Power Rankings: No. 3 Carolina Panthers

A weekly examination of the Panthers’ ESPN.com Power Rankings:

Preseason: 23 | Last Week: 3 | ESPN.com Power Ranking since 2002

Based on records and performance, the Carolina Panthers finished right where they should in ESPN.com's final Power Rankings.

Both No. 1 Seattle and No. 2 Denver at 13-3 had better records than Carolina at 12-4, and the Seahawks beat the Panthers 12-7 in the regular-season opener.

Carolina beat the next three teams -- No. 4 San Francisco, No. 5 New England and No. 6 New Orleans -- behind it, so a No. 3 ranking was spot on by the voters.

But when you look at where Carolina was in the preseason (23rd), compared to those around them, no team has risen further.

The Panthers went 3-3 against teams ranked in the top 10 of the final poll. They finished 9-1 against teams outside the top 10.

Here's a look at how they got here based on where their opponents ranked in the final Power Rankings:

No. 1 Seattle: Lost 12-7 in Week 1 but had a chance until DeAngelo Williams fumbled at the Seahawks' 8 in the closing minutes.

No. 4 San Francisco: Won 10-9 at San Francisco in their ninth game. This is where the Panthers and others began to believe they were for real.

No. 5 New England: Won 24-10 at Charlotte in their 10th game, in Charlotte in front of a national Monday night audience. If the Frisco game didn't legitimize them, this one did.

No. 6 New Orleans: Won 17-13 in Charlotte in their 15th game, on a touchdown pass from Cam Newton to Domenik Hixon with 23 seconds left. This put the Panthers in position to clinch the NFC South title the following week at Atlanta.

No. 6 New Orleans: Lost 31-13 at the Superdome in their 13th game, ending an eight-game winning streak. It was their only loss in the last 12 games.

No. 9 Arizona: Lost 22-6 at Arizona in their fourth game, after a bye. The next week they began their eight-game winning streak.

No. 18 Miami: Won 20-16 in Miami in their 11th game. This one will be remembered for the 19-yard completion to Steve Smith on fourth-and-10 from deep in their own territory to spark a last-minute drive.

No. 19 New York Jets: Won 30-20 in their 14th game. A nice comeback from the loss to New Orleans.

No. 20 St. Louis: Won 30-15 in their sixth game. A key moment in that Carolina players stood up for each other when the game got chippy with a few scuffles.

No. 23 New York Giants: Won 38-0 in their third game. This ended an 0-2 start amid talk that coach Ron Rivera wouldn't make it through the following bye week if they lost.

No. 24 Minnesota: Won 35-10 at the Metrodome in their fifth game. This is when left tackle Jordan Gross gave a memorable pregame speech, and the Panthers started the eight-game winning streak.

No. 25 Buffalo: Lost 24-23 at Buffalo in their second game. This is when Rivera decided to become Riverboat Ron moving forward because he didn't gamble when he had a chance to ice the game late. The last-second loss dropped Carolina to 0-2.

No. 26 Atlanta: Won 34-10 in their eighth game.

No. 26 Atlanta: Won 21-20 in the regular-season finale in Atlanta to clinch the NFC South title and a first-round bye.

No. 27 Tampa Bay: Won 31-13 in Tampa in their seventh game.

No. 27 Tampa Bay: Won 27-6 in Charlotte in their 12th game.