NEW YORK (AP) — The Broncos' 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 Wednesday in the final rankings of the season. The Broncos (13-3) received 10 first-place votes and 382 points in balloting by The Associated Press panel of 12 media members who regularly cover the league.
"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 San Francisco 49ers (11-4-1) were third with the other first-place vote and 352 points. The Atlanta Falcons (13-3) finished fourth.
"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.
"Few expected Andy Reid's last season to be so bad," said Brown.