The AFC Championship game on January 23, 2000 featured two teams that had already met twice during the 1999 regular season, the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Tennessee Titans. But while the Titans finished second to the Jaguars in the AFC Central, they swept the season series between the two clubs – the only two defeats Jacksonville sustained all year.
Tennessee had a new nickname (they had been the Tennessee Oilers for two years after moving from Houston) and a new stadium in 1999. Head Coach Jeff Fisher was in his fifth season with the team, and despite the distractions pertaining to the franchise’s relocation, had built a solid team. The conservative offense was directed by highly-mobile QB Steve McNair (pictured above), who missed the early part of the season due to a back injury but stepped up as a game manager and leader. Pro Bowl RB Eddie George ran for 1304 yards and TE Frank Wycheck was a fine clutch receiver. Rookie DE Jevon Kearse set a rookie record for sacks (14.5) and behind a good group of linebackers was a defensive backfield anchored by safeties Marcus Robertson and Blaine Bishop. At 13-3, the Titans sported the best record of any club that had ever finished as a Wild Card in the NFL and while they had narrowly gotten by Buffalo in the Wild Card round (thanks to “The Music City Miracle”) and the Colts at the Divisional level, the defense had stepped up.
Jacksonville, at 14-2, was the top seed in the AFC. Head Coach Tom Coughlin’s team had a fine quarterback in Mark Brunell, a mobile lefthander, and he had outstanding targets in wide receivers Jimmy Smith and Keenan McCardell. Second-year RB Fred Taylor missed time with a nagging hamstring injury, but when healthy he was very productive. DE Tony Brackens anchored the tough defensive line and LB Kevin Hardy topped a good group of linebackers. Veteran FS Carnell Lake brought a savvy veteran presence to the defensive backfield. The Jaguars had hit on all cylinders in defeating Miami by an overwhelming score of 62-7 in the Divisional playoff round.
There were 75,206 fans in attendance at Jacksonville’s Alltel Stadium. Tennessee had the first possession and punted. The Jaguars then scored first thanks to a five-play, 62-yard drive. Along the way, Mark Brunell passed to Jimmy Smith for an 18-yard gain to the Tennessee 44 and Fred Taylor broke away for a 31-yard run. Three plays later, Brunell completed a seven-yard touchdown pass to TE Kyle Brady and, adding the extra point by Mike Hollis, the home team held a 7-0 lead.
The Titans responded by advancing 51 yards in nine plays. A pass interference penalty on Carnell Lake allowed the visitors to convert a third-and-seven play and Steve McNair had a completion to TE Jackie Harris for 10 yards and a carry for eight yards to the Jacksonville 18. Runs by Eddie George and McNair picked up nine yards and the possession ended with McNair throwing to WR Yancey Thigpen for a nine-yard TD. Al Del Greco’s extra point tied the score at 7-7.
Following a punt by the Jaguars, the Titans mounted another drive that reached Jacksonville territory. McNair ran for 19 yards on a third-and-ten play at the end of the opening period and George started off the second quarter with a 20-yard run to the Jacksonville 30. However, the possession stalled there and McNair’s third down pass was intercepted by CB Fernando Bryant to snuff out the threat.
Now it was the turn of the Jaguars to mount a promising drive. On a third-and-nine play, Brunell connected with Smith for 37 yards to the Tennessee 39 and, when Brunell fumbled while being sacked by SS Blaine Bishop, TE Damon Jones recovered and picked up eight yards. Taylor took off on a 19-yard run and, two plays later, caught a pass for nine more yards to the five. But a Brunell pass into the end zone was picked off by FS Marcus Robertson.
The Titans went three-and-out on the ensuing series and the Jaguars moved ahead this time thanks to a four-play series that covered 65 yards. Brunell threw to Smith for an 11-yard gain and, two plays later, a pass interference penalty advanced the ball to the Tennessee 42. Taylor ran for nine yards before RB James Stewart carried for 33 yards and a touchdown. Hollis added the PAT and Jacksonville led by 14-7.
With the clock having ticked down to under three minutes remaining in the half, the Titans again had to punt but got a break when WR Reggie Barlow fumbled Craig Hentrich’s kick and DB Steve Jackson recovered at the Jacksonville 19. Del Greco booted a 34-yard field goal with 20 seconds left before halftime and the score was 14-10 at the intermission.
The Jaguars got the ball first in the third quarter and had to punt. On their second play, the Titans picked up 11 yards on a pass from McNair to WR Isaac Byrd. McNair followed up with a completion to George for 15 yards to midfield and another 15 yards was tacked on when Tony Brackens was flagged for roughing the passer. Two plays later, a pass interference call on Bryant moved the ball all the way to the Jacksonville six. George went five yards up the middle to get to the one, and from there McNair went over for a touchdown. Del Greco added the extra point and the Titans had the lead at 17-14.
It looked good for Tennessee when Brady fumbled after catching a short pass from Brunell on the next series and DT Jason Fisk recovered at the Jacksonville 35. A five-yard run by George was followed by McNair completions to Byrd for eight yards and Harris for 15. The Jaguars stopped George for a two-yard loss on the next play and it seemed as though the home team had dodged a bullet when McNair passed to Frank Wycheck, but the star tight end fumbled when hit by LB Kevin Hardy and Lonnie Marts recovered at the one.
However, on second down Brunell was sacked in the end zone for a safety by DT Josh Evans and Fisk. The free kick was then returned by WR Derrick Mason (pictured below) for an 80-yard touchdown and, with the extra point added on, the Titans suddenly held an expanded lead of 26-14.
The Jaguars responded by advancing to the Tennessee 36, but they failed to convert a fourth-and-two situation and the Titans had the ball heading into the fourth quarter. The teams exchanged punts before McNair, at the end of a nine-yard run, fumbled and Brackens recovered at the Jacksonville 33. The Jaguars backed themselves up with consecutive penalties and then Brunell was sacked by Jevon Kearse. Brunell followed up with two completions to WR Keenan McCardell for 18 and 12 yards, and Taylor ran for seven yards to just short of midfield, but another pass was intercepted by CB Donald Mitchell at the Tennessee 39.
After two runs by George gained nine yards, McNair took off for a 51-yard carry to the Jacksonville one. McNair ran for the final yard to extinguish any lingering hopes for the Jaguars with seven minutes left to play. Jacksonville had the ball two more times, to no effect, and Tennessee won by a final score of 33-14.
The Jaguars had more total yards (355 to 289) and first downs (20 to 18). However, they also turned the ball over six times, to four flags thrown on the Titans, and allowed three sacks that included a safety that was followed up by the kick return touchdown. Jacksonville was also penalized 9 times, at a cost of 100 yards, to five flags thrown on the visitors.
Steve McNair completed 14 of 23 passes for 112 yards with a touchdown and an interception, but was especially effective running the ball as he gained 91 yards on 9 attempts and scored twice. Eddie George rushed for 86 yards on 25 carries and caught three passes for another 19 yards. Jackie Harris also had three catches, for a team-leading 33 yards.
For the Jaguars, Mark Brunell was successful on 19 of 38 throws for 226 yards and a TD, but tossed two interceptions. Fred Taylor (pictured at right) ran for 110 yards on 19 attempts, most of which came in the first half, while Keenan McCardell caught 6 passes for 67 yards and Jimmy Smith gained 92 yards on his five pass receptions – again, getting most of those yards during the first half.
The win was costly as the Titans lost two starters to injuries during the course of the game, with Yancey Thigpen suffering a broken left foot during the first half and Marcus Robertson broke an ankle.
“They said we couldn’t beat Jacksonville three times in a season and the players didn’t blink an eye,” said Jeff Fisher. “Our players believed, believed and believed, and now we’re going to the Super Bowl.”
“For whatever reason, we didn’t play as well as we anticipated we would,” said a disappointed Tom Coughlin from the losing side. “The turnovers, the missed opportunities were too much to overcome. It’s a bitter pill to swallow.”
The Titans went on to a closely-fought Super Bowl loss to the St. Louis Rams. They came back to win the AFC Central in 2000, again with a 13-3 record, but fell short in the postseason by losing in the Divisional round. Jacksonville, after having been in the postseason for four straight years, dropped to 7-9 and fourth place in the division.