Just two months ago, the 49ers grabbed control of the NFC West from the Arizona Cardinals behind…
Niners enter playoffs No. 3 in final AP poll
San Francisco (11-4-1) came in nine points behind the Patriots, whom the 49ers defeated 41-34 in Massachusetts on Dec. 16. Denver, which enters the playoffs with an 11-game winning streak, topped the poll for third consecutive week.
The 49ers ranked fourth in the debut of the AP poll earlier this year and quickly moved up to second after their 30-22 victory at Green Bay to begin the season. After defeating Detroit 27-19 in Week 2, the 49ers were voted by the AP panel as the No. 1 team in the NFL.
San Francisco's stay at the top lasted one week after the 49ers were upset 24-13 in Minnesota, beginning a season-long trend of the 49ers either losing or tying their next game after stringing together two consecutive victories.
The 49ers never fell below No. 6 in the poll during the season, which is where San Francisco was ranked last week after its worst loss of the year – 42-13 at Seattle on Dec. 23.
But the 49ers bounced back among the leading Super Bowl contenders and are the highest-ranked NFC team in the poll after completing the regular season with a 27-13 victory over Arizona that gave San Francisco the No. 2 seed in the NFC playoffs and the first-round bye that goes with it.
The 49ers will host a divisional playoff game Jan. 12 on the first day of Final Four Weekend.
Denver's rise to the top of the AP Pro32 NFL power rankings began in the last six weeks of the regular season.
That's when Peyton Manning and the Broncos were building a winning streak that turned into 11 in a row.
Denver easily held the No. 1 spot in the final rankings. The Broncos (13-3) received 10 first-place votes and 382 points in balloting for the final poll.
''The Broncos have offense, defense and Peyton Manning. Now, they have home-field advantage, too. That's a combination that's difficult to overcome,'' said Clark Judge of CBSSports.com.
New England (12-4) moved up two places to second with one-first place vote and 361 points. It's the same spot the Patriots started the season.
''If they have to win in Denver to reach Super Bowl, Patriots can,'' said Sporting News' Clifton Brown, who had New England first.
The 49ers were third with the Atlanta Falcons – the other NFC team to receive a first-round bye – rounding out the top four. The Falcons earned the NFC's No. 1 seed by virtue of their 13-3 finish.
''As long as Justin Smith is ready to roll for the postseason,'' said ESPN's Chris Berman after picking the 49ers first.
The top four teams all have playoff byes this weekend, and the first 12 teams make up the entire playoff field. The Chicago Bears were the highest-ranked non-playoff team at 13th.
Kansas City (2-14) was 32nd and last.
The Broncos opened the season 10th, when there were still doubts about Manning's health after the quarterback missed all of last season with major neck issues. He was cut by the Colts, signed by the Broncos, started out 2-3 but then didn't lose again. During the streak, Denver made a steady climb up the top 10 and reached No. 1 three weeks ago.
''Peyton Manning makes his pitch for a fifth MVP and Denver is in the driver's seat for the Super Bowl,'' said Newsday's Bob Glauber. ''About as perfect as John Elway could have imagined when he signed Peyton on the dotted line.''
Indianapolis fared pretty well, too. The Colts made Andrew Luck the first pick in the draft. He took over for Manning and led his team to an 11-5 record and a playoff berth. The Colts opened 32nd in the power rankings and finished ninth – the biggest improvement of any team.
''What a story and what a season for the Colts and coach Chuck Pagano. Andrew Luck thrives in pressure situations and here come the playoffs,'' Fox Sports' John Lynch said.
Other playoffs teams that were not rated highly when the season began were Minnesota, Washington and Seattle. The Vikings went from 29th to 10th; the Redskins from 25th to seventh; and the Seahawks from 22nd to fifth.
''Surprised the Seahawks are this high in the power poll?'' asks Pat Kirwan of SiriusXM NFL Radio/CBSSports.com. ''Ask yourself what team they can't beat.''
On the flip side, the defending champion New York Giants, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia failed to live up to expectations. The Giants started third and finished 14th; the Steelers opened seventh and ended up 16th; and the Eagles began eighth and wound up 29th.
Here are the comments on the 49ers from the AP panel this week, with where each panelist has San Francisco ranked in parentheses:
Chris Berman (ESPN, 1): As long as Justin Smith is ready to roll for the postseason.
Clifton Brown (Sporting News, 4): Came very close last season, and this could be their year.
Rich Gannon (CBS Sports/SiriusXM NFL Radio, 3): Can Kaepernick win in his first postseason ... he can with that defense and running game.
Bob Glauber (Newsday, 4): Colin Kaepernick did about as well as anyone could have asked. But the stakes get higher now. It's Super Bowl or bust. Earning the bye week could be the difference.
Rick Gosselin (Dallas Morning News, 4): The 49ers have the best defense in the NFC - and sterling defense took San Francisco as far as the NFC title game last season.
Clark Judge (CBSSports.com, 4): Make Colin Kaepernick the president of the Minnesota Vikings fan club. By beating Green Bay, the Vikes gave Kaepernick one less playoff game to prove himself.
Ira Kaufman (Tampa Tribune, 3): Very quietly, WR Michael Crabtree is on the brink of elite status.
Pat Kirwan (SiriusXM NFL Radio/CBSSports.com, 4): The Kaepernick experiment is working and this is one tough physical team. They want to run the ball more than pass but that may not be the case in the playoffs.
John Lynch (Fox Sports, 6): San Francisco has a great defense. Kaepernick appears great at times, but can he be consistent enough to flourish in the postseason?
Alex Marvez (Foxsports.com, 3): With two wide receivers on injured reserve, Michael Crabtree (172 yards receiving and two touchdowns against Arizona) couldn't have picked a better time to play the best football of his four-year NFL career.
Dan Pompei (Chicago Tribune, 4): In his last nine games, Frank Gore has failed to rush for 100 yards. If they are going to win in the playoffs, Gore has to heat up.
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