches say, ‘The previous year has nothing to do with the next year.’ I don’t think that’s true.”