JACKSONVILLE, Fla. Jaguars running back Fred Taylor went to his first Super Bowl in January. It was one of the toughest trips of his life.
Taylor was invited to the game by his close friend, New York Giants receiver Plaxico Burress. Taylor had never been before, even declining to make an appearance when the game was in Jacksonville in 2005.
He changed his mind this year, hoping some of the "championship atmosphere" would rub off on him. But Taylor quickly realized why he had avoided the game for so long, even with his friend catching the game-winning touchdown pass with 35 seconds left.
"I had a few tears in my eyes that I had to wipe off," he said, explaining that it was difficult to be so close to the action and yet so far removed from the game. "I don't think I would do it again."
Unless, of course, the Jaguars get there. Luckily, they might have their best shot in years.
With the emergence of quarterback David Garrard, the addition of receiver Jerry Porter and the confidence that the defense will return to its run-stopping, sack-happy ways under new coordinator Gregg Williams, Jacksonville believes it has a strong chance to get back to the playoffs and maybe even reach the big game.
"It's almost Super Bowl or bust," Taylor said. "We got an opportunity to make the playoffs and we got a taste. It tasted pretty good and then we got beat. ... I'm glad we had a chance last year, or got a little taste. Hopefully we can build off that and try and make some noise."
To do that, the team likely will have to accomplish something it has struggled to do in recent years: beat Indianapolis and New England.
The Jaguars are 1-8 against those AFC powers the last three years, finishing behind the Colts in the South each season and losing twice to the Patriots in the playoffs. They hope to reverse the trend this year, knowing their best shot at getting to the Super Bowl starts with winning the division.
"We've got a lot of guys that are hungry; we've got a few new faces and some wrinkles," defensive end Paul Spicer said. "All that is going to help us go out there and kick people's butts."
Even coach Jack Del Rio, who typically shies away from talk about lofty expectations, has embraced the notion that his team is one of the AFC favorites.
He opened his first team meeting by showing a highlight video from last season, reminding his players of everything they accomplished en route to winning a playoff game for the first time in eight years. He followed it with a slideshow designed to put it in perspective.
The second presentation showed that New England has been in five of the last seven AFC championship games; that Indianapolis has won five consecutive AFC South titles and a Super Bowl; that Pittsburgh has advanced to two of the last four AFC title games and won a Super Bowl; and that San Diego has made the playoffs the last two seasons.
Del Rio wanted to point out that Jacksonville's success, while notable, paled by comparison. It was his way of subtly humbling his guys heading into training camp and reminding them that all the preseason praise meant nothing.
"Let's not get caught up in the hype," Del Rio said. "Let's go to work."
Del Rio has tweaked his message since. Now, it's more like, "Let's stay healthy."
The Jaguars lost Porter the week before training camp started. Porter, who signed a six-year, $30 million contract in February to be the team's No. 1 receiver, had surgery to repair a torn hamstring and will miss at least the entire preseason.
Fellow receiver Reggie Williams had arthroscopic surgery on his right knee two weeks later, and although he is expected to return before the Sept. 7 opener at Tennessee, the injury could limit him.
And the Jaguars will start the season without center Brad Meester, who had surgery to repair a torn biceps and could miss the first six games.
Jacksonville has several more players on the physically unable to perform list, prompting Del Rio to alter practices and limit some of his top stars' playing time in preseason games.
Del Rio believes he has a team capable of competing for a championship and knows keeping it intact is key.
That wasn't the case a year ago, when Del Rio made a quarterback switch a week before the season. He cut former first-round draft pick Byron Leftwich and turned the offense over to longtime backup Garrard.
So far, it looks like the right choice.
Garrard had 18 touchdown passes, just three interceptions and made the biggest play of Jacksonville's season a 32-yard run on fourth down that helped the Jaguars win a postseason game at Pittsburgh.
He was rewarded with the richest contract in franchise history, a six-year, $60 million extension that included $18 million guaranteed.
The Jags spent less on the defensive side of the ball, but landed Williams as coordinator and free agent cornerback Drayton Florence. They also drafted speedy pass-rushers Derrick Harvey and Quentin Groves in hopes of getting more pressure on quarterbacks.
If everything comes together like Jacksonville hopes, Taylor might get another trip to the Super Bowl.
"I'm not going to sit here and ... say I don't want to make it there," Taylor said. "Coaches always say play it one week at a time. That is how they have to coach. They can't look ahead, but the players realize what's in front of us, and we know why we're playing the game."