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Way Back When: How Jacksonville paved the way for Broncos' championships


Each of us, in all walks of life, can point to a certain moment that gave us the determination to accomplish a goal that once seemed unreachable.

So too can it be with sports teams, and in the case of the Denver Broncos, a monumental — and, at that time, devastating — loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars helped pave the way to our first world championship. The year was 1996, and younger Broncos fans have heard older fans refer to "The Jacksonville Game." For older fans, we will never forget.

In their second year under the leadership of head coach Mike Shanahan, the Broncos had sailed through all competition to post the best record in the American Football Conference.

In the division round, they were set to play the Jacksonville Jaguars, who had been just 4-7 before beginning a five-game winning streak that made them a wild card team. Then, a 30-27 win over the Bills in the wild-card round sent them to Denver as a huge underdog to face the Broncos.

The Broncos were such big favorites that everyone was just waiting to roll over Jacksonville on our way to the Super Bowl.

But funny things happen in games.

The Broncos' most successful season since 1984 came to a surprising end at the hands of the Jaguars with a 30-27 loss before 75,678 fans at old Mile High Stadium.

That loss was Denver's first of the season at home and was only the second ever at home in the postseason.

Denver got out to a 12-point lead and things seemed rosy. But then the Jaguars proceeded to score on six consecutive possessions, including four unanswered scores (two field goals and two touchdowns). Early in the fourth quarter, Jacksonville held a 20-12 lead.

On one drive, the Broncos stopped Jacksonville but with the Jaguars set to punt Denver defensive lineman Michael Dean Perry did not get off the field in time, leading to a penalty. Jacksonville kept the ball, continued the drive and extended their lead with a field goal.

It was that kind of day.

Denver tried to mount a comeback but was stopped short and Jacksonville walked out of Mile High Stadium with the win.

It was absolutely crushing, one of the worst moments in Broncos Country history. After the game, future Hall of Fame tight end Shannon Sharpe opined, "[T]his sets the organization back four years, at least. It's going to be the year 2000 before we can ever recover from this."

There was a funereal tone at Broncos headquarters the day after the game.

Weeks later, Shanahan told me, "I made a mistake in preparation, Jim. I told the team our goal was to have the best record in the AFC, and thus have all playoff games at home. So when we did that, they all felt that the goal had been reached. Next year, I am telling them that we are the best team — which we are — and our goal is to win the Super Bowl. As a division champion or wild card, best record or not, home or away. Only only goal is to win the Super Bowl."

Shanahan was a master tactician and motivator, and the team responded.

The Broncos finished 12-4 in 1997 but were in second place due to a late season loss at Kansas City.

I remember that CBS radio broadcast our final game and in their postgame show, color commentator Pat Haden was asked whom he thought would win the Super Bowl.

"Denver," he replied. When it was pointed out that the Broncos were wild cards, Haden said, "Doesn't matter. They are the best team and will go all the way."

And so we did.

The Broncos won their first world championship in Super Bowl XXXII as the final stop in "The Revenge Tour."

First came the Jaguars in Mile High Stadium in the wild card game. Denver pounded Jacksonville, 42-17.

Then we went to Kansas City, where Denver won by a 14-10 score in a game that Shanahan later described as one of the greatest and most satisfying of his career.

Then Denver traveled to Pittsburgh, where earlier we had suffered a late season defeat to the Steelers. The Broncos came back from a 14-7 second-period deficit to score three times and defeat the Steelers, 24-21.

After the game, the AFC Championship trophy was presented by the legendary Don Shula, who said, "The way Denver can run the ball, they have a great chance to win the Super Bowl."

And of course, we did, with the masterful Shanahan pointing out that we were going to one of our favorite cities (San Diego) and playing in one of our favorite parks.

"You guys already won at Kansas City and Pittsburgh," he said. "Two of the toughest places to play in the NFL. We always win in San Diego, right?"

The team nodded in agreement, looking over the fact that our normal San Diego opponent was the Chargers, not the defending world champion Green Bay Packers.

Regardless, the team was motivated to a degree that few in America realized.

The revenge tour (the Packers had crushed us 41-6 in Green Bay the previous season) concluded with the Broncos as victors in Super Bowl XXXII.

Of course, we repeated the following year, and more recently won Super Bowl 50. But that first victory came following one of the most disappointing losses in franchise history, a three-point loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars at home.

We have all had moments in life when we grit our teeth with determination after a wretched moment.

The Broncos did that after "The Jacksonville Game" and established a great championship standard that we take on the road to Jacksonville this week.

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