There have been a lot of painful, frustrating moments in Jacksonville Jaguars history. And no single game has included more of them than January 23rd, 2000.
The Tennessee Titans were our Achilles heel throughout the 1999 season, the only team who beat us during our 14-2 campaign. They did it twice and they did it in the most frustrating way possible — with Steve McNair scrambling, with Eddie George grinding out long drives, and with a defense that would bend, not break, and then clamp down in the second half.
On January 23rd, in front of a crowd of 75,206 that was so raucous they forced delay of game penalties on the Titans opening drive, the Jaguars looked to be on cruise control on the way to Super Bowl XXXIV. They had earned a Wild Card bye as the No. 1 seed in the AFC, they sent Dan Marino into retirement with a 62-7 victory the week before, and they were at home — comfortable in their 75-degree kickoff despite the fact it was late January.
Mark Brunell took the opening kickoff and the offense gained 51 yards on the first two plays — the first an 18-yard pass to Jimmy Smith, and then Fred Taylor ran 33 yards into the red zone.
Three plays later, Brunell threw a seven-yard pass to Kyle Brady for a 7-0 lead.
But the Titans scored on their opening drive too, with Derrick Mason returning the opening kickoff to midfield and Steve McNair throwing for 23 yards and running for 14 on a drive that ended with Yancey Thigpen scoring from nine yards out.
The Jaguars defense held and in the second quarter the offense made it 14-7, but another special teams gaffe by Reggie Barlow allowed the Titans to recover a muffed punt inside the red zone. An Al Del Greco field goal made it 14-10 at halftime.
In the third quarter, a combination of McNair’s ability to improvise and make plays on the run with key defensive penalties allowed the Titans to score a touchdown and take their first lead of the game. Both defenses forced turnovers on the next two drives, but the Jaguars were pinned at their 1-yard line.
First down: Fred Taylor stuffed for no gain.
Second down: Mark Brunell sacked in the end zone by Titans defensive linemen Josh Evans (really) and Jason Fisk.
That’s the moment. The free kick return by Mason that still hurts to the core. I still remember it to this day. It was the last gasp of greatness from a Jaguars team I fell in love with in 1995 — a Jaguars team that beat the Bills in Buffalo, the Broncos in Denver, that compiled double-digit wins and AFC Central titles over a three-year span that was a short (albeit brilliant) window of success for a young team and a young fan base.
Damn you, Derrick Mason. Damn you.