The New England Patriots have been established as prohibitive favorites to win the Super Bowl by oddsmakers. So what does that make the winner of Saturday's Steelers-Ravens game at Heinz Field? A sacrificial lamb to be served up to the Patriots on Jan. 23 in the AFC championship game?
Not so fast, Baltimore linebacker Terrell Suggs suggested. He, in fact, stated that Saturday's game in Heinz Field will feature "the best two teams in the NFL" and predicted the winner will be the next Super Bowl champion.
"You can argue Atlanta and New England," Suggs said during a conference call Tuesday with the media in Pittsburgh, "but ... anyone could argue the winner of this game will most likely go on to win the Super Bowl. You can put that out there because that's what these two teams got."
Fellow Pro Bowl outside linebacker James Harrison of the Steelers agreed with Suggs.
"Sounds good," Harrison nodded. "I mean, if I didn't believe that ... I feel like we're the better team, but that's why you play games, play them out and see who wins."
And what about those who say the Patriots have an E-ZPass to their fourth Super Bowl victory?
"I don't care what they say, I don't know who's saying it," Harrison said. "I don't listen to it. All I'm worried about is Baltimore."
No other Steeler wanted to join Baltimore's Suggs in the discussion about who's the best team in the league or if the Patriots can be beaten.
"I'm not really focused on any other team but Baltimore right now," said linebacker James Farrior. "You're in the playoffs."
"Clearly, it's not for the Super Bowl because it's the divisional playoffs, so we're not going to say that," safety Ryan Clark said. "It is what it is, man. It's a divisional playoff game against an excellent opponent, an opponent we know well, an opponent we respect. It's going to be fun."
Usually when these two teams meet, the physical blows, the insults and the braggadocio are reserved for each other. But with New England sitting on the No. 1 seed and an 8-5 favorite to win Super Bowl 45, the temptation was too much for Suggs. He believes coach Rex Ryan's New York Jets have a chance to upset quarterback Tom Brady's Patriots.
"Of course I do."
"Rex Ryan. Even though I would love for us to win and I would love for us to have the opportunity to go to Foxborough and beat the NFL's poster boy, I would definitely enjoy a showdown with my mentor Rex Ryan in the AFC championship."
Clearly kidding around on Monday when he said he was "glad we broke his nose" while talking about Ben Roethlisberger, Baltimore coach John Harbaugh was surprised anyone took his comment seriously.
"Did you see the context of it?" Harbaugh asked reporters in Pittsburgh. "Go back and listen to it. You'll see it was in humor. It was in response to a humorous question and I was laughing. It was tongue in cheek. It was fun."
Roethlisberger's nose was broken Dec. 5 when Ravens defensive tackle Haloti Ngata swiped at his head. Ngata, who was not penalized, was later fined $15,000 by the league.
Like Roethlisberger, Harbaugh played football at Miami University in Ohio, where he was a defensive back in the early 1980s.
"It was taken out of context if you ask me," Roethlisberger said. "I know coach Harbaugh. He's a Miami guy. Us Miami guys stick together, there are so few of us. On the field, before every game we kind of talk to each other, say hello, give a hug, ask how things are going. I don't think it was done maliciously at all."
Added Harbaugh: "I took the opportunity to praise him for how tough he is. I go back a long way with him. I've known him since he was a sophomore in college. I have tremendous respect for him. He knows we try to be physical. Pittsburgh plays physical and that's the way we want to play."
Harbaugh was a graduate assistant on Mike Gottfried's Pitt coaching staff in 1987 that also featured his father, Jack Harbaugh, as an assistant.
"We had a great staff, John Fox the defensive coordinator, Bill Myers on there. It was just a great bunch of guys. We won a lot of games, too. We beat Notre Dame and Penn State. Good history.
"Ironhead Heyward, that was our guy. The entire defense got drafted and played in the NFL and the offensive line."
Harbaugh said he believes Pitt can rise back to the top, although he does not know new coach Todd Graham.
The Steelers signed six players to futures contracts for the 2011 season, including linebacker Mortty Ivy, who played at Gateway High School and West Virginia University. The others signed were linebacker Baraka Atkins, running back James Johnson, guard Kevin McCaskill, fullback/tight end Jamie McCoy and cornerback Donovan Warren.