Big cats believe in miracles

Andrew Baker tells a tale of two cities warming to a whole new Bowl game
THIS is a tale of two teams that have come a long way in a very short time. The Carolina Panthers and the Jacksonville Jaguars, two American football teams in their second year of existence, play today for places in Super Bowl XXXI. To appreciate the impact that their achievements have had on the game, imagine Colchester United and Wycombe Wanderers, the two most recent recruits to the football league, both appearing in the FA Cup semi-finals the year after promotion. The headline in USA Today summed up the feeling: "New kids knock NFL veterans off blocks".

Two veterans remain standing. Today, the Jaguars visit the New England Patriots, while the Panthers travel to the frozen north to take on the Green Bay Packers. The bookmakers reckon that neither team has much of chance, reckoning that the Jaguars would need a 7-and-a-half-point start and the Panthers a more generous 12-point edge to prevail. But then at the start of the season the odds that the two new teams would meet in the Super Bowl were 300,000-1, and there are some mighty worried bookmakers in the United States.

Last week the two teams were sticking to tried and trusted routines, keeping ravenous local, national and international media at arms' length by granting regimented "open locker-room" question-and-answer sessions between work-outs.

"At the beginning of the season," the Jaguars' running back Natrone Means told one such gathering, "If you asked any of our players about winning at Buffalo and Denver in the playoffs and then being in the AFC Championship game, a lot of us would have laughed at you. That was not on our minds."

But then the Jaguars put together an extraordinary run of form late in the regular season, and the players received an education in brinksmanship. "Down the stretch," Means said, "when we had to win every week just to make the play-offs and we did it, we learned what it takes. So winning in the play-offs has been the same thing. We just want to ride this thing as far as we can."

The Panthers' linebacker Kevin Green revelled in the achievements of the newcomers. "It's a new order in the NFL," he said, "and I'm tickled to death about it." His team's coach, Dom Capers, preferred to sound a cautionary note. "We haven't won anything yet," he said.

This is not strictly true: both expansion teams have won lifelong fans where before there were none. The Panthers' faithful had the chance to see their team at home in the play-offs, when they defeated the defending champions, the Dallas Cowboys. In Jacksonville, when their team was playing away in Denver, 5,000 fans went along to watch the game on the Jumbotron giant screens.

But when the game was over and victory was secured, something strange started to happen in the Municipal Stadium next to the Maxwell coffee plant in downtown Jacksonville. Instead of emptying, the stadium started to fill up. By 1am, when the team's Boeing 757 dipped a wing over the arena, there were 40,000 people there to cheer.

Soon afterwards, the players took the field and a microphone was passed among them. Mark Brunell, the quarterback, summed up the team's emotions when he asked the crowd: "Jacksonville? Do you believe in miracles?" They did. They do.

Sharon Caponi, of the Jacksonville mayor's office, watched the scenes. "You have to understand," she said, "that this is a city that tried for 20 years to get a team, and every time they told us: 'You haven't got the fans.' Well boy, are we proving them wrong now."

As Caponi pointed out, "The thrill is in the 'ville' " and there is but one topic of conversation all over the city. "It's crazy," according to Keith Smith, of Russ-Doe's Sandwich Shop, "You just can't believe it. Ninety-nine per cent of the people, the minute they walk in the door it's either 'Go, Jags,' or 'How 'bout them Jags?" Dan Davis, the manager of a sports store, said: "I'll tell you what Jacksonville is like, it's a zoo. If we beat the Patriots, all hell is going to let loose."

Feelings are running just as high in Charlotte, home base of the Panthers. "It's a very exciting place right now," said Janine Clark of the city's communications department. "When any team - new or not - makes it this far, it's exciting. But for us it is a particular thrill because we haven't had a team in our own back yard before."

The form book says that the Packers and Patriots should win. But most neutral observers will be hoping that the Panthers and the Jaguars have one last scratch left in their claws, and that today will be the day for the underdogs - or undercats.