New England Patriots fans have had this Sunday’s game against the Pittsburgh Steelers circled on their calendars for months now. So has Steelers coach Mike Tomlin.

Tomlin began publicly talking up the showdown between the AFC’s top two teams more than two weeks ago, saying in an interview with NBC’s Tony Dungy that he expects “fireworks” when the Steelers and Patriots square off in Week 15 at Heinz Field.

“And it’s probably going to be Part 1,” Tomlin added. “That’s going to be a big game.”

At the time of that interview, Pittsburgh still had two games remaining before its matchup with New England — important divisional games against AFC North rivals Cincinnati and Baltimore. Most coaches — including the Patriots’ Bill Belichick — would refrain from commenting on an opponent until game week, if only to avoid giving off the impression that they’re overlooking anyone.

Tomlin doesn’t subscribe to that theory.

“I don’t know that any of us were looking ahead, to be quite honest with you,” the coach said Thursday in a conference call with New England reporters. “That’s the way it was described by you guys (in the media). We were simply answering questions. We were doing our professional due diligence.

“When we do interviews and people ask us about potential big games down the road, we’re going to politely answer questions and do so honestly. That’s not us looking down the road. That’s us simply performing our professional duties.”

Tomlin also doesn’t see the harm in hyping up games that deserve to be hyped up. Patriots-Steelers is going to be a marquee matchup even if he pretends it isn’t.

“If you set out on the season to be world champs, then obviously, you’re going to play in significant games along the way,” Tomlin explained. “The road gets increasingly narrow. That’s part of being in pursuit of world championship play. So it’s ridiculous to goal-set and not to acknowledge natural things that occur along the way if you’re committed to the pursuit of your goals.”

This Sunday’s game is a rematch of the 2016 AFC Championship Game, which the Patriots won 36-17 at Gillette Stadium en route to a Super Bowl championship. New England also defeated Pittsburgh in the 2001 and 2004 AFC title games and is 5-2 at Heinz Field during the Bill Belichick/Tom Brady era.

“It’s an awesome thing to be a part of and not something I or we take for granted,” Tomlin said of the Patriots-Steelers rivalry. “Being in significant games is just part of chasing what it is that we’re chasing. And to have a routine dance partner, that just speaks to (the Patriots’) commitment and achievements in similar ways. So we’re excited to be a part of it. We don’t take it for granted. We realize that these type of games are just part of what we desire to be.”

The Patriots sit at 10-3 following their Monday night loss to the Miami Dolphins, one game behind the conference-leading Steelers. Their meeting will go a long way toward deciding home-field advantage in the AFC.

“They’re an elite group,” Tomlin said of the Patriots. “They need no endorsement from me.”

Thumbnail photo via Philip G. Pavely/USA TODAY Sports Images