There are steps, some big, some small, teams must take before they can be Super Bowl champions.
The Pittsburgh Steelers know the uphill path well.
On Sunday, they quickened their pace.
Ben Roethlisberger threw two touchdown passes as the Steelers geared up for another possible title run by winning the AFC North and securing a first-round playoff bye with a 41-9 rout of Cleveland, in what may have been Eric Mangini's last game as Browns coach.
"We love to win the division," Roethlisberger said. "This is a hard division. We hope this is just the beginning."
Roethlisberger, who rested most of the second half, threw a 56-yard TD to Mike Wallace on his first pass as the Steelers (12-4) built a 31-3 halftime lead and rocked the Browns (5-11), who didn't put up much of a fight in their finale — and maybe Mangini's.
The Steelers clinched the No. 2 seed in the AFC and guaranteed themselves at least one more game at Heinz Field.
"Mission accomplished," said Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, sporting a black-and-white championship cap. "We're excited to win the division and proud of doing it, but it's only hardware you pick up along the way. Today was the first game where we felt like we played close to what we're capable of."
The Steelers look ready for a lengthy playoff run.
The Browns, on the other hand, are ready for more change.
Mangini fell to 10-22 in two seasons with Cleveland. On Monday, he's scheduled to meet with team president Mike Holmgren, who may fire him and appoint himself coach. When the game ended, a downcast Mangini was consoled by defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, who will reportedly interview for Carolina's head coaching vacancy.
Mangini doesn't know what's ahead, but his demeanor was that of a beaten man.
"I thought we got beat in all three phases," Mangini said. "They had a better plan than we did and when that happens against a team like this, you have a day like today. It's difficult to feel any positives in the wake of what happened."
For Roethlisberger, this was more redemption.
He began the season serving a four-game suspension — cut from six by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell — for violating the league's personal conduct policy. There was no telling how the Steelers would do without him. But they went 3-1 without their leader, and in his first game, he threw three TD passes in a 28-10 win over Cleveland on Oct. 17.
Not only did Roethlisberger return as the same physical talent, he came back a more mature person.
Big Ben, now more at peace with himself, has hardly been better.
"We have been through a lot," he said. "Now, it's playoff time."
Roethlisberger went 15 of 22 for 280 yards. He has thrown 158 passes without an interception, the longest streak of his career and further evidence of improved judgment and composure not always present.
"Ben came through adversity," wide receiver Hines Ward said. "He stepped up, not that he hasn't in the past. But this season didn't start like other seasons."
With the Steelers leading 38-3, Tomlin sat Roethlisberger with 5:34 left in the third.
It was time to start planning for the playoffs. But before Tomlin could get all his starters out, rookie center Maurkice Pouncey suffered a neck stinger. Earlier, starting left cornerback Bryant McFadden injured his groin and did not return.
Otherwise, these Steelers appeared fit and focused.
They finished tied with Baltimore, but won their fifth division crown in nine years because of a tiebreaker. It wasn't assured until they avoided a slip-up and avenged last season's 13-6 loss in Cleveland, when a 1-11 Browns team sacked Roethlisberger eight times.
Mendenhall's two short TD bursts and Roethlisberger's scoring passes to Wallace — following Troy Polamalu's interception — and Heath Miller gave the Steelers a 28-3 lead. It swelled to 38-3 in the third on wide receiver Antwaan Randle El's 3-yard TD pass to Ward.
"We knew we had a lot riding on this game," Miller said. "Our whole season came down to this. All of our goals hinged on this. We knew we had to take care of business."
Cleveland's fourth straight loss was likely the final straw for Mangini, who kept his job last year when his team closed with a four-game winning streak. The Browns improved in several statistical areas, but went 2-6 following an upset of New England.
Holmgren will discuss the future with him early Monday. It doesn't look good for Mangini, who was fired by the New York Jets after 2008.
Mangini's fate seemed sealed before kickoff, but if Holmgren needed another reason, he's got it. The Browns were no competition for their next-door neighbors from Pennsylvania. Mangini dropped to 2-10 in division games, and after so many close losses, his Browns were blown out.
"Nobody feels good right now," Mangini said. "This is the first time this season when I didn't feel like we were in the game."
Under pressure on almost every pass, Browns rookie quarterback Colt McCoy was intercepted three times and sacked four more. He ended up 20 of 41 for 209 yards — much of it in garbage time. He did throw a 20-yard TD pass to Brian Robiskie in the fourth.
McCoy wasn't expected to play this season, but was thrust into a starting role by injuries. He went just 2-6, but felt fortunate to gain experience.
"I don't know what the future holds for the coaching staff," McCoy said. "Guys in that locker room are committed to changing the way it's been around here, and I'm one of them."
Notes: It may have been K Phil Dawson's final game with Cleveland. The only player left from the 1999 expansion team is a free agent. "It was an emotional game," he said. "I'm just going home to Texas, do some fishing and we'll see what happens." ... Polamalu's seventh pick tied a career high for a season. ... Pittsburgh gave up only 62.8 yards rushing per game, shattering the team record set in 2001.
(This version CORRECTS Steelers 41, Browns 9. Corrects Steelers record in 6th paragraph.)