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The Cat-Quick Climb of Jacksonville Jaguars

Start with a North Florida city where the only other entertainment this week is a Gospel concert and a monster-truck pull. Add a millionaire shoe salesman, an eat-your-vegetables coach, a born-again QB with devilish speed, 28 free agents, one shanked field goal, and 40,000 fans who don't care about sleep.

What you've got is the year's Cinderella story of professional sports: the Jacksonville Jaguars.

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With their jaw-dropping upset of the Denver Broncos last week, preceded by surprising wins against the Buffalo Bills and Atlanta Falcons, the Jaguars - an NFL expansion franchise that's playing in only its second season - has earned a spot in Sunday's AFC championship against the New England Patriots.

Jacksonville, of course, is not the only expansion team in the playoffs. The Carolina Panthers meet the Green Bay Packers in Sunday's NFC title game. In NFL history, no new teams have ever reached the playoffs faster.

But the Jaguar's advance is more surprising after its lackluster 4-7 start this season. The team's success has prompted many football fans to search their atlases for this palm-fringed city on the St. John's River, and to realize that in the flashy and money-soaked NFL, there's still room for a team built on old-school discipline in a city that just loves the game.

"Jacksonville is the little engine that could," says city council President Eric Smith. "We've been toiling for this moment for a dozen years, and we've learned that when we get big business, labor unions, churches, and city government rolling in the same direction, we can do anything."

Indeed, this team has overcome some hefty challenges. Four years ago, when the NFL announced plans to add two new franchises, Jacksonville's bid seemed hopeless against competitors like Baltimore, St. Louis, Memphis, and Charlotte, N.C., which had established professional sports traditions, bigger populations, or both.

Yet a coalition of partners led by local businessman Tom Petway and shoe-store magnate Wayne Weaver put together an impressive package. Armed with $135 million in public and private funds to upgrade the city's stadium, the Jacksonville coalition made the final cut. As partnerships in other cities dissolved, Jacksonville's held together, and the team's backers managed to sell 9,000 club seats, at $150 a pop, in just 10 days.

The team's success on the field, though, is mostly due to head coach Tom Coughlin, formerly of Boston College. Mr. Coughlin, an ardent disciplinarian, drew local fire early on for his methods. He moved the team's training camp to tiny Steven's Point, Wis., to avoid distractions and implemented some stringent rules: Players were forbidden from kneeling in practice, fidgeting or putting their feet up at team meetings, and wearing T-shirts on trips.

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Yet Coughlin's no-laughs style, and the team's sluggish 4-7 start this season, prompted some players to complain openly. Midway through, Coughlin released Andre Rison, the team's star wide receiver and one of its few veterans.

Best QB in the NFL

But the rest of the team proved fit for Coughlin's challenge. The Jaguars ride into Foxboro (Mass.) Stadium Sunday on a seven-game winning streak, largely on the strength of veteran running back Natrone Means (140 yards against Denver), and its come-from-nowhere quarterback Mark Brunell, who led all NFL QBs this season in both running and passing yards.

Coughlin said in the early stages of selecting his players that character counted most. Translation: no bad boys and no big egos. A large number of Jaguars are married, and many talk openly about the role their religious faith plays inside and outside the stadium.

"I don't know what God thinks about winning and losing, but I know he cares about this team and every team," Mr. Brunell says. "I feel he's certainly blessed this team and that is a lot of the reason for our success."

Indeed, there must be something special going on in the Jaguar locker room. Although the Jaguars and the league's other expansion phenom, the Carolina Panthers, were given extra draft picks in the last two years, there's been a lot of turnover. Only three of Jacksonville's first 10 signees remain, and 23 players - almost half the entire roster - are new to the team this year. Of the 28 free agents, 15 are starters.

According to Center Dave Widell, the team's newness has fostered a locker-room-wide camaraderie. There are no veteran cliques, and there are no slackers.

"The coach rarely has to yell at anybody," Widell says. "Everyone watches the film and everyone knows who's doing the job and who isn't. We're very critical of each other in our own little group."

Yet whatever advantages the Jaguars bring to the field, they still face a steep climb to become the first expansion team, and only the second wild-card team, to win the Super Bowl. The Jaguars have not played a game this year in a temperature of less than 46 degrees, and Foxboro may be adrift in snow by kickoff time. In addition, the team can't expect too many repeats of the recent Atlanta Falcons game, in which legendary kicker Morten Andersen missed a 30-yard field goal that allowed the Jaguars to enter the playoffs.

Sleepless fans

To fans here, however, the final score is almost secondary. After the Denver win, 40,000 people came to Jacksonville Stadium to greet the team upon its return: staying until 3 a.m. Jaguar memorabilia is almost impossible to find here, and next year's season tickets are already sold out.

From bumper stickers to billboards and store-window displays, this city is bedecked in Jaguar teal and white. You can't buy a pork rib at Buck's Barbeque downtown without getting engaged in conversation about the team's prospects. And the fans here, not to mention some of the players, have been tickled by the swarm of reporters who have come to cover the story.

"It's been great for the self-esteem of the city, and for national recognition," says Mayor John Delaney. "Even if it left tomorrow, it still would be wonderful."

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