PITTSBURGH -- Outwardly, they are saying the right things, telling the world they understand why the Patriots, a team they beat during the regular season, a team with a worse record, and a team that is playing on the road, is a 3-point favorite over them.
Inwardly? What do you think? Check the outpouring of "we got no respect" that flowed from the Patriots' locker room last Sunday after Bill Belichick's team knocked off the Indianapolis Colts.
Yes, the R-word is back in play this week as the Steelers prepare for their AFC Championship game against the Patriots on Sunday at Heinz Field, specifically how much respect the Steelers have for the reigning Super Bowl champions.
"I think we recognize the opportunity we have and we recognize the big challenge we have," said Steelers coach Bill Cowher. "Like we said before, we are playing the best team in football. They are the defending champs. They're the football team that, until somebody beats them, are on top. They should be favored.
"I don't know that you have an edge over New England when you get in the playoffs. They have proven the last few times that they have been there, they have not lost a playoff game. Tom Brady is 7-0 in playoff games. So I don't know what kind of an edge [playing at home] would give you."
Cowher's players picked up on the "champions until proven otherwise" mind-set. "They're the champs," said kicker Jeff Reed. "It's a new season. You can't say enough about that team. They are stacked in all phases of the ball. We've played them before, but both teams are different at this point."
The Steelers, despite their league-best 15-1 regular-season record, and despite playing at home, maintain that which team is favored doesn't matter. They will play their game, while acknowledging the Patriots' accomplishments.
"They're still the best team in football until somebody beats them," said Steelers linebacker James Farrior. "We are not surprised at being underdogs. It's been that way every time we've played a great team like that, so we expected it."
Farrior added that the Steelers will not be entering the game with an attitude. "This is the AFC Championship game," he said. "You don't need a chip for this game. It is what it is. Nobody is going to need any extra motivation or anything like that to get up for this one."'
In a way, being underdogs may take some pressure off the Steelers, who lost to the Patriots at home in the AFC title game three years ago.
When asked if he liked the idea of being 16-1 and still an underdog, Steelers running back Jerome Bettis nodded his head. "That's fine," he said. "If I were on the outside looking in, I would have to say the same thing. They won two of the last three Super Bowls, so it would be foolish to sit back and think they're not the favorite."
Bettis said the Steelers would not use the loss three years ago as motivation.
"It's so far removed that there may only be four or five guys who were on that team," said Bettis, who played in that game. "But this is a very different team. And they have a different team. You remember, of course, the feelings that you had, but I think that goes to each and every person as opposed to the team trying to draw from that."
Since 1990, only 14 of 28 No. 1 seeds have advanced to the Super Bowl, with eight becoming Super Bowl champions.
"The playoffs mean that the better teams are going to be there," said Bettis. "And we've always found our way in terms of playing these guys, so this is just another opportunity to play them and reach our ultimate goal."