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For Jaguars fans, the win was a pleasant surprise.

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Jaguars Muster a Mile-High Upset

By Dave Sell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 5, 1997; Page D1

DENVER, Jan. 4--The Jacksonville Jaguars' improbable, but impressive run to--and now through--the AFC playoffs took another stunning turn today when they defeated the Denver Broncos, 30-27, in a conference semifinal before 75,678 at Mile High Stadium.

Except for the one section of the upper deck that was filled with delirious Jaguars fans, the locals were absolutely stunned, for they expected their Broncos to return to the Super Bowl and maybe win it after four losses. This was the year to cover the blemish on the Super Bowl record of 36-year-old quarterback John Elway. This was the year the defense would be as good as the offense. The 13-3 regular season record that gave them home-field advantage throughout the conference playoffs was supposed to make the ride easier.

Nowhere in the plan was there a loss to the second-year Jaguars, who will visit the winner of Sunday's game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and New England Patriots for the AFC championship on Jan. 12.

"This is going to hurt and this is going to hurt for a long time," Denver Coach Mike Shanahan said.

Elway is famous for his fourth-quarter heroics and he did lead his team to a touchdown with 1 minute 50 seconds to play. But the Jaguars recovered the ensuing onside kickoff, and on this windy, 46-degree day, Elway came up with too little, too late.

He had been out-Elwayed by Jaguars quarterback Mark Brunell, who scrambled when he had to, found receivers when he had to and produced points when he had to. Brunell helped Jacksonville overcome a 12-0 deficit with 23 consecutive points. He led six consecutive scoring drives, the most vital one ending with a 16-yard touchdown pass to Jimmy Smith for a 30-20 lead with 3:39 left in the fourth quarter.

For the day, Elway completed 25 of 38 passes for 226 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions, while running five times for 30 yards. Brunell was 18 of 29 passing for 245 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions, and ran seven times for 44 yards.

"We've done enough offensively that when things are down, we can stay confident," Brunell said.

The Broncos had the best run defense in the NFL during the regular season, but Jacksonville's Natrone Means ran 21 times for 140 yards after gaining 175 yards on 31 carries last week against the Bills. The Broncos strangely treated their running back, Terrell Davis, as an afterthought, despite his AFC-leading 1,538 yards rushing. He had 14 carries for 91 yards.

Jacksonville joined the NFL with the Carolina Panthers, who play their first playoff game Sunday against the Dallas Cowboys. The Jaguars are 2-0 in the postseason and have won seven consecutive games overall. They defeated the Bills in Buffalo last week, also by 30-27. Denver had been 8-1 here in the playoffs and the Bills had been 9-0 in the playoffs at Rich Stadium.

"I don't know what that means," Jacksonville Coach Tom Coughlin said of the expansion label. "We're in our second year, and we're playing the best football in our history right now."

"They played a great game," Elway said. "We made some mistakes, but we did not turn the ball over and I want to give them all the credit. We weren't flat and we were ready to play. But we just didn't play good enough to win."

Because they clinched home-field advantage early and had a bye, Denver had not played a meaningful game in a month. The Jaguars had played pressure-packed games for two months. They gained further inspiration from comments by Broncos and in newspaper columns.

"Comments Shannon Sharpe made and Alfred Williams concerned us a little bit and, of course, the column this morning by Woody Paige was great motivation," Jacksonville defensive tackle John Jurkovic said.

Sharpe said anything less than a Super Bowl win would make this season a failure for the Broncos. And Paige, a Denver Post columnist, asked, "Can we get a legitimate NFL team in here next Sunday?"

Said Jurkovic: "The scary thing is this team is into degradation. We feel we need to be degraded to come out and play good solid football."

It also seems to take a deficit to get them started. As was the case against Buffalo, the Jaguars rallied to win.

Vaughn Hebron's one-yard touchdown run put Denver ahead, 6-0, but the extra point was blocked. Sharpe caught a 16-yard touchdown pass from Elway for a 12-0 lead, but bobbled and dropped the two-point conversion attempt.

But Mike Hollis got the Jaguars started by kicking the first of his three field goals--a 46-yarder early in the second quarter. Means scored on an eight-yard run and Hollis booted a 42-yard field goal for a 13-12 halftime lead.

Wide receiver Keenan McCardell's 31-yard touchdown catch pushed the lead to 20-12 and Hollis's 23-yard field goal made it 23-12 with 10:51 left in the fourth quarter. But Elway had something left and completed four passes on a drive that was capped by Davis's two-yard touchdown run and Davis's two-point conversion run on a direct snap from center with Elway set up in the shotgun. That made it 23-20.

"I grew up here and watched Elway my whole life," said Jacksonville tackle Tony Boselli, who grew up in Boulder, Colo. "I knew he would make something happen, so we knew we had to get seven points."

The Jaguars did. A nine-play, 74-yard drive, which included a 29-yard scramble by Brunell in which he dodged four defenders, was capped by Smith's diving touchdown catch for a 30-20 lead. It made Elway's final touchdown pass of the season, a 15-yarder to wide receiver Ed McCaffrey, meaningless.

There was speculation that Elway might retire if the Broncos won the Super Bowl this season, but after the game, he said he would be back in 1997. Deciding whether this playoff loss was worse than his three Super Bowl losses was a difficult and unpleasant proposition. This team might have been better than the three that lost to the 49ers, Giants and Redskins, but who knows?

"That's apples and oranges," Elway said. "There were three other teams I played on that went to the Super Bowl, so I don't think this one compares to those. Time heals a lot of wounds, but this is as disappointed as I've been."

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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