PITTSBURGH (AP) -- The Pittsburgh Steelers hadn't yet found a permanent spot for their fifth Super Bowl trophy when coach Bill Cowher set about last spring trying to win a sixth.
"I'm not sure we were the best team last year," he said. "I think we played the best at the right time of year, but I think it's a fine line."
The line may have gotten finer when quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was lost for at least the season opener after undergoing an emergency appendectomy. Still, his backup, Charlie Batch, was 2-0 last year in games he started.
The players remain optimistic.
Joey Porter, never one to shy away from a comment, was the first to jump on Cowher's remarks. He knows what the coach was saying -- that, at 11-5, the Steelers weren't the best regular-season team -- but also thinks the best team won in February.
"I feel like we definitely were the best team," Porter said. "He probably has a different outlook than I do. He breaks down film different ways than I do."
What didn't break down, for a change, were the Steelers in the playoffs. After losing four times in the AFC championship game in 11 years, all at home, the Steelers took to the road and did what no team had done by sweeping its way to a Super Bowl as a sixth-seeded team.
Which leads them to think they can do it again.
The Steelers' 26-6 record over the last two seasons is the best in the league (31-7 counting the playoffs) and they return 19 of 22 starters. That makes them one of the least-changed defending champions since NFL free agency began in 1993 as they open the season Thursday against Miami.
They had to go outside the organization to replace only one of those three missing starters. Free safety Ryan Clark was signed from the Redskins to replace Chris Hope on a defense where the other safety, Troy Polamalu, has become one of the NFL's best playmakers.
"I think we're going to be really good, as long as we stay healthy," said Brett Keisel, a former backup who replaces Kimo von Oelhoffen at defensive end.
Or, in particular, if Roethlisberger could only stay healthy.
The Steelers got a big scare when the youngest quarterback to win a Super Bowl wrecked his motorcycle June 12 in an accident that easily could have killed him. But after missing no training camp time following a remarkable recovery from the crash, he had the appendectomy Sunday.
It was Roethlisberger's third operation in 10 months, following arthroscopic knee surgery last season and the seven-hour operation to repair facial injuries following the crash.
"This is the situation we've been dealt," Cowher said. "We are not asking for any pity nor are we going to make any excuses."
Still, losing Roethlisberger for even a short period of time is a setback, especially with franchise icon Jerome Bettis now retired and Roethlisberger taking his place as the leader of the offense.
Roethlisberger didn't play especially well in the Super Bowl, but his downfield throwing, poise and confidence were what separated him from the playoff-failure Steelers QBs of recent vintage. The Steelers were only 2-2 when he was out with injuries last season.
Not that the Steelers don't have some other issues as they try to emulate their 1975 and 1979 teams by following up a Super Bowl championship with another.
Cowher's status is a concern -- he is signed only through next season, but has dropped hints this might be his last.
Polamalu has fretted that losing Hope may be a bigger setback to the defense than believed anticipated.
And star wide receiver Hines Ward missed most of training camp with a sore hamstring and is questionable for the opener.
Still, these Steelers think they have the ability and mindset to become a team like the 1998 Broncos, who followed a Super Bowl victory by winning a second title even more convincingly a season later.
The Steelers look to be as good or better at every position -- Bettis' loss notwithstanding -- though the AFC North looks to be more competitive than it has been in years. The Bengals won the division last season by winning in Pittsburgh, despite dropping two of three to the Steelers, and the Ravens are improved.
Running back Willie Parker has a new contract after rushing for 1,202 yards in his first season as a starter, plus a 75-yard TD run in the Super Bowl. But the passing game got most of the offseason attention from the coaches.
The Steelers installed a no-huddle system that will allow Roethlisberger, at times, to line up and get the ball downfield against defenses that won't have time to make situational substitutions. The Steelers also added first-round draft pick Santonio Holmes and his speed as a receiver, though he has yet to become a starter.
"They're going to have to rely on Ben's arm a lot more than they have the last two years," said Bettis, now an NBC analyst who may be slightly prejudiced about the importance of the Steelers' running game. "I'm not certain about the running game, how consistent it will be in churning out the tough yards."
However, some of those yards may be replaced by throws to tight end Heath Miller, who emerged as a go-to receiver during the playoffs and looks to be an even bigger part of the offense this season.
Oh, and that Lombardi Trophy the Steelers won by beating Seattle 21-10 in February?
Owner Dan Rooney initially planned to display it by itself to distinguish it from the four won by the same core group of players during the 1970s.
Instead, the newest trophy is the centerpiece of a five-trophy display at the Steelers' practice complex. That also might be a motivational ploy as they try to become the first franchise to win six Super Bowls.
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