They were lined up the length of several football fields, their chilly bones warmed by Super Bowl fever and the anticipation of getting up close and personal with America's most improbable sports hero. On the night of Dec. 28, St. Louis Rams quarterback Kurt Warner saw a throng of 600 fans as he pulled his sport utility vehicle into a supermarket parking lot in suburban O'Fallon. The crowd had begun congregating in 35� weather eight hours earlier. After Warner entered the store, his public came in from the cold, and he signed his name to boxes of Warner's Crunch Time cereal. His wife, Brenda, even granted several autograph requests, prefacing each signature with the disclaimer, "You realize, this is goofy."
The scene was a stock boy's twisted fantasy come to life. Five years ago Warner livened up all-night can-stacking sessions at the Hy-Vee supermarket in Cedar Falls, Iowa, by regaling his incredulous coworkers with pronouncements of his pro football dreams. Now Warner, a favorite for league MVP honors, resides on the NFL's top shelf.
Think about what has gone down since the Denver Broncos won their second consecutive Super Bowl last January: John Elway and Barry Sanders retired, Brett Favre and Randall Cunningham regressed, Terrell Davis and Jamal Anderson blew out their knees, and Warner, an Arena League afterthought, helped revive one of the league's most stagnant operations. Given his amazing ascent, it's not surprising that Warner regards his sudden celebrity as paper-thin. "I keep thinking that this will all wear off, that I'll die down like a novelty item that has run its course, but it hasn't stopped," says Warner, who in St. Louis's throwaway 38-31 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday became only the second NFL player ( Dan Marino was the first) to throw at least 40 touchdown passes in a season. "If anything, things have gotten more and more crazy."
Just as crazy, nobody predicted that the leading contenders for the Lombardi Trophy would include the Rams and the Indianapolis Colts, two teams coming off last-place finishes in 1998, and the Tennessee Titans, a nomadic franchise that until 1999 was the definition of mediocrity. Chances are, one of these teams—or the preseason darlings, the Jacksonville Jaguars, who on Sunday completed the least imposing 14-2 regular season in league history with a 24-7 win over the Cincinnati Bengals—will bring home a championship to a city that has never tasted anything resembling Super Bowl success.
"This spot is ready to blow up," says Jaguars linebacker Kevin Hardy, referring both to greater Jacksonville and the decked-out swimming pool area of his east-side estate. Famous around town for his pool parties, some of which have included hundreds of guests and lasted several days, Hardy, who this season emerged as one of the league's dominant defensive players, proudly displayed amenities such as a one-touch stereo system for a mid-December visitor. Then Hardy explained the house's unique H shape, which protects the open-air pool on three sides: "The whole house was built to provide privacy for the pool area. I've had some great parties here, and if we win the Super Bowl, we may have to have one for the whole city."
Until two weeks ago the football gods seemed intent on allowing Jacksonville to party Hardy. First the Jaguars got a pair of extra gimmes on their schedule with the placement of the expansion Cleveland Browns in the AFC Central, and then they caught breaks when three '99 opponents coming off successful seasons—the Broncos, the NFC champion Atlanta Falcons and the AFC runner-up New York Jets—lost star players ( Davis, Anderson and quarterback Vinny Testaverde, respectively) to season-ending injuries. Jacksonville, like St. Louis, finished the season without beating a team that ended with a winning record. "Hey, it's not our fault those guys got hurt," says Jimmy Smith, the Jaguars' outstanding wideout. "Not to sound cocky, but we think we're the best team out there, and anything short of winning the Super Bowl would certainly be disappointing."
But while Jacksonville, which on Sunday secured the AFC's top seed, remains a favorite to win it all, the Jaguars' aura was defiled by their stinker of a performance on Dec. 26 against the Titans in Nashville, a game that coach Tom Coughlin likened to "getting hit by a train." Jacksonville, which had suffered a one-point loss to its division rival on Sept. 26, got flattened 41-14, and quarterback Mark Brunell strained the medial collateral ligament in his left knee. "They look emotionally tired," one AFC coach said of the Jaguars last week. "They have incredible talent, but they seem to be buckling."
Now Jacksonville has some physical problems too. On Sunday, with Brunell watching from the sideline, All-Pro left tackle Tony Boselli was lost for the playoffs with a torn ACL in his right knee. Still, the Jaguars enter the Super Bowl chase as the league's most well-rounded team. Brunell is expected back, and with an offense loaded with playmakers like Smith, fellow wideout Keenan McCardell and running back Fred Taylor, and a defense that ranked first in the league for most of the season, Jacksonville commands respect around the league.
"It's tough to prepare for them in just one week because of what [defensive coordinator] Dom Capers does," says Carolina Panthers tight end Wesley Walls. "The zone blitz is not so much of a new thing anymore, but he's still really good at scheming and keeping an offense off balance."
St. Louis can do the same thing to a defense. "The Rams have so many playmakers," says Walls. "[Wideout] Isaac Bruce is awesome, and the other receivers complement him so well. Everyone knows Marshall Faulk can break a run at any time, and Warner is throwing the ball as well as I've ever seen it thrown. At first we thought he was just hot, but after 17 weeks, somebody's got to admit he's pretty darn good. I've seen quarterbacks on some pretty amazing streaks—Joe Montana, Steve Young, Steve Beuerlein for us this year—but Kurt Warner's run is right up there."