It's a little difficult to sum up the Jaguars miraculous 1996 season in just a few hundred words. In fact, several writers, including current Jaguars.com Senior Writer John Oehser, have written books about the season. From Jags to Riches: The Cinderella Season of the Jacksonville Jaguars, authored by Oehser and Pete Prisco was published by St. Martin's Press in September 1997.
The season began at Jacksonville Municipal Stadium (now known as EverBank Field) in September against the defending AFC Champion Pittsburgh Steelers. The underdog Jaguars had just completed their first season in the NFL, which ended with a 4-12 record.
On that Sunday afternoon, the Jaguars dominated the Steelers, winning 24-9. Young signal-caller Mark Brunell finished with two passing touchdowns and 41 rushing yards. Defensively, the Jaguars recorded four sacks, including two by veteran defensive-end Jeff Lageman.
That, however, was far from the highest point of the season. If anything, it gave us a glimpse of what the team was capable of. Execution, however, was another matter. Young teams often suffer from inconsistency, and the Jaguars were no exception.
After a series of ups and downs, week after week, the Jaguars found themselves a dissapointing 4-7, nearly eliminated from postseason contention.
Following a 28-3 road loss in Pittsburgh, the Jaguars somehow pulled together. The club would go on to win its next four games -- often in come-from-behind fashion -- and found itself in a storybook-like situation in week 17.
A win against the 3-12 Atlanta Falcons would net the Jaguars a playoff berth in only their second season. A loss would eliminate them from postseason contention. The Jaguars had the momentum and a home-field advantage, and found themselves with a 13-3 lead going into halftime with just 30 minutes of gametime left to secure a playoff spot.
But then something happened. The Jaguars began to falter, and the Falcons came roaring back. With the Jaguars clinging to a slight 19-17 lead, the Falcons drove to the Jaguars 13-yard line with less than 10 seconds remaining in regulation.
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As most of Jacksonville held its breath, Morten Anderson, considered one of the greatest kickers of all time, lined up for what was considered a chip-shot field goal, which would give the Falcons a 20-19 lead, eliminating the Jaguars from the playoffs.
But Anderson had trouble setting his feet, and the 30-yard field goal sailed wide to the left. The rest was history.
"From 30-yards out, that's a kick I make in my sleep," Anderson said. "I thought the game was over," said Jaguars rookie cornerback Aaron Beasley. It was, in fact, over. The outcome was just unexpected.
From that point, the Jaguars ventured into the playoffs on a miraculous run, defeating the Bufalo Bills and league-best Denver Broncos on the road. The latter is often considered one of the greatest playoff upsets in NFL history.
While the Jaguars eventually lost in the AFC Championship Game against the New England Patriots, just a few plays away from the Super Bowl, the season would be etched into Jacksonville history forever.
Quarterback Mark Brunell established himself as a rising star in 1996, leading the league in passing yards (4,367) and rushing yards (396) for a quarterback. Wide receivers Jimmy Smith and Keenan McCardell also developed into the "Thunder and Lightning" duo that would scare opposing defenses throughout the remainder of the 1990s. Smith, a street-free agent signed the previous season, caught 83 passes for 1,244 yards and 7 touchdowns. McCardell, a journeyman with six subpar seasons under his belt, caught 85 passes for 1,167 yards and 5 touchdowns.
In Jacksonville, the 1996 season was the beginning of an era that saw the Jaguars make the playoffs for four consecutive seasons, coming within one game of the Super Bowl twice.