NEW YORK (AP) — A nine-game winning streak has Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos on top of the AP Pro32 NFL power rankings for the first time.
The latest win came on the road, 34-17 at Baltimore, and was impressive enough to lift the Broncos to No. 1 by three points over the San Francisco 49ers.
AFC West champion Denver (11-3) and playoff-bound San Francisco each received six first-place votes Tuesday in balloting by The Associated Press' panel of 12 media members who regularly cover the league. The Broncos outpointed the 49ers for first, 375-372, in the closest voting of the season.
"The Broncos haven't lost since early October and won't lose the next two weeks," said CBSSports.com's Clark Judge, referring to Denver's closing games against Cleveland and Kansas City. "They're hot, they're complete and they have Peyton. What's not to like?"
Half the voters preferred the 49ers, who stormed to a 28-point lead over the Patriots on the road, then hung on for a 41-34 win to clinch a playoff berth. The 49ers can win the NFC West with a victory at Seattle on Sunday.
"Maybe the biggest regular-season win in the Jim Harbaugh era," said Bob Glauber of Newsday. "Not only a dominating early showing against the Pats on the road, but a terrific recovery after New England's furious comeback."
New England dropped from the top spot to third, followed by Atlanta and Houston. The Falcons and Texans bounced back with big wins after losses the previous week.
"Brady's still incredible, but don't know if I trust that defense," said Rich Gannon of CBS Sports/SiriusXM NFL Radio.
Noted Rick Gosselin of the Dallas Morning News: "QB Tom Brady has now lost more home games this season (two) than in his previous three seasons combined (one)."
Atlanta and Houston have the best records in the league at 12-2, but voters questioned whether the teams are really that good. Both did some convincing Sunday when the Falcons shut out the Super Bowl champion New York Giants 34-0 and the Texans dominated the Indianapolis Colts 29-17.
"Quite a statement, first shutout registered vs. defending Super Bowl champ since 1981," Chris Berman of ESPN said of Atlanta.
"J.J. Watt is a wrecking crew," Sporting News' Clifton Brown said of the Texans. "They'll be tough at home in January."
Green Bay remained sixth after clinching the NFC North with a win over the rival Chicago Bears.
"The Packers are getting healthier and poised for a run," said John Lynch of Fox Sports. "Greg Jennings and Clay Matthews are back, Charles Woodson and Jordy Nelson on the way? K Mason Crosby will need to put his so-far awful 2012 behind him for the Pack to get where they want to be."
The Seahawks, after a second straight 50-point game, moved up a spot to seventh as they prepare to take on the 49ers knowing a win could give them a shot at the NFC West title.
"Something special is brewing in Seattle, and it's not just the coffee," said the Sporting News' Brown.
Washington moved up three spots to No. 8 after a win at Cleveland with backup rookie Kirk Cousins leading the way in place of the injured Robert Griffin III. The Redskins, Cowboys and Giants are tied for the NFC East lead.
"Who needs RG3 when you have Kirk Cousins?" said Dan Pompei of the Chicago Tribune.
The Giants and Ravens were tied for ninth heading into their game Sunday.
Pittsburgh fell two places to 15th after a second straight loss, this one in overtime at Dallas.
"The bumbling Steelers would be eliminated with a loss against Cincinnati (on Sunday)," said Ira Kaufman of the Tampa Tribune.
Kansas City is 32nd and last after being shut out by No. 31 Oakland.
"Shut out by the Raiders? Seriously? I mean ... seriously?" said CBSSports.com's Judge.