ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- The young, upstart Jacksonville Jaguars picked a most unlikely place to grow up yesterday.
No visiting team had ever won a playoff game at Rich Stadium before Jacksonville dipped its toe into the postseason waters for the first time, then stunned the Buffalo Bills with a come-from-behind, 30-27, wild-card victory. And the splash the Jaguars created against the veteran Bills was as loud as a Natrone Means cannonball dive.
Means, the Jaguars' 5-foot-10, 245-pound running back who looks like a fireplug in cleats, destroyed Buffalo's home-field edge by rushing 31 times for a career-high 175 yards, far more than any playoff team had ever gained on the ground against the Bills.
The Jaguars sent Buffalo quarterback Jim Kelly to the locker room with a concussion midway through the fourth quarter, then watched Mike Hollis' 45-yard field goal carom high off the right post and through the uprights with 3: 07 remaining. Buffalo's season, not to mention its perfect string of nine postseason wins at home, was over.
The Jaguars will move on to another unfriendly place for visitors next week, when they play at New England or Denver in their first AFC divisional playoff game.
"I don't know if we ended an era. I'd rather talk about the beginning of a new era for us," Jacksonville coach Tom Coughlin said. "I think the true character of our team came to the front today."
Means, whom the Jaguars signed shortly after he was cut by San Diego in February, was at the head of the pack, breaking long runs by tearing through arm tackles, and moving piles of Buffalo defenders with powerful, short gains.
Yesterday marked his third great game in a row. Means underwent thumb surgery in the preseason, then languished on the bench behind James Stewart. He had 202 yards in his previous two games before yesterday's breakthrough.
"I'm in the best shape I've ever been in at any point of any season," Means said. "The offensive line was making those holes for me, and nine times out of 10, the first contact was with the linebackers or defensive backs. The line just made my job all that easier. We know we have a good team. We want to ride this thing out as long as we can."
"He [Means] has made the difference in our offense," said Jacksonville quarterback Mark Brunell (18-for-33, 239 yards), who carried the Jaguars' attack through the first half of 1996. "We have that balance now."
In one of the most symbolic moments of the day, Means came face-to-face with Buffalo defensive end Bruce Smith late in the first half. He bounced off the future Hall of Famer, then scampered around the right side, before dragging safety Matt Stevens across the goal line to complete a 30-yard touchdown run.
That gave the Jaguars a 17-14 lead, their first advantage of the game. And it merely set up a more decisive comeback by Jacksonville (10-7), which won its sixth straight game by showing the type of poise commonly associated with Buffalo (10-7) this time of year.
When Buffalo cornerback Jeff Burris intercepted a pass by Brunell -- the ball initially was tipped by blitzing linebacker David White-- and returned it 38 yards for a touchdown at the start of the fourth quarter, the Bills held a 27-20 lead and seemingly had gained critical momentum.
But the Jaguars, looking nothing like a second-year franchise just happy to be here, answered with a crisp, 10-play, 65-yard drive featuring the balance of Means' legs and Brunell's left arm. It ended with a 2-yard touchdown pass to Jimmy Smith, tying the contest at 27 with 8: 40 left.
The Jaguars then delivered a one-two knockout punch. First, safety Chris Hudson ended a Kelly scramble with a hard hit that not only caused a fumble, which Jacksonville returned to the Buffalo 42, but also sent Kelly to the locker room. Behind backup Todd Collins, the Buffalo offense went nowhere after that. Then, Hollis' third field goal of the day took a kind bounce off the post, and Jacksonville soon was celebrating.
That game-winner came a week after Atlanta Falcons kicker Morten Andersen missed a last-second chip shot that would have eliminated the Jaguars from playoff contention.
"A friend of mine told me a long time ago that luck is the residue of hard work," said Jacksonville defensive end Clyde Simmons, who took matters into his own hands early by picking off a shovel pass by Kelly and returning it 20 yards for a touchdown, tying the game at 7. "We went through some tough times early in the season and have worked for this all year."
The Jaguars worked especially hard yesterday. With their offense unable to mount drives in the first half, they used big plays to hang with the Bills. After Simmons scored, Means burst up the middle for 62 yards, setting up a 27-yard field goal by Hollis to cut the Bills' lead to 14-10 with 10 seconds left in the first quarter.
Brunell then set up Means' touchdown run by reading a Buffalo blitz beautifully on third-and-14. Brunell found tight end Pete Mitchell over the middle for a 47-yard gain. Means scored on the next play.
In the second half, the Jaguars gradually took over the line of scrimmage, behind Means and tackles Tony Boselli and Leon Searcy. After halftime, Jacksonville gained 12 first downs to Buffalo's five. And Boselli, the second-year player who was bypassed for the Pro Bowl, won his battle with Smith up front with an excellent performance.
"We got to swallow bitter medicine," Buffalo coach Marv Levy said. "It hurts, no question about that. Means is a darn good runner who helped rejuvenate their offense in the latter part of the season. That was very apparent today. I knew we would have a tough game."
Boselli expects another tough game next week.
"We're not going to sneak up on anyone anymore," he said.