PITTSBURGH (AP) — Steelers coach Mike Tomlin isn't normally so outspoken, but sitting across from longtime friend Tony Dungy, he decided to give the Hall of Fame coach turned broadcaster something to chew on.
Tomlin said aloud what's long been whispered in his locker room. Yes, Tomlin considers the Steelers talented enough to win the Super Bowl. Yes, he's well aware Pittsburgh's Dec. 17 showdown with longtime nemesis New England could produce "fireworks," in what he believes could be a preview of another playoff clash in January.
"We got a good football team," Tomlin said after Pittsburgh edged the undermanned Green Bay Packers 31-28 Sunday to improve to 9-2. "I got a great deal of confidence in them. Everybody in America knows that's a big game. We couldn't deny it if we wanted to."
So Tomlin didn't even try, a move that caught his players off guard. Not that Tomlin said it, but that he opted to share it.
It doesn't matter that the Steelers play the Bengals on Monday Night Football this week and the Ravens after that. The coach may already be focused on the Patriots.
Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell tried to bring the conversation back to the typical "one game at a time" talk.
"Obviously I'm watching them. They're winning, doing their job," Bell said of the Patriots, "but when we get in a stadium with those guys, I'll worry about those guys then. Until then I worry about the team we're playing."
At times, that's trouble enough for Pittsburgh, who again flirted with a meltdown against a heavy underdog against Green Bay.
The Steelers turned it over three times and allowed Packers backup quarterback Brett Hundley to throw for three touchdowns and lead a game-tying 77-yard drive in the final minutes.
Pittsburgh escaped only after star wide receiver Antonio Brown did Antonio Brown things, namely, a 23-yard toe drag masterpiece on a perfect throw from Ben Roethlisberger that pushed the Steelers to the edge of field goal range.
A more conventional 14-yard grab followed, the last in a 10-reception, 169-yard, two-touchdown performance that showcased his flair for the dramatic. Brown has reached the end zone 10 times in Pittsburgh's past four prime-time appearances.
"I think it's noticed more globally when it's a big stage," Bell said. "Down the stretch, more people can see it like and be like, 'Man, that's a great catch.' But I see it all the time. He's just an amazing player. I see him working hard every day. He never seems to surprise me."
Another thing that's not surprising? Pittsburgh's difficulties putting away an opponent minus a marquee player or three.
The Steelers didn't lead the Andrew Luck-less Indianapolis Colts until the final snap earlier this month.
On Sunday night, their secondary gave up touchdown passes of 39, 54 and 55 yards. Even as the wins pile up, Pittsburgh realizes it is far from a finished product.
"We just got to limit the explosion plays and we'll be a top-notch defense," defensive end Stephon Tuitt said. "Until then, we've just got to stay in the lab. It's a long season along the way. Just got to finish out."
The Steelers figure it's better to learn their lessons in victory than in a decidedly more unpleasant outcome.
Two more roadblocks await before they get a shot at the Patriots in a rematch of last season's AFC championship game. Pittsburgh travels to AFC North rival Cincinnati next Monday and then hosts Baltimore.
A pair of wins and the Steelers would lock up a second straight AFC North title, a scenario that would likely turn their grudge match with the Patriots into a battle for home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs.
It's exactly what Pittsburgh wanted when the season began. Even though the Steelers haven't always looked the part, they've found a way.
Tomlin is well aware his words won't mean a thing if his team can't back it up. That's fine. He's prepared to "wear it" to borrow one of his pet phrases. Considering the talent at his disposal, he'll take his chances.
"One guy (Bell) leads the league in rushing," Tomlin said. "I think the other guy leads the league in receiving (Brown). Our quarterback is our quarterback."
And the standard, as he's fond of saying, is the standard.
"We'll work at (our issues,) but we'll work at it being 9-2," Tomlin said. That's a beautiful thing."