Remember the Titans? After 1999, it’s hard to forget them in Jacksonville

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Doug Pederson was still playing in the NFL. Trevor Lawrence was 3 months old. Travon Walker wasn’t even born yet.

They don’t remember the Titans, not like much of Jacksonville does.

But for Jaguars followers who have been around the franchise since its early years, there is no more of a despised rival than those terrible Tennessee Titans.

The current Jaguars (8-8), who host Tennessee (7-9) Saturday night at 8:15 for the AFC South title, have little, if any attachment to that rivalry of years gone by.

Those who have been in Jacksonville long enough can’t forget it.

The 1999 Jaguars season was unlike any other in Jacksonville history. And it ended with a thud in the AFC championship game that season to the Titans, a 33-14 loss so personal for the city’s NFL team that it’s fair to ask if Jacksonville has been the same since. Tennessee beat the Jaguars 20-19 in the regular season and then smashed Jacksonville 41-14 in Nashville. Those were the only two losses the Jaguars suffered that year in what felt like a magical 14-2 regular season.

But the playoff game … oh that playoff game … is the one that really, really left a mark.

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That’s why Saturday night’s showdown against the Titans feels like a little bit of a chance, albeit a teeny-tiny one, to atone for that inexplicable 1999 letdown. Players won’t say it because it’s not personal to them like it is to the city. For those players and coach Doug Pederson, this is a massive moment to take the next step.

But for Jacksonville, this is a shot to stick it to the Titans in a way that feels like a measure of redemption for a playoff loss from 23 years ago.

Of course, the scenario is not the same as it was back then.

Tennessee is in freefall, losers of six straight games. The lead in to this game feels like a wake. The Titans are starting Joshua Dobbs, essentially the team’s third-string quarterback, in a must-win game. Tennessee looks like a franchise that is headed in the opposite direction of the Jaguars. They’ve aged and broken down right in front of us. Jacksonville looks like it is ascending and positioned to be an AFC South heavyweight for years with Lawrence.

This feels like a chance for the Jaguars to kick the Titans into an uncertain offseason much like Tennessee did to the Jaguars in 1999. That loss put Jacksonville into what felt like a two-decade rebuild, which is finally beginning to pay off.

But this rivalry will always go back to that point in time where Jacksonville’s best shot at a Super Bowl evaporated in one miserable half of football that still resonates in this town all these years later.

The Jaguars were built to compete for a Super Bowl in the 1999 season.

In free agency, they added a big tight end (Kyle Brady) and beefed up on the defensive line (Gary Walker). They signed safety Carnell Lake away from the rival Steelers. Those moves came after an exceptional top of the draft in 1998 (Fred Taylor, Donovin Darius in the first round) pushed the Jaguars into realistic contender status. By that time, Jacksonville was entering its fifth season in the NFL and had three playoff trips under its belt, 1996, ’97 and ’98.

The 1996 season was the peak of Jaguars euphoria, a blend of newness and a city smitten with an NFL team it had sought for decades.

The second-year NFL franchise went on a five-game winning streak and earned a wild-card spot in Week 17 when Atlanta’s Morten Andersen missed a routine 30-yard field goal to give Jacksonville a 19-17 win. Two miraculous wild-card wins on the road (Buffalo and Denver) followed.

No one saw that season coming. In 1999, everyone saw it coming.

The Jaguars had reached the playoffs three straight seasons entering that year, but 1999 was the year that was supposed to tie things all up together. The Jaguars were Super Bowl contenders that season and they looked it. They went 14-2 in the regular season and locked up home field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs. In the divisional game against the Dolphins, the Jaguars obliterated Miami 62-7. Some members of the team recorded a rap song after that 14-win season. It felt like this was their time.

And then, it happened – Jan. 23, 2000.

I covered both the Dolphins and Titans playoff games that season at my previous job. The stadium was packed for the Miami game, but the Tennessee game was next level. The Jaguars were so close to a Super Bowl. No one thought the Titans would beat the Jaguars for a third time.

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One of my assigned stories that afternoon was to detail the celebration, both on the field and in the stadium, when the Jaguars won. There were fireworks planned. We mapped out potential headlines for the following day’s paper. Discussions for Super Bowl coverage were well underway.

The Jaguars led 14-10 at halftime and did not score again until the following preseason.

Jacksonville had six turnovers. Tennessee won 33-14. I’ve been in locker rooms after big wins and soul-crushing losses, but nothing tops how it felt that day. On the field and in the locker room, it was like a funeral.

In some ways, it was.

Titans coach Jeff Fisher famously said during the lead up to the Super Bowl against the Rams that Jacksonville had become a second home to Tennessee.

“Well, some would say we’ve had five home stadiums in four years, if you count Alltel Stadium in Jacksonville,” Fisher said.

For years, Fisher was one of the most reviled names in Jacksonville. But by then, the teardown here was already in full force.

A roster purge happened over the next few seasons. Names who were foundational pieces in Jaguars lore (Mark Brunell, Tony Boselli, Jimmy Smith, Keenan McCardell, Fred Taylor) were dealt or released. Tom Coughlin was fired. That 1999 season felt like the last of that golden era for the Jaguars.

Jacksonville has reached the NFL playoffs only three times since (2005, ’07, 2017). A fourth trip could happen on Saturday night in what is almost certainly going to be the biggest regular season game in franchise history, right on par with the first game ever in 1995 and the 1996, Week 17 finale against the Falcons.

But this one is for an AFC South title, for “all the marbles,” Pederson said. Even more importantly than the last time the Jaguars played the Titans in a game of such magnitude, this one doesn’t feel like the end of an era.

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