PITTSBURGH – The Pittsburgh Steelers have won 20 division titles since the NFL merger in 1970, the most of any club. Not surprisingly, their six Super Bowl victories since then also are the most for any franchise.
That said, being one of the AFC's top seeds doesn't necessarily ensure them of reaching the NFL's final game. Or even of getting close.
Since 1992, Bill Cowher's first season as Pittsburgh's coach, the Steelers have been seeded No. 1 or No. 2 eight times — including this season, when they're behind only No. 1 New England (14-2). During that time, the Steelers (12-4) have won as many Super Bowls as a sixth-seeded team as they have while being seeded No. 1 or No. 2.
The Steelers also were seeded No. 2 in 2008, when they beat San Diego and Baltimore at home in the playoffs before defeating Arizona in the Super Bowl. They were sixth and last in 2005, when they won at Cincinnati, Indianapolis and Denver before beating Seattle in the Super Bowl.
They lost in the AFC championship game during the 1994, 1997, 2001 and 2004 seasons and in the divisional round in 1992, when they were top-seeded. They made it to the Super Bowl during the 1995 season but lost to Dallas in Tempe, Ariz.
Still, to these Steelers, and their coach, this is the only way to go.
"I'll take it under any circumstances because it's one less game that we have to play to get where we want to go," coach Mike Tomlin said, looking forward to a week when there's no defined opponent to prepare for.
The Steelers won't play again until Saturday, Jan. 15, when they'll play the No. 3-seeded Colts (10-6) if they beat the Jets (11-5) on Saturday. If the Jets win, either the Ravens (12-4) or Chiefs (10-6) — who meet Sunday — will play at Heinz Field.
"It's important," tight end Heath Miller said of the first-round bye. "I don't think there is a guy in this locker room that would say he wouldn't need it at this point in the year. We are glad they we got it."
Troy Polamalu certainly is. He gets an extra week to rest the sore right Achilles' tendon that forced him to miss two of Pittsburgh's final three games.
So is Ben Roethlisberger, who played the final month of the regular season with a painful right foot injury and a broken nose. So is defensive end Aaron Smith, who hasn't played since Oct. 17 because of a triceps tear, but was kept on the roster in case he might become available during the playoffs.
Keeping Polamalu in the lineup for most of the season certainly helped the Steelers improve from 9-7 in 2009 to 12-4. He made seven of their 21 interceptions, up from their 12 of last season, when he missed 11 games to injury. But it wasn't the only reason for their success.
They used Roethlisberger's season-opening four-game suspension as a rallying point, going 3-1 during a stretch in which they were widely predicted to go 2-2, 1-3 or even 0-4.
"If you would have said, at the start of the season, we would have a 12-4 record," wide receiver Hines Ward said, "the only people that would've believed you are the guys in this locker room."
Once Roethlisberger returned, they cut down on his sacks; he was sacked 32 times in 12 games compared to 50 times in 16 games last season. Keeping Roethlisberger upright limited some of the wear and tear he has taken as the NFL's most-sacked quarterback since 2004, helping him go four games and 158 consecutive passes without throwing an interception.
Roethlisberger was protected by an offensive line that finished the season without either of the projected starting tackles, Max Starks or Willie Colon, yet still blocked well enough that Rashard Mendenhall finish seventh in rushing with 1,283 yards.
Mike Wallace, who replaced the traded Santonio Holmes as a starting receiver, developed into one of the league's best deep threats. He caught a 56-yard touchdown pass on the Steelers' first play from scrimmage during their division title-clinching 41-9 win in Cleveland on Sunday. He finished the season with 1,257 yards and 10 touchdowns.
So while their record as one of the top-seeded team isn't enviable, this is only the eighth time in franchise history the Steelers have won 12 or more games. They advanced to at least the AFC championship game each of the previous seven times, winning the Super Bowl in 1975 (12-2), 1978 (14-2), 1979 (12-4) and 2008 (12-4). They lost in the AFC title game in 1994 (12-4), 2001 (13-3) and 2004 (15-1).
"We hope," Roethlisberger said, "this is just the beginning."