Jags face old cliches, Bills Brunell, Jacksonville respect elders, but aim to push them over hill

December 28, 1996|By BOSTON GLOBE

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- Cliche No. 1: The Jacksonville Jaguars are lucky to be in the playoffs -- only a Morten Andersen choke got them to the postseason -- and are happy just to be here. Or as happy as anyone can be to visit Buffalo in late December.

"We're not happy just to be here," coach Tom Coughlin told his team moments after the wild ending against Atlanta last Sunday. "Get it right we're in the playoffs to win."

Or, as the only quarterback in the league to take every snap this season put it, "If I have to dive or if I have to take on a linebacker to get a first down, then I'll do it," said Mark Brunell. "I think you have to have that attitude, that approach to the game, that drive or whatever, that allows you to take it to a new level."

That most certainly is where the Jaguars will be today when they take on the Buffalo Bills in an AFC wild-card game at Rich Stadium. The winner will play Denver next Sunday, or New England if Pittsburgh loses to Indianapolis tomorrow in the other AFC wild-card game.

Bromide No. 2: The most loyal of NFL fans, the rabid and crazed Buffalo fans -- who have never seen their Bills lose a playoff game at Rich Stadium (9-0) -- will spur an aging and cranky Bills team onward. However, some 20,000 tickets remain unsold, and the message Buffalo players will take from this could be the obvious: the end of the road is nigh for the AFC's most dominant team of the decade.

Cliche No. 3: Never back a team from a warm city traveling to the frigid North for a playoff game, especially an expansion team from Jacksonville, Fla. The truth? Although snow fell yesterday morning, the temperature could reach the balmy 50s by game time today.

"It's been like the playoffs for us for a long time," said Brunell, the Steve Young play-alike who guides the Jaguars. "Since we were 3-6, we've had to win every game almost."

The Jaguars finished the season on a 6-1 run, the best record in the league over that span, and come to Buffalo on a rush even if last Sunday's win over Atlanta was a gift.

The Jaguars are never out of any game because Brunell, one of the league's top passers, is a scrambler. That old Buffalo staple -- defense -- may have to carry this day if the Bills are to move onward.

The numbers say this is a matchup on which Bruce Smith and pals should feast. The Jaguars have allowed 50 sacks of Brunell, and the Bills have totaled 48 sacks on their own. But, as Smith put it, "we've got to make sure we don't allow [Brunell] to scramble outside the pocket because that's where he makes the majority of his plays."

The key to all is Buffalo's shutting down the Jacksonville running game. But the Jaguars discovered ex-San Diego 18-wheeler Natrone Means last week against Atlanta, and if Means can run against the Bills, Brunell should have all the more freedom to be himself -- which is a show in itself.

"[Brunell] has a never-say-die attitude," said Coughlin. "He's probably at his best when we're behind and he's probably at his best when we have to rally. He has that hungry look to his eye."

While the Bills -- finally -- have that tired look to their bodies. Buffalo came into the playoffs on a downer, even if it beat the Kansas City Chiefs last Sunday in a game that had to be won. But the Bills lost three straight before the Chiefs game and the cry all along the Niagara Frontier was "[Marv] Levy can't coach" and "[Jim] Kelly can't throw."

Such words, of course, must be used lightly about a football team that just won't be put away. Or allow itself to be put away.

Pub Date: 12/28/96

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