CLEVELAND -- The Steelers came to their Lake Erie fork on the final day of their weirdly dramatic season knowing just which route they craved.
They wanted the one that led home, not the one that would take them to Kansas City, Mo., or Indianapolis next week. They wanted to go home, put their feet up on the sofa next weekend, watch some football and get ready for a playoff game at 4:30 p.m. Jan. 15 at Heinz Field.
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin called it the "elephant in the room," something that was so obvious no one needed to talk about it. It took quarterback Ben Roethlisberger about as long to sum up what the Steelers' 41-9 victory Sunday against Cleveland meant almost as quickly as he and his teammates dispatched the Browns.
"We've been saying for a couple weeks now that it's playoff time, and now it really, really is. It's good to get that bye, guys get a little rest, and playing at home is always a good thing," Roethlisberger said.
The Steelers won the AFC North Division championship and clinched the No. 2 seed in the conference and a bye next week in the playoffs by pummeling the Browns at Cleveland Browns Stadium to finish with a 12-4 record.
It did not take long. Steelers safety Troy Polamalu, returning to play after missing the previous two games with a lower leg injury, intercepted Browns quarterback Colt McCoy on the second play from scrimmage. On the third play, Roethlisberger threw a 56-yard touchdown pass to Mike Wallace and the rout was on.
The Steelers ran out to a 31-3 halftime lead, scored on their first six possessions and intercepted McCoy three times. The Browns were the only team that had not allowed 30 points in a game this season and the Steelers dropped that on them in two quarters.
"We've had problems starting the games fast," Polamalu said. "Obviously we had a really good start this game. It gets teams out of their game plan really fast and gives us more flexibility on defense as well as offense."
They flexed their ability up and down the field in one of their most dominant performances in years. The Browns never recovered from the consecutive plays of Polamalu's interception followed by yet another deep scoring combination featuring Roethlisberger and Wallace, who got behind everyone in the secondary to catch the ball at the 5.
"Mike is so fast, just throw it out there and Mike does the rest of the work," Roethlisberger said. "You like to get on top and try to put a dagger in them early. Troy gets the pick, you score, you hold them and score again. It's a pretty good thing."
The scores came in waves on consecutive series -- the Steelers did not punt until late in the third quarter. Rashard Mendenhall ran for two touchdowns of 1 yard each. Heath Miller caught a 4-yard pass and Shaun Suisham kicked a 41-yard field goal in the first half all around Phil Dawson's 19-yard field goal for Cleveland.
The second half began with a 3-yard touchdown pass from Antwaan Randle El to Hines Ward before Tomlin began pulling players from the game. When the Browns scored their touchdown with 6:33 left in the game on Brian Robiskie's 20-yard reception from McCoy, they did so against 10 Steelers substitutes.
Suisham added a second field goal, from 24 yards, earlier in the fourth.
"We knew we had a lot at stake," Miller said. "Our whole season came down to this game. All of our goals hinged on this game."
A loss would have sent the Steelers on the road next week and continue on the road either until they lost or won the Super Bowl.
"Boy! Mission accomplished for us," Tomlin exclaimed, wearing a baseball cap passed out to everyone in the locker room that proclaimed them division champs for the third time in Tomlin's four seasons as their coach. "We came to Cleveland to claim the AFC North crown and we were able to get that done. We are excited about that."
Roethlisberger completed 15 of 22 passes for 280 yards with no interceptions and no sacks before he gave way to Byron Leftwich after he led that first touchdown drive of the third. Overall, the two quarterbacks and Randle El combined for 325 yards passing.
Wallace caught just three passes for 105 yards, his seventh over 100 yards this season. The Steelers did not run the ball that well with 100 yards and a 3.3-yard average, but it wasn't missing.
After scoring touchdowns just two of six times the previous week once they got inside the 20, they scored touchdowns the first four times they got their Sunday.
"We had a very dominant performance -- offense, defense, special teams," linebacker James Farrior said. "I think the whole group played well."
The Browns managed just 43 yards rushing and 182 net passing as they lost their final four games to go 5-11.
Ryan Clark's interception in the first half set up Roethlisberger's touchdown pass to put the Steelers in front, 28-3, and Anthony Madison made it three interceptions of McCoy in the first half.
It all looked so easy.
"This team has been to the postseason, this team understands what it takes when we get in situations like this," defensive end Brett Keisel said of the need for a victory to make for a smoother playoff ride. "We have a lot of good veteran leadership that I think has kept this team humbled and focused on the next game and the next task at hand. We're happy to be where we're at, this is where you strive to get to, to get a bye, to get some rest, sit back and watch what happens in the first round of the playoffs."