Are they contenders?

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They are coming off a 12-4 season and a return to the playoffs. Some are using last season's performance as a reason to believe the Jaguars will be a legitimate Super Bowl contender this year, while others are saying last year was merely a mirage.

Which is it? Is the Jaguars team that will open the 2006 season against the Dallas Cowboys this Sunday a Super Bowl contender?

"Yes," quarterback Byron Leftwich said. "I believe that if we stay healthy and everybody plays to their potential, yes."

The Jaguars locker room was brimming with energy and enthusiasm on Monday, as the team began preparation for Sunday's opener at Alltel Stadium. They are rested and reasonably healthy and willing to participate in the Labor Day tradition: Is this a Super Bowl team?

"Super Bowl contender?" coach Jack Del Rio said in repeating the question. "There are probably 10-12 teams that have a chance to compete for something like that. I would put us in the category of teams that are capable of beating any team they play."

You think your team is in that group of 10-12? Del Rio was asked.

"Correct," he said. "We get a chance over the next 16 weeks to earn that."

The first chance will be against the Cowboys, in a game that is being billed as the return of Terrell Owens. The Jaguars' plan is to crash Owens' party and make it their own.

"I don't think it's a positive or a negative," Del Rio said of the media frenzy created by Owens' return. "Our sole focus needs to be on playing good football and finding a way to win."

The Jaguars are facing an especially challenging opening month of the season. After the Cowboys, the Jaguars will host the Super Bowl-champion Steelers, then travel to Indianapolis and Washington.

"You have to recognize it's a long season. You can't climb the mountain in one week. We want to focus play by play. That's the only way to prepare; one play at a time," Del Rio said.

Leftwich and his teammates, however, acknowledged the importance of a fast start.

"You don't want to go anywhere 0-2. I don't care what league you're in. You don't want to go to Bowling Green 0-2. I think we understand how important it is to get off to a fast start," Leftwich said.

"We got four good teams, four playoff-caliber teams," defensive end Paul Spicer said of the opening month of the season. "We have to take care of business, the Dallas Cowboys."

It's an opponent that holds special meaning for Spicer, who joined the Jaguars in 2001 for a game in Dallas and registered a sack in that game.

"I played my butt off. It kept me around and I've been around ever since," he said.

"We got all the pieces here to make that run," Spicer said when asked if he believes the Jaguars are Super Bowl contenders.

"Nobody picked us to go 12-4," Leftwich said of last year's expectations. "If these guys were so smart and can predict stuff, they would be playing the Powerball and hitting the lottery."

Middle linebacker Mike Peterson did not practice on Monday. Peterson did some jogging on his sore knee and Del Rio said, "We'll see where he is on Wednesday."

Tight end Marcedes Lewis (ankle) practiced but was limited.

The Jaguars will wear white jerseys for the 4:15 p.m. kickoff. "I just like Dallas' dark jerseys. I think they look really good," Del Rio deadpanned.

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