Cowher: Steelers shouldn't be favorites

The Pittsburgh Steelers are not the favorites to repeat as AFC champions, never mind Super Bowl champions, and their coach agrees with those predictions.

"As it should be," Bill Cowher said. "I'm not sure we were the best team last year. I think we played the best at the right time of year, but I think it's a fine line. I don't know if we were the best team last year."

Cowher believes the Steelers' biggest losses in the off-season were the retirement of Jerome Bettis and the free agent defections of receiver Antwaan Randle El and defensive end Kimo von Oelhoffen.

"It doesn't matter what people say right now, we have some voids to fill. You lose guys like Antwaan, Jerome and Kimo; those three guys had a presence in the locker room. Somehow we're going to have to fill those voids. In their own way, in their own personalities, they were leaders.

"Someone else is going to have to step up. Some of the young players took big strides last year, like Willie Parker and Ike Taylor. It's going to be important that they continue to make strides. And we have to have other guys step up. I think it's an evolution you go through, but there are some challenges ahead of us, no doubt."

Still, Cowher thinks that his team will be as good as any again in 2006.

"Physically, you can probably argue on a piece of paper with anybody in the league." he said. "Again, circumstances will dictate a lot."

The Steelers may have been Super Bowl champs, but they took a back seat in the AFC North to Cincinnati, coached by Cowher's first linebackers coach in Pittsburgh, Marvin Lewis. They play the Bengals in their third game of the season and in their last.

"I think Marvin's changed the culture over there," Cowher said.

"They expect to win when they get on the field. And I think Cleveland right now ... is an up-and-coming team as well. I think it's a good division, I really do."

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