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Tuesday, November 1, 2011
NFL Power Rankings: How they voted

By Mike Sando

Alex Smith and the San Francisco 49ers outrank Tom Brady and the New England Patriots in ESPN's NFL Power Rankings entering Week 9.

Yeah, we saw that coming back in Week 1.

The 49ers were 26th then. The Patriots were first. Not now.

San Francisco, at 6-1, edged 6-2 Pittsburgh for the No. 2 spot behind Green Bay in the latest rankings. Both teams received two second-place votes, one third-place vote and two fourth-place votes. The first tiebreaker, head-to-head results, did not come into play. The 49ers prevailed on the second tiebreaker, overall record.

"I think the 49ers have earned it with their record," said voter Paul Kuharsky, who joined me in ranking the 49ers second. "I'm not sure I'd expect them to beat, say, New England or New Orleans, but I can't let my affection for some teams like the Pats and Saints this season over-influence my picture of right now."

Having watched the 49ers every week and the Saints some weeks, including in their unfathomable defeat to previously winless St. Louis, I think Frank Gore could rush for 200 yards against New Orleans. I think the 49ers would overwhelm the Saints' offensive line and handle them on special teams. More on San Francisco in a bit.

Five of the top six teams from last week changed position in the latest rankings.

The 7-0 Packers remained first following their bye. The 49ers moved up two spots from fourth after beating Cleveland for their fifth consecutive victory outside the NFC West. The Steelers moved up two spots to third after beating the Patriots. Baltimore moved up two spots to fourth, trailing Pittsburgh despite a dominating victory over the Steelers in Week 1.

The Patriots and Saints each tumbled three spots following defeats, but voter James Walker left New England third on his ballot. He joined Ashley Fox in ranking the Steelers second. John Clayton ranked Baltimore second and the 49ers third.

"Beating Tom Brady and the Patriots carries a lot of weight," Walker said in explaining why he ranked the Steelers two spots higher than the 49ers. "I don't think that's something the 49ers can do. Plus, the Steelers are more of a proven commodity, coming off a Super Bowl appearance."

Fox spent Sunday in Pittsburgh and came away impressed. She pointed to the Steelers' ability to keep Brady off the field.

"Had they been able to score touchdowns in the red zone, the game would've been a rout," Fox said. "It was as impressive a performance as I've seen so far this season. That's why I moved Pittsburgh up."

The 49ers were second on my ballot because they've produced a consistent formula for winning. They run the ball effectively, play phenomenal defense, dominate on special teams and keep turnovers to a minimum.

Questions about Smith's limitations at quarterback are valid. So far, however, he has come through. He threw the winning touchdown pass in the final two minutes to beat Detroit at Ford Field. At Philadelphia, he completed nine of nine passes for 179 yards and two touchdowns during the third quarter as the 49ers overcame a 20-point deficit to win.

And now, a closer look at the latest rankings ...

Rising (11): Philadelphia Eagles (+6), Minnesota Vikings (+5), Kansas City Chiefs (+3), Atlanta Falcons (+2), Baltimore Ravens (+2), Cincinnati Bengals (+2), New York Giants (+2), Pittsburgh Steelers (+2), San Francisco 49ers (+2), Houston Texans (+1), St. Louis Rams (+1).

Falling (13): San Diego Chargers (-6), Dallas Cowboys (-3), New England Patriots (-3), New Orleans Saints (-3), Carolina Panthers (-2), Oakland Raiders (-2), Tampa Bay Bucs (-2), Washington Redskins (-2), Arizona Cardinals (-1), Denver Broncos (-1), Jacksonville Jaguars (-1), Seattle Seahawks (-1), Tennessee Titans (-1).

Unchanged (8): Buffalo Bills, Chicago Bears, Cleveland Browns, Detroit Lions, Green Bay Packers, Indianapolis Colts, Miami Dolphins, New York Jets.

Deadlocked: We broke two ties this week. The 49ers prevailed over the Steelers at No. 2. The Giants edged the Bears at No. 9, also on the second tiebreaker (better record).

Like minds: All five panelists had the Packers first. Four of five panelists -- everyone but Fox -- had the Dolphins 31st and the Colts 32nd. She had them flipped.

Agree to disagree: The Eagles and Raiders produced the largest disparity between high and low votes. Kuharsky ranked the Eagles 10th, 10 spots higher than Clayton ranked them.

"The Eagles have one of the biggest up arrows of anyone right now," Kuharsky said. "They are up because they are hot and look like the team I had ranked high at the start."

A look at the seven teams producing disparities of at least six spots between highest and lowest votes: Power rankings histories: These colorful layered graphs show where each NFL team has ranked every week since the 2002 season.

Ranking the divisions: The NFC North holds a narrow lead over the AFC North for the highest ranking on average, 10.9 to 11.0. The AFC East is third at 14.0. The NFC West lags at No. 8, behind the AFC South.


A voter-by-voter look at changes of at least five spots since last week: For download: An Excel file -- available here -- showing how each voter voted this week and in past weeks.

The file includes a "powerflaws" sheet pointing out potential flaws in voters' thinking by showing how many higher-ranked opponents each team defeated this season.

Baltimore, Buffalo and the Giants are the only top-10 teams with victories over teams ranked higher than them this season. Oakland, Kansas City, Tampa Bay and Jacksonville are the only teams with two victories over higher-ranked teams. No team owns three such victories.

A quick primer on the "powerflaws" sheet: