By BARRY WILNER , AP Pro Football Writer
From the first day of training camp in August until deep into the NFL schedule, you hear it. Doesn't matter what city a team represents or who is coaching and playing for it, the bromide is the same.
Win the division.
For many fans, just seeing their team sneak into the playoffs provides hope that a championship could be on the immediate horizon. Sorry, folks, but it rarely works out that way, especially recently.
Sure, it was a significant step for the Colts to turn around their season and get a wild-card spot. And for the Seahawks to reach the postseason in a rebuilding year.
They were steps, not leaps. Winning the division is becoming a necessity for getting to the Super Bowl.
"I certainly don't take it for granted," says Tom Brady, who's taken the Patriots to eight Super Bowls, with five wins — all after winning the AFC East.
"I know how hard it is. I just have a great deal of appreciation for my teammates and coaches that work extremely hard to put us in a position to do a great job. I think when you have a lot of perspective, like I certainly do, I realize that's an incredibly difficult thing to do. And I'm just very grateful."
On Sunday, we have the top two seeds in each conference going at it, the Rams (14-3) at the Saints (14-3), followed by the Patriots (12-5) at the Chiefs (13-4).
It's only the fourth time since the current playoff format was adopted in 2002 that it's happened, most recently when Denver beat Carolina for the 2015 championship.
Not having a division winner in the conference title game has never occurred. Only in 2008, when No. 4 Arizona beat No. 6 Philadelphia for the NFC crown did it come close to happening.
Five times in 17 seasons has the AFC championship matchup not featured the No. 1 seed, most recently in 2012 when No. 4 Baltimore defeated No. 2 New England before winning the Super Bowl. Five times in the NFC as well, most recently in 2016 with No. 2 Atlanta taking down No. 4 Green Bay.
As for those wild-card squads, every Steelers, Giants and Packers fan will remind you that their team went all the way from sixth seed to Super Bowl champ.
None of those breathtaking runs was managed since 2010, and only one wild card, the 2013 49ers, appeared in a conference championship match since then. That San Francisco team was more than an outsider because, at 12-4, it tied for the second-best record in the NFC, one game behind NFC West winner Seattle.
So while it could be brutally cold at Arrowhead Stadium on Sunday, the Chiefs coveted that top seed. That meant pushing hard to win the AFC West as the first goal, then getting the No. 1 slot.
Yet, although that's clearly an objective, Chiefs coach Andy Reid insists it can be over-emphasized. Almost everything can be.
"You don't change. It's not what you do," he says. "You just come in and you shoot these guys straight. I think that's what we all want. If I have education I can share with them, I share with them, and then get yourself ready to play. All of this doesn't necessarily matter on the game.
"You eliminate those distractions, you get yourself ready to play against a good football team, and really it comes down to that when you are out there on the field. All the hype and celebrations, press conferences and all those things, once it is kickoff time you want to make sure that you have prepared yourself right."
While the Chiefs are 3-point favorites at Arrowhead — basically, that means the bookmakers see them as equal with the Patriots — they likely would have been bigger underdogs at Gillette Stadium, where New England was 8-0 in the regular season, the league's only perfect home mark.
In the NFC, well, who knows? It's somewhat surprising the Saints are only a 3-point or so choice over the Rams. New Orleans won the regular-season matchup 45-35 in the Superdome. Its experience at this level far exceeds LA's.
And then there's the dome factor. Several Saints players said that during last weekend's comeback to beat Philadelphia, the noise level in the building reached unparalleled levels.
The spoils of a top seed: The past five Super Bowls have been won by them.
"Well, history would tell us — recent history would point to that — and then overall I think there are certain spots you want to start at the (Kentucky) Derby," Saints coach Sean Payton notes as an analogy. "There's some spots no one's ever won from at the Derby. All right. But then there's some spots that are more favorable, and I think probably seeding's similar.
"It's not the absolute. And certainly we've seen teams win from a lot of different spots, fifth seed, fourth seed, and so for us our focus is taking advantage of playing another game at home. Taking advantage of the crowd noise and trying to put our best foot forward."
And make that big leap.