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Tuesday, December 20, 2011
NFL Power Rankings: How they voted

By Mike Sando

When the NFC West looks down, it sees not only the AFC South, but also the once-mighty NFC East. The view is more pleasing than at any point since divisional realignment in 2002.

Consider it a historic shift, a watershed moment, the week when light finally shined upon the no-longer-worst division in football -- except, of course, when power outages at Candlestick Park temporarily left San Francisco and Pittsburgh in the dark.

The 49ers' 20-3 victory over the Steelers on "Monday Night Football" capped a 3-1 week for the NFC West, one that moved up three teams from the division in ESPN's NFL Power Rankings heading into Week 16.

The 49ers moved up two spots to No. 3, passing Baltimore and New England. The Seahawks improved a league-high five spots to No. 15 after blowing out the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field. The Cardinals climbed two spots to No. 17 after beating Cleveland.

The St. Louis Rams remained 31st and ahead of Indianapolis even though I moved them down to No. 32 on my ballot. The other voters are forgiven. They likely had better things to do than watch every snap of St. Louis' 20-6 home defeat to an utterly unimpressive Cincinnati Bengals team.

Despite the Rams' low standing, NFC West teams ranked 16.8 on average, better than teams from the NFC East (17.5) and AFC South (21.6). NFC West teams ranked just below teams from the AFC East (16.5) and AFC West (16.4).

And now, a closer look at the rankings heading into Week 16:

Falling (11): Tennessee Titans (-7), Buffalo Bills (-4), Chicago Bears (-4), New York Giants (-4), Baltimore Ravens (-3), Oakland Raiders (-3), Denver Broncos (-2), New York Jets (-2), Pittsburgh Steelers (-2), Jacksonville Jaguars (-2), Tampa Bay Buccaneers (-1).

Rising (12): Seattle Seahawks (+5), Dallas Cowboys (+4), San Diego Chargers (+4), Kansas City Chiefs (+3), San Francisco 49ers (+3), Arizona Cardinals (+2), Cincinnati Bengals (+2), Detroit Lions (+2), Washington Redskins (+2), Cleveland Browns (+1), New England Patriots (+1), New Orleans Saints (+1).

Unchanged (8): Atlanta Falcons, Carolina Panthers, Green Bay Packers, Houston Texans, Indianapolis Colts, Miami Dolphins, Minnesota Vikings, St. Louis Rams.

Deadlocked: We broke one tie this week. The Seahawks prevailed over the New York Giants at No. 15 based on the first tiebreaker, head-to-head results.

Like minds: All five voters ranked the Packers first, the Saint second and the Vikings 30th.

Agree to disagree: Walker continues to see the Eagles and Chargers as strong teams finally living up to its potential. Others continue to mark them down for overall struggles this season. That helps explain why Philly, more than any other team, invited polarizing views.

"I gave a lot of credence to how both teams are playing down the stretch in these important games," Walker said. "The Eagles and Chargers are two very dangerous teams right now. If either gets into the playoffs, look out."

Walker also kept New England ahead of the 49ers.

"The Patriots have won six straight games," he said. "The 49ers are 2-2 in their last four. San Francisco also lost the head-to-head with Baltimore. So I kept the Ravens ahead of the 49ers, too, despite an impressive win."

A look at the Eagles and the six other teams generating high-low disparities of at least six spots in the rankings: 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 AFC North (13.0 average) maintained the highest ranking on average, well ahead of teams from the NFC North (15.1). The AFC South was the lowest-rated division.

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.

A quick primer on the "powerflaws" sheet: