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Jags strike again, topple Broncos 23 straight points spring 30-27 upset, AFC title chance; Elway's rally falls short; QB Brunell, RB Means stun top seed Denver

THE BALTIMORE SUN

DENVER -- One shocking playoff upset was supposed to be enough to satisfy the Jacksonville Jaguars, enough to allow them to pat themselves on the back after the rested, superior Denver Broncos ended their little dream ride in the visitor's black hole otherwise known as Mile High Stadium.

Guess again. Today, the Broncos are digesting one of the most stunning postseason defeats in franchise history, and the Jaguars, who refuse to let their second NFL season end quietly, are looking for the next heavy favorite to take down.

A week after Jacksonville (11-7) became the first team to win a playoff game at Buffalo's Rich Stadium, the Jaguars one-upped themselves yesterday with a 30-27 AFC semifinal victory over Denver, the conference's top seed, before a packed and humbled house at Mile High.

The Jaguars, who won their last five regular-season games to squeeze into the playoffs with a 9-7 record, are now headed to the AFC championship game after winning their seventh straight. They will travel to face the winner of today's Pittsburgh-New England game next Sunday.

Yes, it's time to recognize the Jaguars as a legitimate Super Bowl threat. As a 14-point underdog, Jacksonville handed the Broncos only their second home playoff loss in 10 games, and made a mockery of Denver's 13-3 record.

The Jaguars did it by amassing 443 yards, including 203 on the ground, against the AFC's premier defense. They did it by erasing an early 12-0 deficit with 23 consecutive points, by scoring on their last six meaningful possessions, and by holding the Broncos to five first downs in the middle two quarters.

They did it because quarterback Mark Brunell (245 yards passing, 44 rushing) confounded Denver's defense with his arm and evasive scrambling, while running back Natrone Means (21 carries, 140 yards) pounded the Broncos with his 245-pound frame.

"We enjoy being the underdogs. We plan on being the underdog next week, and the week after that," said Jacksonville receiver Jimmy Smith, whose 16-yard touchdown reception from Brunell with 3: 39 left gave Jacksonville a 30-20 lead. "A lot of Denver's players were talking trash before the game. They didn't give us any respect. We just waited to take it to them."

Except for a belated fourth-quarter comeback attempt by Denver -- led by the king of comebacks, quarterback John Elway -- the Jaguars pretty much owned the Broncos after the first quarter, when the Broncos had a 12-0 lead. Elway's 15-yard touchdown pass to Ed McCaffrey with 1: 50 left cut the margin to 30-27, but the Broncos, out of timeouts, botched the onside kick.

It was that kind of day for Denver, which blew a chance to play host to its first AFC title game in 10 years. The Broncos' offense was never really in sync, their defense grew dog-tired in the second half, and they showed cracks in their composure, drawing eight penalties for 64 yards.

Then again, it has been awhile since Denver played a game that meant something. The Broncos wrapped up home-field advantage throughout the playoffs Dec. 1.

"I thought we had a team that could make it [Super Bowl] happen. I thought it was tough for us to focus when we clinched so early," Elway said. "We didn't go into this game flat. We came XTC to play, but they just played better. They didn't have any penalties and Brunell played great. They played a perfect game."

Not quite. But after giving up the game's first 12 points and failing to gain a first down in a lopsided first quarter, the Jaguars regrouped like grizzled veterans.

Their biggest points might have been their first three early in the second quarter. An 18-yard run by Means and Brunell completions of 11 yards to Smith and 8 to tight end Pete Mitchell helped position Mike Hollis for a 46-yard field goal that cut Denver's lead to 12-3 with 11: 15 left in the half.

"I just told the guys to settle down. It was the same situation we had in Buffalo," said Brunell. "We're a young team, but we don't get flustered."

The Jaguars turned Mile High silent on their next possession, an 11-play, 80-yard march that was fueled by a pass-interference call against Denver cornerback Tony James and the versatility of Means.

First, Means beat linebacker Bill Romanowski down the right sideline for a 29-yard reception to the Denver 42-yard line. Five plays later, Means bounced outside to his left to score from 8 yards, cutting Denver's lead to 12-10 with 2: 58 left in the half.

The Jaguars then got the ball back with 57 seconds left, and the Broncos blew a pass-coverage scheme, allowing Smith to slip down the right sideline alone, where Brunell hit him for a 43-yard gain to the Denver 25.

Hollis kicked a 42-yard field goal with 10 seconds left, giving the Jaguars a 13-12 halftime lead and momentum.

Brunell directed the Jaguars like a master in the second half. His perfectly thrown, 31-yard touchdown pass to Keenan McCardell extended Jacksonville's lead to 20-12 midway through the third quarter. His 25-yard dump pass to running back James Stewart set up Hollis' 22-yard field goal to make it 23-12.

And after the Broncos finally awakened to drive 57 yards and cut Jacksonville's lead to 23-20 with 7: 37 left, Brunell might have saved the Jaguars' season.

He started the Jaguars' sixth straight scoring drive with a 12-yard run, then topped that with a 29-yard scramble in which he covered both sidelines, broke one tackle and eluded three other defenders. That moved the Jaguars to the Denver 21. Soon after, Brunell hit Smith with the game-clincher.

"What Brunell did at the end of the game was incredible," Jacksonville coach Tom Coughlin said.

"Our football team just hung in it, and that touchdown to Jimmy Smith in that situation was huge. I told the players at the beginning of the week I believed we could win. I didn't know how it would come down. I didn't give them that script."

The most surprising page of Jacksonville's winning script was written by its defense, which faced the unenviable task of containing Elway and neutralizing running back Terrell Davis and tight end Shannon Sharpe.

Although Davis rushed for 91 yards and scored a touchdown, his only real damage came early, when he took a pitch around the left side and raced 47 yards to set up the Broncos' first score. And other than his 18-yard touchdown reception from Elway that made it 12-0, Sharpe was not a factor.

The Jaguars opened primarily in man-to-man coverage, but after Sharpe burned rookie linebacker Kevin Hardy for his score, they switched to more zone to contain Sharpe and Davis underneath.

The strategy worked. Other than Davis' early long run, Denver's longest gain from scrimmage was 18 yards.

Pub Date: 1/05/97

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