FOLLOWING THE LEADER WITH COACH BILL PARCELLS SHOWING THE WAY, THE PATRIOTS BEAT THE JAGUARS FOR THE AFC CHAMPIONSHIP

January 20, 1997

Even to the end, even when the freezing Gatorade came tumbling
over his head, he would not crack. Glumly, the Tuna simply
fished his headphones out of the ice pond at his feet, clamped
them stubbornly over his great purpled ears and went back to
work, a thin hard line where his smile was supposed to be. Even
with the AFC title gripped in his meaty hand and his spot in NFL
history reserved, he wouldn't give in. Jubilation could go to
hell.

What coach Bill Parcells and the New England Patriots had done
to win the AFC Championship Game on a clear and icy Sunday in
Foxboro, Mass., was bring a whole lot of midnight clobbering
down on the heads of the Jacksonville Jaguars, turning the
Jaguars' carriages into pumpkins, their coachmen into mice and
their fairy-tale season into a grim 20-6 reality check. Yet
afterward Parcells wouldn't acknowledge that it was anything
more than another win in a mile of them, didn't seem to care
that he had become only the second man (Don Shula was the first)
to take two different teams to the Super Bowl. In fact, he
gathered his troops before him, hushed them and began his
speech: "Be here at 9:30 tomorrow to run." There wasn't a wet
eye in the house.

Parcells is about as sentimental as a traffic ticket. He is not
big on shoulder rides or hugging Greg Gumbel. He does not change
his expression or his schedule for anybody. Despite a small
armada of media last week for the first home championship game
in the franchise's history, he allowed only 40 minutes of access
to his players last Wednesday and Thursday, none last Friday and
Saturday.

He was just as Garboesque about where his next W-2 form would
come from after his Pat hand is played out in two weeks. Reports
in Boston had Parcells, the prettiest girl at the NFL's coaching
cotillion, already kissed and betrothed to the New York Jets
with a three-year, $10 million handshake, which would make him
the highest-paid coach in NFL history. When Patriots Pro Bowl
tackle Bruce Armstrong was asked why Parcells would leave a
Super Bowl contender for the league's worst loser, he was
fuddled. "He should want to share in what he's helped build,"
Armstrong said. "I mean, look at the age and talent core here."

New England owner Robert Kraft keeps saying he'll do whatever it
takes to keep Parcells (carried away at the presentation of the
AFC trophy after the game, Kraft called him "the greatest coach
in the history of the game in modern times"), but privately he
keeps adding, As long as he knows he is the coach and only the
coach. Kraft is a self-made businessman who owns a paper and
packaging company, and he hasn't yet seen one that works when
the man in charge of the plant is also allowed to do the taxes,
the advertising and the marketing.

Quarterback Drew Bledsoe sounds like a guy who wouldn't mind
seeing Parcells leave. In a national conference call before the
game, Bledsoe was asked how his personal relationship was with
Parcells. "Personal relationship?" Bledsoe said. "We don't have
a personal relationship. We're fine when it comes to football,
but...." Then he added, "Whether Bill is here or not, this team
is going to be successful. We've got good players, a great
nucleus, a great owner." That sounded like a
don't-let-the-door-hit-ya, if there ever was one, and each time
Bledsoe tried to back away, he stepped in it worse. "Look, Bill
told me from the beginning, 'I'm not going to be your coach
forever,'" Bledsoe said later. "Sometimes, that's a pretty
enticing proposition...."

The week was a little nasty that way. Boston had its beans bent
out of shape because the NFL had designated Providence as host
to the Jaguars, the media and the AFC party. "I guess Pawtucket
was already booked," said Boston mayor Thomas Menino. Kraft
could only hold his head in his hands. He keeps offering to
build a $217 million stadium in South Boston with private funds,
and he keeps getting rebuffed by pols and residents. "Look what
Boston is missing out on this week," Kraft said. "I hear there
are 10,000 empty hotel rooms in Boston this weekend."

If that weren't enough, Foxboro threw a little riot the night of
Jan. 7 when the Patriots got the brilliant idea to not allow
anybody to queue up at the stadium ticket windows until 6 a.m.
This despite the approximately 10,000 people who were milling
around at midnight waiting to leap into line at precisely 6 a.m.
Fans hid in trees, cruised the roads and stood near the fence by
the highway, waiting to jump the second the police gave the O.K.
Of course, by 2 a.m. the thing was out of hand. Fights broke
out, 10 people were arrested and most of the rest were sent
home. Almost all the tickets were sold over the phone instead.
The Patriots thank you for your support.

All week it was the Jaguars who looked loose and bulletproof,
but they hadn't played a game in temperatures colder than
42[degrees] all year, and the Tuna knew it. "Oh, yeah, I think
it's a big advantage for us," he said last Friday. "Just as it
would be for them if we'd practiced all week in this weather and
then gone down there to an 80 degree game." But this is how
fear-frozen the Jaguars were by the weather they practiced in
last Saturday at Brown University: They had a giant snowball
fight. And after practice, offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride
returned to the team hotel, found a waiter's serving tray and
went sledding.

Sunday's game had that Pop Warner age-group feel too. On his
first punt, two minutes into the game, Jacksonville's Bryan
Barker leaped high to save a snap, decided to make like Emmitt
Smith and try to juke oncoming Patriot Larry Whigham and was
tackled at the four. Package for Mr. Bledsoe! Package for Mr.
Drew Bledsoe! Two plays later New England had a 7-0 lead.

Then things got stupider. Just as the Patriots' Adam Vinatieri
set up for a 29-yard field goal in the second quarter, the
stadium lights went out. A few backup generators flipped on,
leaving the stadium dimly lit and looking like a high school
facility, which, come to think of it, it actually is. An
11-minute delay ensued, giving everybody time to learn the seven
warning signs of hypothermia. Vinatieri said he thought, "Man,
I've heard of people icing the kicker, but this is ridiculous."

When full power was restored, Vinatieri kicked it through for a
10-3 lead. Not long after, a lightbulb clicked on above
Parcells's head. Facing fourth-and-three at the Jacksonville 45
with 29 seconds to go in the first half, Parcells decided to
spin the wheel. "I knew we could be giving them three points
right there, but we needed three ourselves," he said. Bledsoe
hit tight end Ben Coates for five yards on the next best thing
to a pick play. Then, with 15 seconds and no timeouts left,
Parcells called for a bomb that the Patriots had practiced every
day for four years but had used only once in that time. It
worked, too, when wideout Shawn Jefferson glommed on to a
38-yard Bledsoe pass at the three and sneaked out-of-bounds.
Without the benefit of trick lighting, Vinatieri got the field
goal, and the Patriots had a 10-point lead.

Not that any of this mattered to the Jaguars, who were coming
off earthshaking playoff upsets of the Buffalo Bills (in
Buffalo) and the Denver Broncos (in Denver, after trailing by
two touchdowns). Since being 4-7 in the regular season and
looking like Spamburgers, the Jaguars had been kicking off the
coffin lid. Every week the victories, the breaks and the great
plays kept coming. So here they came again.

Driving effortlessly behind the crazy legs and serious arm of
their suddenly superstar quarterback Mark Brunell, the Jaguars
had the ball at the five, second-and-goal, ready to tie the game
at 13 with less than four minutes to play. Then Brunell dropped
back, danced a little, pumped a little, felt the sting of a bad
cut on his left (throwing) hand and fired into a whole closet of
jerseys. One of them happened to be on New England free safety
Willie (Big Play) Clay, who made the interception. "I just read
his eyes, snuck over there and put my hands out," said Big Play,
who got the name at Georgia Tech and now keeps it for life.

Still it wasn't over. New England coughed and sneezed and hacked
to a stop again--as Bledsoe had done all night. (He had a brutal
cold that kept him awake all week, kept him so sleepless that he
showed up at practice last Thursday at 5:45 a.m., before even
the Tuna himself.) The Patriots punted; then fortune gave
Jacksonville one last pull on its slot machine with a little
more than two minutes to play and 58 yards to go.

But this was the Night When the Lights Went Out in Foxboro, and
the gods finally changed channels. First play: a handoff to
James Stewart, who broke left and spit up the ball as sweetly as
you please into the welcoming arms of Patriots cornerback Otis
Smith. Any other week, it hits Smith in the knee and bounces
back to Brunell, who throws a touchdown bomb. This time Smith
suddenly had the ball and the game and his hometown of New
Orleans stretched out 47 yards in front of him. Fumbalaya!
Jacksonville's monstrous 325-pound tackle Tony Boselli, whipped
tired, gave chase, but it was hopeless, like the Godfather
chasing his grandchild in the backyard, and pretty soon fans
were partying from Bangor to Brockton.

"We were never really out of that game," said Jaguars running
back Natrone Means, who blew an ankle early, tried to play on it
anyway and rushed for only 43 yards on 19 carries. "All year
long it has not been a matter of if we make the big play but
when. The when never came for us today."

Brunell should've seen this coming. His new puppy had kept him
awake all week in Jacksonville, and worries about the New
England defense did the same in Providence. Not only that, but
the day before the game was his fifth wedding anniversary, "and
I'm sleeping with Boselli," he said, glumly. Afterward, he was
even grimmer. "We're hurting," he said, trying not to touch his
bloody hand, which he cut on a helmet in the fourth quarter. "We
could've won this."

All of which leaves us the Cheeseheads versus the Chowderheads
on Jan. 26. As usual, the team the AFC is sending into the Big
Bowl in the Big Easy looks like a Big Doormat. The Patriots'
offense earned only three points on Sunday. The other 17 were
either scored by the New England defense or set up by
Jacksonville gags near the goal line. The Patriots' offense
(outrushed, outpassed, outpossessed by Jacksonville's) had all
the thrill power of Metamucil. "Our offense stunk it up
tonight," said Jefferson.

"We'll be better for Green Bay," said Bledsoe.

"We better be," said Jefferson.

What they do have is Parcells, a man who wouldn't get carried
away in the middle of a moon landing, who is 2-0 in the Super
Bowl (both wins coming when he coached the New York Giants) and
who might just be stubborn enough to become the first coach to
win one with two teams. (Shula lost with the Baltimore Colts and
won with the Miami Dolphins.) Parcells may hate Gatorade, but he
knows champagne.

Outside the locker room the Patriots' patrons chanted, "Four
more years!" in hopes Parcells would re-up then and there.
Inside, the players marveled at the hottest, smartest,
grouchiest coach in the league. "Everybody doubted this team,
and everybody doubted Bill," said Patriots defensive end Willie
McGinest, who had a killer game. "Nobody thought Bill could turn
this team around. He did it. Everything they said he couldn't
do, he's done."

And now, one to go. It was thinking of that one, and what it
would mean to his players, that finally softened the human frown
on Sunday, softened him at the end of his meeting with the
press. "I see these faces on these players," he said. "I
remember the faces of the players I had that went before. That's
the priceless thing in this business. Those faces are the faces
that you remember. You see those kids, and there is a bond that
never leaves. It's always there because we did this together.
It's special. It's a little corny, but it's special."

Right about then his eyes got a little red-rimmed and his voice
got a little high, and he stopped. Everybody else stopped too.
After all, how often do you see the Tuna melt?

COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER After Lawyer Milloy (36) and the Patriots piled it on, Means (20) came up limping and ineffective. [Lawyer Milloy and Patriots teammates tackling Natrone Means] COLOR PHOTO: JOHN IACONO The Jaguars' trouble began when a high snap forced Barker (4) to run for his life instead of punting. [Bryan Barker in game] COLOR PHOTO: GEORGE TIEDEMANN There was no stopping Smith--at least not for Boselli (71)--on his fumble return for the clinching TD. [Tony Boselli, Mark Brunell, Otis Smith and Willie Clay in game]
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)