Saturday's clash at the Stadio Olimpico could determine who finishes with the wooden spoon, although it is the Irish who enter the final weekend with the greater sense of anti-climax.
Italy defeated France in the first round of the tournament and almost caused another seismic shock against England at Twickenham on Sunday, only to fall short with a stirring final-quarter assault.
Kearney, the 2012 European player of the year, believes those matches have proved that the Azzurri must be respected.
"Rome is a really difficult place to go. What's been good this year with Italy beating France and going close against England is that it's generated a public consensus that they aren't a walkover," he said.
"We can say it as players and now people genuinely believe it. In the past it's always been lose-lose. If you win you expect it and if you lose you get hammered for it. Now no one is under no illusions as to how good they are.
"The one difference that stands out for me this year is that they are now really comfortable with the ball.
"They will happily go through 10, 12 or 15 phases and try to keep playing rugby and look for tries.
"In years gone by they were probably guilty of kicking away stupid balls, trying to play the territory game a little more, taking snatched drop-goals.
"They respect the ball a huge amount more now and have realised they can punish teams with tries."
Ireland will avoid the wooden spoon if they beat Italy in the opening match of the triple header, but will be sweating on the result in Paris between France and Scotland if they lose.
Victory would likely mean a third-place finish in a tournament that has been of low-quality.
"We haven't spoken at all about the wooden spoon. We know we're there or thereabouts for it," Kearney said.
"We just have to be driven performance-wise. The feeling going into the game is that we're in a better place than we were a week ago.
"We didn't get the win against France on Saturday, but our performance was upped and we looked like a better side. If we keep going in that direction we'll be a good place."