The second-year Jacksonville Jaguars came into their 1996 season finale on December 22 needing a win to gain a playoff spot. Head Coach Tom Coughlin’s team had been at 4-7 after eleven games and seemed to be going nowhere, but the Jaguars had reeled off four straight wins to climb to 8-7. 26-year-old QB Mark Brunell (pictured at right) started off unevenly but was playing well during the late-season surge. Most significantly, RB Natrone Means was running the ball effectively and taking pressure off the young quarterback. WR Keenan McCardell was joined by Jimmy Smith, who took over for veteran WR Andre Rison with outstanding results. Two rookies, DE Tony Brackens and LB Kevin Hardy, were upgrades to the defense and 11th-year veteran DE Clyde Simmons added his savvy play to the mix. They had to beat Atlanta to make the postseason in just their second year.
The Falcons, meanwhile, were 3-12 after having been in the playoffs in ’95. Atlanta’s season was marred by controversy, most notably a sideline confrontation between Head Coach June Jones and QB Jeff George that caused the talented but immature quarterback to be suspended and replaced by veteran backup Bobby Hebert. RB Jamal Anderson and WR Bert Emanuel had emerged as good players on offense, but the offensive line was ordinary and the defensive backfield atrocious.
The game was at Jacksonville Municipal Stadium with 71,449 fans in attendance. The Falcons had the game’s first possession and punted. Jacksonville put together a 77-yard drive in 10 plays. Mark Brunell completed all three of his passes including one to Keenan McCardell for 17 yards in a second-and-11 situation. Natrone Means (pictured below) pounded away for 17 yards on four straight carries and Brunell finished the series off by scrambling for 11 yards for a touchdown. Mike Hollis added the extra point.
The teams exchanged punts for the rest of the first quarter, but the Falcons were at the Jacksonville 41 at the end of the period and reached the 27 before QB Bobby Hebert was sacked by CB Aaron Beasley on a third-and-four play. Morten Andersen kicked a 46-yard field goal to narrow the score to 7-3.
The Jaguars responded with a 12-play, 70-yard drive of their own. Brunell connected with TE Pete Mitchell for 16 yards in a third-and-six situation and Means had a 17-yard run to the Atlanta 14. The series ended with Hollis booting a field goal from 23 yards to make it a 10-3 game.
Following a three-and-out series by the Falcons, Jacksonville put together another long scoring drive of 78 yards in 13 plays. Brunell completed three passes and had a 16-yard run and, with 46 seconds remaining in the half, Hollis added another field goal, this time from 26 yards. The Jaguars led by ten points at the intermission.
The home team started off the third quarter with yet another long possession. The biggest gain was a Brunell pass to Jimmy Smith for 29 yards as the Jaguars advanced 76 yards in 13 plays culminating in a third Hollis field goal, this time from 22 yards.
The Falcons had been quiet on offense, but now they responded with a 10-play, 72-yard series. Hebert (pictured at left) started off with a pass to RB Richard Huntley for 14 yards, RB Craig Heyward ran for 11 yards, and then Hebert scrambled for 15 yards around end. Continuing to chip away, Atlanta finally scored when Hebert connected with WR Eric Metcalf for a four-yard TD. Andersen added the extra point and the Jacksonville lead was narrowed to 16-10.
In a series that extended into the fourth quarter, the Jaguars went 51 yards in 10 plays. Hollis attempted a field goal from 42 yards that hit the left upright but caromed over the crossbar and was good. In a game of long possessions, the Falcons responded by using 12 plays to go 77 yards. Hebert had a pass to Bert Emanuel for 17 yards and converted a third-and-eight with another toss to Emanuel that was good for 12 yards. Heyward went up the middle for the last two yards and a TD. Andersen’s extra point made it a two-point contest with 5:39 remaining.
The Jaguars went three-and-out and had to punt. With Jamal Anderson running to good effect and Hebert connecting with WR Tyrone Brown on a screen pass for 23 yards, Atlanta reached the Jacksonville 13 with eight seconds left on the clock. But just as it seemed that Jacksonville’s season was about to end in disappointment, the usually reliable Morten Andersen missed a 30-yard field goal attempt. Andersen appeared to slip as he kicked the ball and it sailed wide to the left as the Jaguars came away with a 19-17 win.
Jacksonville led in total yards (357 to 309) while each club had 21 first downs. Rushing yards were nearly even as well, with the Falcons holding a 146 to 143 edge. However, the Jaguars were nearly undone by having to settle for field goals too often when inside the Atlanta ten yard line. There were no turnovers.
Mark Brunell completed 18 of 29 passes for 222 yards with no touchdowns, although he ran for one TD on one of his four carries for 28 yards. Natrone Means rushed for 110 yards on 27 attempts and Jimmy Smith caught 5 passes for 75 yards. Mike Hollis (pictured below) was successful on all four of his field goal attempts, which ultimately proved crucial to Jacksonville’s success.
For the Falcons, Bobby Hebert was successful on 17 of 25 throws for 172 yards and a TD. Craig Heyward ran for 69 yards on 16 carries that included a touchdown and Jamal Anderson contributed 55 yards on 11 attempts. Bert Emanuel and Tyrone Brown caught six passes apiece, for 67 and 60 yards, respectively.
“It almost renders me speechless,” said Coach Tom Coughlin, who had almost comically avoided making references to the postseason in his press conferences down the stretch. “We’re in the playoffs.”
Jacksonville’s surprising run gave them a 9-7 record, second in the AFC Central, and continued in the postseason all the way to the AFC Championship game, including wins over Buffalo in the Wild Card round and Denver at the Divisional level. With the other 1995 expansion team, the Carolina Panthers, reaching the NFC title game, it marked an unprecedented ascendancy by two second-year clubs. However, each fell a game short of the Super Bowl. The Jaguars lost to the Patriots by a decisive 20-6 score, but it marked the first of four straight postseason appearances for the young franchise.
Atlanta, ending up 3-13 and fourth in the NFC West, underwent a housecleaning during the offseason that ended the coaching tenure of June Jones after three years. He was replaced by Dan Reeves, formerly of the Broncos and Giants. The game also marked the end of the line for Bobby Hebert (pictured at left), whose career started in the USFL and led to the Saints before moving on to Atlanta for four years.
Mark Brunell led the NFL in passing yards (4367) and yards per attempt (7.8), although also in times sacked (50). He was selected to the Pro Bowl. Natrone Means, who performed so well down the stretch, rushed for 507 yards on 152 carries (3.3 avg.), but 325 of those yards came in the last four games. He would come up bigger in the two playoff wins.