CLEVELAND -- There was no champagne in the Pittsburgh Steelers' locker room Sunday evening.
The team passed out "2010 AFC North Champion" hats and T-shirts, but very few Steelers wore them. Pittsburgh starting safety Ryan Clark said he would immediately stuff the new merchandise in a drawer somewhere and probably won’t see it again for a long time.
Pittsburgh (12-4) was not in a celebratory or reflective mood after dismantling the Cleveland Browns, 41-9. The Steelers clinched the AFC North and a first-round bye. But they truly celebrate only championships, and winning an NFL-best seventh title is foremost on the organization's mind.
"This is just hardware along the way," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said of winning the division, an NFL-record 20th division title since the merger in 1970.
The real season is just beginning for the Steelers. Despite a tumultuous year that included a four-game suspension of starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh is well-positioned to make a Super Bowl run for the second time in three seasons.
The Patriots are favored in the AFC, but the Steelers have the ingredients to make things very interesting.
1. Steelers thrive under the radar
Like most defending Super Bowl champions, the Steelers didn't handle well the pressure of trying to repeat last season. Pittsburgh was inconsistent, suffered key injuries and fell apart late in the season with a five-game losing streak.
The same focus and tenacity the Steelers had in 2008 weren't there during the 2009 season, but this year has been the opposite. Few expected much out of Pittsburgh, including this AFC North blogger, who predicted the Steelers would finish third in the division. Many thought the Steelers would unravel without Roethlisberger early and never recover.
But with little fanfare, Pittsburgh started the season 3-1 and took a businesslike approach in putting together 12 victories. Even now, most prognosticators are talking about the New England Patriots (14-2) dominating the AFC.
"You're never going to see us on 'Hard Knocks.' We're not going to be the team that's seen," Clark said of Pittsburgh’s lack of hype this year. "We have a team full of football players. There's no TV stars here. We have one guy [Troy Polamalu] in here with a commercial. And that’s just because he has nice hair."
2. Pittsburgh has the NFL's best defense
Sometimes statistics can be misleading. So do not pay attention to the San Diego Chargers (9-7) finishing No. 1 in total defense.
The NFL's best defense resides in Pittsburgh, and any time a team can dominate that side of the football, it has a great chance to win in the playoffs. The Steelers finished No. 2 in total defense, which includes one of the top run defenses in NFL history.
Pittsburgh has the ability to quickly make opponents one-dimensional, which feeds into its stout pass rush. It's a very tough combination, and Cleveland found out the hard way as it rushed for just 43 yards and rookie quarterback Colt McCoy was sacked four times.
"Physically, it was a tough game, they're a tough defense," McCoy said. "I got hit probably more than I've been hit all year."
3. Bye week is crucial
No team in the league needed a bye week more than the Steelers. This is a veteran group that was banged up at key positions.
Pittsburgh showed how important its Week 17 game was against the Browns by starting ailing star safety Polamalu. He missed the past two games with an Achilles injury and wasn't expected to return until the playoffs. But the Steelers gave Cleveland (5-10) their full arsenal.
Now Pittsburgh can rest until mid-January. The Steelers will sit injured starters such as Polamalu, Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey (stinger) and defensive end Aaron Smith, who is working to return from triceps surgery in October. Tomlin said he will know more about Smith's status for the playoffs next week.
"I talk to Aaron all the time," Steelers defensive end Brett Keisel added. "I don't know if he'll be ready. But obviously having the bye helps him, and it helps a lot of guys who are nicked up. But he's working hard. He's working his tail off like Aaron does all the time, and we hope to get him back."
4. Pittsburgh can avoid Patriots until late
It's no secret the Steelers do not match up well against quarterback Tom Brady and the Patriots. Fortunately for the Steelers, they wouldn't meet New England unless it's in the AFC Championship Game.
New England pounded the Steelers, 39-26, in Week 10 in Pittsburgh. But in a one-game scenario in the postseason, anything is possible.
I spent some time in the Browns' locker room after the game to get their thoughts on the top two seeds in the AFC. Cleveland played the Patriots and Steelers three times total this season. The Browns beat New England and lost twice to the Steelers.
"The Patriots have smart players and they have Tom Brady, and anytime you have Brady, it's a lot easier to win," Browns fullback Lawrence Vickers said. "But Pittsburgh has the same thing. They have Ben [Roethlisberger], and he's such a playmaker. And their defense, there's not much more you can say about them except they're always good.
"It would probably come down to which defense can make the most stops."
You can never count out talented teams in the AFC such as the Baltimore Ravens and Indianapolis Colts. But the Steelers -- along with the Patriots -- have positioned themselves for the easiest path to Super Bowl XLV in a competitive AFC field.