JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – It comes down to this: beat the Titans, and the Jaguars will host a playoff game for just the fifth time in franchise history.
You can go back as early as 1995 when the Jaguars earned the first victory in franchise history when they beat the Oilers in Houston.
But the rivalry really became heated in the 1999 season.
The Jaguars were working on their third straight AFC Central division title. After winning their first two games over San Francisco and Carolina, the Jaguars hosted the Titans on Sept. 26 at then-Alltel Stadium. Both teams came into the matchup at 2-0 and it was expected to be a slugfest of a game.
That’s exactly what it was. Mike Hollis’ 42-yard field goal was the only score in the first half. The Titans took a third-quarter lead when Neil O’Donnell connected with Eddie George on an eight-yard pass, but in the final two minutes of the third quarter, the Jaguars made two key plays to take back the lead.
First, Mark Brunell found Jimmy Smith on an 11-yard touchdown pass to make it 10-7 Jaguars. Then, on the following possession, Aaron Beasley picked off an O’Donnell pass and returned it 35 yards for the score. Jacksonville led 17-7 and the way the game had gone, it looked like that might be enough.
In the fourth quarter, the Titans managed a pair of drives that ended in Al Del Greco field goals to pull to within 17-13.
With less than four minutes remaining O’Donnell found tight end Michael Roan, who would finish the season with nine receptions, on a 12-yard touchdown to give Tennessee the lead, 20-17. The Jaguars couldn’t solve the Titans’ defense after that. A safety as time expired — Tennessee punter Tommy Hentrich ran out of the end zone to end the game — left the final score Tennessee 20 Jacksonville 19.
After that, the Jaguars returned to the win column, sometimes grinding out wins, like a 16-6 win at the Jets or a 6-3 victory over the Ravens and sometimes, in grander fashion. The Jaguars beat the Bengals in Cincinnati 41-10 and topped the Saints on Sunday Night Football, 41-23.
The Jaguars entered Week 16 with a record of 13-1. A trip to Nashville offered a chance for revenge. Instead, the Jaguars saw Steve McNair, now back in the starting lineup, throw five touchdown passes.
Jaguars’ head coach Tom Coughlin rested his starters most of the second half.
Brunell threw only 11 passes in the game and the Titans won 41-14. The Jaguars won the following week to end the regular season at 14-2, and there wasn’t much made about the loss to the Titans since the Jaguars won the division and locked up home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs for the first — and so far, only — time in franchise history.
As the top seed in the AFC playoffs, the Jaguars earned a first-round bye, but the Titans, despite their 13-3 regular season record, had to play in the wild-card round against the Buffalo Bills. Tennesse escaped with a 22-16 win thanks to the “Music City Miracle,” one of the most remarkable, and controversial endings to a playoff game in NFL history. Here it is:
Tennessee survived, then beat the Colts 19-16 the following week to advance to the AFC championship game.
As the Titans were winning by the narrowest of margins, the Jaguars faced the Miami Dolphins in the divisional round and turned in one of the most dominating performances in NFL history. A 62-7 win turned out to be the last game in Dan Marino’s Hall of Fame career.
The scene was set. The Jaguars and Titans would meet for the third time in the season, this time, with a spot in the Super Bowl on the line.
The Friday night before the game, I was hosting a radio show with Chris McClain on AM-600 “The Ball.” We were at the Landing and had a pair of tickets to the game to give away. We had listeners come up with the most outlandish dare that they would do to earn the tickets.
We had one guy say he would swim across the St. Johns River to us. The low that morning had been 33 degrees and the high had gotten up to 55. It was chilly. Another listener offered to shave his back and mix the hair into a milkshake and drink it. It was wild. People were willing to do anything for those tickets. There was a pep rally after the radio show that was going on as I sat in on a TV special. The place was electric. And the game was two days away.
Once the game kicked off in front of a capacity crowd, it looked like it would be another slugfest. Fred Taylor’s 31-yard run set up the Jaguars’ first score as Brunell found Kyle Brady on a seven-yard touchdown pass to open the scoring. Later in the first quarter, McNair connected with Yancey Thigpen on a nine-yard touchdown pass to tie the game.
In the second quarter, James Stewart raced 33 yards for a touchdown, and a Del Greco field goal in the final minute before halftime left the Jaguars leading 14-10 at the break. Jaguars fans began making travel plans for Atlanta. In those days, the Super Bowl was played the week after the championship games, not two weeks later. My bags were packed at home in anticipation of a Monday drive to the Super Bowl host city.
“I had a feeling that we were not going to win that game,” said former Jaguars wide receiver Jimmy Smith. “We started pressing and we came out to the second half, and we just could not close again.”
Then, things began to unravel for the Jaguars. McNair capped a drive with a one-yard touchdown run to give Tennessee a 17-14 lead. On the next possession, Brady fumbled the ball away to the Titans. Tennessee nearly went up by 10 when Frank Wycheck caught a McNair pass but was stripped at the one-yard line by Kevin Hardy, who recovered the ball.
Two plays later, Brunell dropped into the end zone to throw. Jimmy Smith was coming wide open, but Titans defensive lineman Josh Evans split a double team and sacked Brunell for a safety.
Tennessee led 19-14. Then it got worse. On the ensuing free kick, Derrick Mason returned it 80 yards for a touchdown. Tennessee led 26-14. The Jaguars never recovered. The Titans went on to win 33-14 and advanced to the Super Bowl. They beat the Jaguars three times that season. They were the only team the Jaguars lost to.
The following week at a press conference before the Super Bowl, Titans head coach Jeff Fisher referred to Alltel Stadium among the Titans’ home fields they had played in since leaving Houston.
“The Titans have always had a number because it’s themed like they always wanted to fight rather than play the game,” Smith said. “We had a lot of tough battles there. Over the years we had difficulty going to fight. We may have been the most skilled or the most talented.”
After Fisher was let go by the Titans in 2010, the rivalry plateaued — until six years later when the Titans picked Yulee’s Derrick Henry in the second round of the draft.
And in 2018, as the Jaguars’ season was falling apart, Henry buried the Jaguars in the turf in Nashville.
Which brings us to this week. The Jaguars will earn the division title and a home playoff game with a win on Saturday.
“Look at this game as a playoff game,” Smith said. “The last three or four games that we played, we’re playing playoff football. The playoffs are now. So, I anticipate it being a playoff atmosphere. I’m sure it’s going to be loud. And I hope our fans will be bringing the noise.”
Former Jaguars’ linebacker Tom McManus was injured during the 1999 season but the losses to the Titans still stick with him. That’s why he’s hoping to see a Jaguars win on Saturday.
“It means a lot,” McManus said.”It’s heightened even further, you know, and especially when you’re at home. You want to beat your rival at home, and it’s crazy that it’s Tennessee in our way again. I think it jacks up the rivalry even more.”