Niners have the power in first-ever AP poll

The top football experts in America agree: The 49ers belong near the top of the NFL as the 2012 season approaches. San Francisco debuts at No. 4 in the first-ever Associated Press Pro32 NFL power rankings, a new pro football version of the AP Top 25 college football and basketball polls that will gauge the league's balance of power throughout the season.

The Niners rate behind two other NFC powers to start the year, and they will face both during the first six weeks of the season. San Francisco travels to play No. 1 Green Bay in a colossal season opener on Sept. 9 at Lambeau Field that could have a ripple effect on the rankings throughout the season.

The 49ers also host the No. 3 team in the rankings – the New York Giants – on Oct. 14 in a rematch of last season's NFC Championship Game.

The New England Patriots, who lost to the Giants in the Super Bowl, are the other team that ranks again of the 49ers, debuting at No. 2 in the inaugural poll. San Francisco also will play the Patriots, traveling to Massachusetts for a Sunday night battle on Dec. 16.

Once the NFL season starts, the AP Pro32 rankings will be updated weekly.

Green Bay, coming off a 15-1 record but without a championship, received 374 points from a panel of 12 sports writers and broadcasters who regularly cover the league. The Packers got five first-place votes, as did the Giants, who beat Green Bay on their way to a Super Bowl win over the Patriots last season. But New York finished third behind New England in the voting, 369 points to 362. The Patriots earned two first-place votes.

The 49ers received no first-place votes from the panel but were next with 336 points.

Coach Jim Harbaugh's older brother John's team, the Baltimore Ravens, rounded out the top five with 315 points. Only two other teams – the Houston Texans (314 points) and Pittsburgh Steelers (308) – received more than 300 points.

"The Packers were the best team in the NFL every week last year except two," said voter Dan Pompei of the Chicago Tribune. "They will be the best team every week often this year."

In the debut poll, the Patriots were projected to dominate the AFC, according to the voters; New England was not ranked lower than third by any of them.

"Bill Belichick loaded up on defense in the offseason to give Tom Brady some much needed help on the other side of the ball," said voter Bob Glauber of Newsday, who rated the Patriots second overall.

As for the Giants, well, they are the defending champions, right? After losing to the 49ers near midseason, they ousted San Francisco from the playoffs one step short of the Super Bowl with a 20-17 overtime victory at Candlestick Park in the NFC Championship Game.

"Great clutch quarterback, superb pass rush, and motivated to prove they are better than last year's 9-7 regular season," was why voter Clifton Brown of Sporting News placed the Giants atop his rankings.

There were some naysayers, though. New York came in as low as sixth on two ballots.

"It's easy to forget G-Men almost didn't make playoffs last season until late push," said voter Alex Marvez of "Let's see if being defending NFL champions provide early-season motivation."

Peyton Manning's presence in Denver lifted the Broncos into the top 10. His former team, however, couldn't have been any lower, ranking 32nd, getting five last-place votes.

Yes, the Colts are starting over, and none of the voters saw them making much headway this year.

"In full-blown rebuilding mode," is how voter Pat Kirwan of SiriusXM NFL Radio and put it. "It may not be pretty in 2012, but it will pay dividends in 2013."

The other bottom feeders were Minnesota at 29th, Cleveland at 30th, and Jacksonville at 31st. The Jaguars received three last-place votes, with the others going to Miami (two, but ranked 27th overall), and Cleveland.

"Without Maurice Jones-Drew, this punchless club would go 0-16," voter Ira Kaufman of the Tampa Tribune said.

Of the dozen teams that made the playoffs last season, 10 were selected by the panel to be in the top 12 again. Only Atlanta at No. 13 and Cincinnati at No. 14 were bypassed, replaced by Philadelphia (eighth) and Chicago (tied for 11th with Detroit).

The Eagles impressed two voters so much that they placed them fourth overall.

"A hot team that nobody wanted to see in playoffs last year," said voter Cris Collinsworth of NBC Sports.

But Collinsworth noted that offensive tackle "Jason Peters' loss is a concern." Many voters believed the Bears would be a force this year, with one caveat: staying healthy.

"The Bears were rolling until offensive injuries," ESPN's Chris Berman noted of Chicago's 2011 season that nose-dived when Jay Cutler and Matt Forte were among several key players lost.

The next AP Pro32 is scheduled for Sept. 4, the day before the Giants host the Dallas Cowboys (ranked 15th) to open the regular season.

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