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MIRACLE MAN BRUNELL LEADS JAGS BACK TO DENVER FOR PLAYOFF REMATCH

Those less enlightened than Jacksonville quarterback Mark Brunell consider the Jaguars' 30-27 playoff win over the Denver Broncos last January a miracle.

As Brunell knows, miracles are more life-changing than that. Such as being told that a major knee injury is season-ending and career-threatening and returning to the field to play in six weeks.

Brunell went through that rather uplifting experience this past August and in his mind there is only one reason he will be on the field at Mile High Stadium on Saturday to try to lead the Jaguars past Denver for another, um, playoff miracle.

"God healed my knee," Brunell said.

That, indeed, would qualify as a miracle.

But in Brunell's mind it's exactly what happened. When he tore up the knee in an Aug. 9 preseason game, doctors told him he had probably blown out the anterior cruciate ligament. But when they went in to do the surgery, the ligament was intact.

"My ACL was blown and then after surgery, it wasn't blown," Brunell said. "It's a miracle recovery, but I'm not a miracle man."

Some Broncos fans will argue that at least on the field, Brunell is very much a miracle man. A lot of factors went into the Jags' playoff win over the Broncos, but no player had a bigger hand in the upset than Brunell.

"Brunell had a phenomenal game," Broncos defensive end Harald Hasselbach said. "He was the difference in the game. We couldn't stop him."

But the Broncos must try again. Although the odds were probably against it when Brunell reinjured the knee he originally hurt at the University of Washington, Brunell led the Jaguars to an 11-5 season and a wild-card playoff berth.

And, yes, it strikes some as a bit unusual and perhaps preordained that of all the playoff teams that could have come to Denver, it will be Jacksonville to try to deal the Broncos more misery. Brunell's miracle game truly was the Broncos' worst nightmare.

The Broncos have spent all season trying to get back in position to correct their grievous playoff error. On Tuesday, coach Mike Shanahan said all his 100-hour work weeks and all the players' sweat was made with the upcoming three hours against the Jags in mind.

Linebacker Bill Romanowski, who had perhaps the worst nightmare of all the Broncos trying to catch Brunell last Jan. 4, took it a step further.

Romanowski said he had a mug shot of Brunell on the wall of the weight room in his California home. That way, when he went to work out at home during the spring and summer, he could look into the face of the man who caused him grief.

"I looked at Brunell's face every day," Romanowski said.

As much trouble as Brunell caused the Broncos in January when he passed for 245 yards and two touchdowns and ran for 44 yards, he's positioned himself to cause greater damage in the upcoming playoffs. Everyone from Romanowski and Shanahan to Jaguars coach Tom Coughlin and even Brunell himself say the Jacksonville quarterback is a better player now.

"Right from Day One, we (NFL football coaches) knew what Mark Brunell was like," Shanahan said. "When he played as well as he did in Buffalo (triggering a 30-27 playoff win), and when he played as well as he did in Denver, people started realizing what type of talent he was."

Coughlin thinks Brunell has finally made himself into a complete player.

"Mark has grown as a passer," Coughlin said. "He's made some plays running, but first and foremost he thinks about trying to execute our passing concept. He is an outstanding competitor and very difficult to defend."

To this point, at least, Brunell says the playoff victory against Denver is the biggest of his career and probably the biggest in the history of the 3-year-old Jacksonville expansion team.

"It took us out of being just another expansion team," he said. "And it took me from being just another expansion quarterback."

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