The New England Patriots return to Heinz Field tomorrow, their third appearance in Pittsburgh in 11 months, and little has changed since their last regular-season meeting with the Steelers.
This time, though, it's not the Patriots who are riding high.
The Steelers (2-0) go into the 4:15 p.m. game with the league's top-rated quarterback, the AFC's top rusher and riding a 16-game regular-season winning streak that threatens the very streak they ended last October in Heinz Field -- an NFL-record 18 consecutive victories by the Patriots.
They also come into the game with a different attitude. After ambushing the Patriots, 34-20, during the regular season, the Steelers were humbled by them in the AFC championship game, 41-27, a game that was over as quickly as the Halloween night blowout in Heinz Field.
It was the second time in four years the Steelers lost the conference championship game at home to the Patriots, who went on to win their third Super Bowl title in four years. And it taught the Steelers that what happens in the regular season means little if it can't be replicated in the playoffs.
"It was a tough lesson to learn," linebacker Joey Porter said. "I hated to learn that way. I wish I would have learned a different way. But it happened."
Receiver Hines Ward said: "If we come out and dominate the game and we win, that doesn't mean anything. What counts is in the playoffs."
Do not misunderstand: The Steelers are not approaching the game as if it's just another game. The Patriots (1-1) are the defending Super Bowl champs and still considered the team to beat in the AFC.
But the Steelers have come to understand that beating the Patriots and ending their record winning streak in the regular season is one thing. Beating them in the playoffs is still another.
"That's why I'm trying to make the whole focus of this game that it's not the same as a playoff game," Porter said. "Make no mistake about it, we're going out there as hard as we can to win this game because it's still a big game for us. But it's not the same as a playoff game. It means so much more when it's late in the season and it's win or go home. That's when you want to play your best game."
The Steelers played maybe their best game of the season when they beat the Patriots, who were 5-0 at the time, last October. Ben Roethlisberger completed 18 of 24 passes for 196 yards and two touchdowns and had his second-highest passer rating of the season (126.4). Duce Staley and Jerome Bettis led a running game that produced 221 yards. The defense forced four turnovers and held the Patriots to 5 yards rushing.
The Steelers followed that performance with an equally impressive 27-3 home victory against unbeaten Philadelphia, capping a two-week showing that proved to be the highlight of their 15-1 record.
But it never got as good as that the rest of the year, and it culminated with the convincing defeat to the Patriots in the title game.
"We're still hyped, but it's just a regular-season game," Ward said. "The outcome of this game isn't going to decide who's going to win the Super Bowl. It's too early for us and that's how we approach it."
When the Steelers beat the Patriots and Eagles, it was the first time in NFL history a team had defeated two unbeaten teams in back-to-back weeks that late in the season.
This time, the game is a month earlier, easing some of the drama that enveloped last year's meeting. And the Patriots are coming off a 27-17 loss in Carolina, robbing them of some of their seeming invincibility.
That, though, won't stop safety Troy Polamalu from treating the game the same as he did last year.
"In this business, this is how you get to become 15-1 or 14-2 like the Patriots," Polamalu said. "You got to take this as the most important game. That's the same way we approached it last year and the same way we approach it now. It's the same way we approached it last week against the Houston Texans."