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Tuesday, October 18, 2011
NFL Power Rankings: How they voted

By Mike Sando

The last season in which the San Francisco 49ers fielded a playoff team, they peaked at No. 2 in ESPN's NFL Power Rankings.

That was way back in Week 11 of 2002, when Steve Mariucci, Jeff Garcia, Terrell Owens and Garrison Hearst defined the 49ers' identity.

The 2011 team is gaining ground quickly. Four consecutive victories, three of them on the road, have vaulted the 49ers of Jim Harbaugh, Alex Smith, Frank Gore, Justin Smith and Patrick Willis to a 5-1 record and No. 4 standing in our rankings entering Week 7.

That is the 49ers' highest ranking since ranking tied for fourth in Week 12 of the 2002 season. They rose five spots this week, moving past New Orleans, Detroit, San Diego, Pittsburgh and Oakland.

"They are the real deal this year and have won more QUALITY games than any team playing," 81sanfranman wrote.

The 49ers have beaten three teams that currently have winning records (Tampa Bay, Cincinnati, Detroit). They also won on the road against preseason NFC favorite Philadelphia.

"There will be some very hard words if the NFC West guy doesn't place the 49ers either No. 2 or No. 3," Hypchucky9 wrote. "We lost to the Cowboys, the Patriots lost to the Bills and the Ravens lost to the Titans. If the rankings are usually about power with regard to talent and efficiency, you would be hard bent to put us lower than No. 3."

The NFC West guy (that would be me) ranked the 49ers fourth. No one else ranked them higher. The Packers are the obvious No. 1 team. New England is more firmly established as a top team, and the Patriots have the better quarterback. Baltimore has won convincingly over teams that have periodically appeared among the top 10 this season (Pittsburgh, Houston and the New York Jets).

The 49ers are on the rise. They opened the regular season at No. 26 and have climbed from 16th to ninth to fourth over the past three weeks. They visit Baltimore in Week 12 and play a Monday night home game against the Steelers in Week 15. They'll have opportunities to move up even more.

Before taking a closer look at the rankings heading into Week 7, I'll pass along comments from our voters covering issues that stood out to me from their ballots.
OK, here we go ...

Rising (11): San Francisco 49ers (+5), Chicago Bears (+4), Tampa Bay Buccaneers (+4), New York Giants (+3), Arizona Cardinals (+2), Baltimore Ravens (+2), Cincinnati Bengals (+2), Oakland Raiders (+2), Kansas City Chiefs (+1), New York Jets (+1), Philadelphia Eagles (+1).

Falling (8): Dallas Cowboys (-6), Houston Texans (-5), Washington Redskins (-5), Buffalo Bills (-4), Detroit Lions (-2), Minnesota Vikings (-2), New Orleans Saints (-2), Carolina Panthers (-1).

Unchanged (13): Atlanta Falcons, Cleveland Browns, Denver Broncos, Green Bay Packers, Indianapolis Colts, Jacksonville Jaguars, Miami Dolphins, New England Patriots, Pittsburgh Steelers, San Diego Chargers, Seattle Seahawks, St. Louis Rams, Tennessee Titans.

Deadlocked: We broke one tie this week. San Diego prevailed over Pittsburgh at No. 7 based on the second tiebreaker, overall record.

Like minds: All five voters ranked the Packers first and the Patriots second. Four ranked the Ravens third.

Agree to disagree: Twelve spots separated high and low votes for the Chargers. Five other teams produced high-low disparities of at least eight places. Let's take a look: Power rankings histories: These colorful layered graphs show where each NFL team has ranked every week since the 2002 season.

Ranking the divisions: Teams from the NFC North rank 12.3 on average, ahead of teams from the runner-up AFC North (13.0). The chart below shows how each voter ranked each division on average. Highest votes in red. Lowest votes in blue.


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. None of the top nine teams this week has defeated a team ranked higher in the standings. Buffalo, ranked No. 10, has defeated two teams ranked higher, New England and Oakland.

A quick primer on the "powerflaws" sheet: