Editor’s note: Rick Gosselin is in his 45th season reporting on the NFL in 2017. He has covered the Lions, Giants, Chiefs and Cowboys in his career, plus 34 Super Bowls. He has served on the Hall-of-Fame selection committee for 22 years and is a member of both the senior and contributor subcommittees. Gosselin also is one of 12 voters for the AP 32, the weekly ranking of NFL teams conducted by The Associated Press. Here is his ballot for Week 17:
1. New England. A victory at home against the Jets Sunday would give the Patriots the top seed in the AFC playoff bracket. New England has claimed the AFC’s top seed six times in the Tom Brady era, and that homefield advantage has propelled them to five Super Bowls.
2. Pittsburgh. The Steelers have claimed a first-round bye for only the third time in the last 12 years. It’s also the third time during that stretch Pittsburgh has locked itself in as the second seed. That’s a familiar and comfortable path for the Steelers, who reached the Super Bowl those two seasons they finished as the second seed (2008 and 2010).
3. Minnesota. The Vikings are attempting to become just the fifth team since 2000 to reach a Super Bowl with a different quarterback than their opening-day starter. Case Keenum took over for Sam Bradford in the second week of the season and steered the Vikings to an NFC North championship and a 12-3 record. The other teams to reach the Super Bowl without their first choice at quarterback were the 2012 49ers, 2003 Panthers, 2001 Patriots and 2000 Ravens.
4. Philadelphia. The 13-2 Eagles have clinched the NFC’s top seed, which gives them the home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. There has been no better NFL home team in 2017 than the Eagles, who remain the lone unbeaten at 7-0. A victory Sunday in the season finale against Dallas at Lincoln Financial Field would give Philadelphia its first perfect season at home since 1992.
5. Carolina. The Panthers have won their last three games to storm back into the playoffs after a year’s absence. Carolina can thank its pass rush, which has collected 15 sacks in those three victories to improve to 11-4. Nine different Panthers have contributed to those 15 sacks, topped by the 3 ½ of tackle Kawann Short.
6. LA Rams. RB Todd Gurley is making a strong push to become the first non-quarterback to win NFL MVP honors since Adrian Peterson in 2012.Gurley has overtaken Le’Veon Bell for the NFL rushing lead with 1,305 yards with one game to play. He also has scored eight touchdowns in the last three weeks to extend his league lead there to 19 for the NFC West champion Rams.
7. New Orleans. Only one division title is still up for grabs, and it’s the Saints and Panthers who are trying to grab it. Both teams are 11-4 heading into the final weekend, and both teams are on the road against NFC South foes. New Orleans visits the 4-11 Buccaneers, and Carolina travels to the 9-6 Falcons. The Saints have a two-game winning streak and the Panthers a three-game streak.
8. Jacksonville. The Jaguars are one of five teams that rank in the NFL’s Top 10 in both offense and defense. Four of those teams have clinched division titles berths – the Jaguars, Vikings, Eagles and Steelers – and the fifth team (Atlanta) can clinch a playoff berth with a home victory over Carolina Sunday. But only two of those five rank in the Top 5 in both offense and defense, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.
9. Kansas City. The Chiefs started fast this season and are now finishing fast. They can thank rookie RB Kareem Hunt for both spurts. Hunt scored six touchdowns and posted two 100-yard games to help the Chiefs open the season 3-0. He has now scored four touchdowns with two 100-yard games to power a current three-game winning streak that has lifted Kansas City to a 9-6 record and a second consecutive AFC West title.
10. Baltimore. A home victory over Cincinnati Sunday will give the 9-6 Ravens a wild-card spot and a return to the playoffs after a two-year absence. Baltimore would have the worst offense in the playoff bracket – 26th in the NFL – but a defense that gives them a chance to compete in January. The Ravens have posted a league-leading three shutouts this season and allowed the fourth fewest points in the NFL.
11. Seattle. The Seahawks have been penalized 140 times (17 more than any other team) for 1,242 yards. The most penalized team in 2016 was the Oakland Raiders with 147 for 1,251 yards. The Raiders also hold the NFL record with 163 penalties in 2011 for 1,358 yards. The Seahawks have been penalized 10 or more times in six games and been assessed 100-plus yards six times.
12. Atlanta. The difference between the NFC-champion Falcons in 2016 and the 2017 version scrambling for a wild card spot? Through 15 games a year ago, QB Matt Ryan passed for 34 touchdowns with only seven interceptions on his way to NFL MVP honors. Through 15 games this season, Ryan has 19 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. Losing offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan to San Francisco as head coach has had an obvious impact on Ryan’s performance.
13. LA Chargers. The Chargers still have the slimmest of playoff hopes heading into the final weekend. They are one of three teams with a 8-7 records but, because of tie-breakers, would need the other two – Buffalo and Tennessee – to lose their finales to advance. The Rams are already in the playoffs. The last time the city of Los Angeles had two NFL playoff teams was 1985.
14. Buffalo. The Bills are oh-so-close to claiming their first playoff berth since 1999, They still would need a victory at Miami this weekend and a loss by the Tennessee Titans at Jacksonville to play into January. With an offense that ranks 29th in the NFL and a defense that ranks 25th, the Bills will need yet another big day from RB LeSean McCoy, who ranks fourth in the NFL in rushing with 1,128 yards and four 100-yard games.
15. Dallas. Dak Prescott threw only four interceptions on his way to NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year acclaim in 2016. But he has already thrown 13 interceptions this season and four were returned for defensive touchdowns. Prescott also has had a fumble returned for a touchdown. The 8-7 Cowboys have lost all five games Prescott has surrendered a defensive touchdown.
16. Detroit. GM Bob Quinn has one task this coming offseason – find a running back. The 8-7 Lions are a playoff-caliber team in every area except running back. They rank last in the NFL in rushing with an average of 78 yards per game and 3.4 yards per carry. The Lions need to run the ball to slow down the pass rush. Franchise quarterback Matthew Stafford has been sacked a league-runnerup and career worst 45 times. Without a running game, the Lions aren’t good enough.
17. Tennessee. The Titans were 8-4 and gearing up for the playoffs in early December. Then the NFC West happened. Tennessee has lost consecutive games to the Cardinals, 49ers and Rams to tumble to 8-7 and place its wild-card hopes in jeopardy. The good news is the Titans return to division play (where they are 4-1) Sunday with a game against AFC South-champion Jacksonville Jaguars. Win, and the Titans are in – and they have already beaten the Jaguars once this season.
18. Washington. Kirk Cousins is proving himself worthy of a landmark contract, even if the Washington Redskins don’t want to give it to him. After the franchise gutted his receiving corps, letting his two favorite targets Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson leave in free agency, Cousins is still going to hit 4,000 yards passing for a third consecutive season. He also has thrown 27 TD passes. He needs 65 yards passing to reach 4,000 and three more TD passes to set a personal best in Washington’s season finale Sunday against the lowly Giants.
19. San Francisco. Jimmy Garoppolo has given the 5-10 49ers hope and, more importantly, victories. A mid-season acquisition from the Super Bowl champion Patriots, Garoppolo stepped in as San Francisco’s starting quarterback in the 12th game against Chicago and steered the 49ers to four consecutive victories. He has passed for 300-plus yards in two of those victories.
20. Green Bay. Inside LB Blake Martinez leads the NFL with 138 tackles but couldn’t get a sniff from his peers in the Pro Bowl voting. He also has broken up seven passes for the Packers, intercepted one, forced a fumble and recovered two others, and also has a quarterback sack. But it’s the playoff teams that get the most Pro Bowl attention – something the Packers are not with a 7-8 record.
21. Arizona. Larry Fitzgerald has 101 receptions, his third consecutive 100-catch season and fourth of his career. If he catches nine passes in the finale Sunday against Seattle, he will set a personal best with 110 receptions. He already has had four 10-catch games this season. What makes the feat even more impressive is that he’s amassed his numbers this season with three different quarterbacks.
22. Cincinnati. The 6-9 Bengals have struggled on defense, ranking 20th in the NFL. Blame the Cincinnati offense. The Bengals have controlled the ball a league-low 27 minutes, six seconds per game. You can’t ask your defense to play almost 33 minutes every week and expect to contend for playoff spots. The Bengals need to establish a ground game to control the ball, control the clock and rest their defense. The 31st-ranked rushing attack just didn’t get it done for coach Marvin Lewis in 2017.
23. Oakland. The Ravens have an NFL-leading 22 interceptions for 385 yards – defensive opportunism that has Baltimore in the wild-card hunt without much offense. The Raiders have five interceptions for 10 yards – a lack of defensive opportunism that has doomed Oakland to a 6-9 non-playoff season.
24. Chicago. Rookie QB Mitch Trubisky has started 11 games for the Bears but has yet to have a two-TD pass day in any of his starts. He has passed for one touchdown in seven of his starts and no TDs in the other four. If the Bears hope to maximize their expensive investment in Trubisky, they’d better get him some better receivers in 2018.
25. Miami. Explain to me how the 6-9 Dolphins can beat the Patriots this season but lose to the Jets, Buccaneers and Raiders? Miami will be looking for a quick reload in 2018 when QB Ryan Tannehill returns from a knee injury. With Kenyan Drake, Jarvis Landry, Mike Pouncey, Cameron Wake, Ndamukong Suh, Kiki Alonso and Xavien Howard, this team is not without talent.
26. Denver. The collapse of the 5-10 Broncos is now complete. About the only element of their game the Broncos could count on this season has been the pass rush with Von Miller, Derek Wolfe and Shane Ray. But the Denver pass rush was held sackless for the first time this season by a makeshift Washington offensive line missing three starters last weekend in a 27-11 romp over the Broncos.
27. NY Jets. Like the Dolphins, the Jets are a capable team with a quarterbacking problem. They have defeated division champions Jacksonville and Kansas City this season but also lost to Denver, Oakland and Tampa Bay. Josh McCown would have been an ideal bridge quarterback for this franchise – but this has been a bridge to nowhere. Bryce Petty has struggled in his two starts, and the Jets won’t put their recent second-round draft pick Christian Hackenberg on the field. Expect both New York teams to be looking for a quarterback in the 2018 NFL draft.
28. Tampa Bay. The season swirled down the drain weeks ago, fueled by a pair of five -game losing streaks since Oct. 1. But the Buccaneers haven’t quit on their coach Dirk Koetter, losing by three points in each of their last three games against playoff contenders Detroit, Atlanta and Carolina. The Lions and Panthers both survived the Bucs with game-winning scores in the final 40 seconds.
29. Houston. Boy, do the Texans miss QB DeShaun Watson. He threw 19 touchdown passes in the seven games he played at the start of his rookie year before suffering a season-ending knee injury. The Texans won three of his six starts. But in his absence, Houston quarterbacks have combined to throw only nine TD passes, and the Texans lost seven of the eight games they have played without Watson.
30. Indianapolis. Adam Vinatieri ranks second all-time in scoring, and Frank Gore ranks fifth on the all-time rushing list. But even with the presence of two potential Hall of Famers on the roster, 2017 was a disaster for the 3-12 Colts, who played the season without their franchise quarterback, Andrew Luck. Anyone who has followed the NFL for more than a month knows the secret to football success — no quarterback, no chance.
31. NY Giants. As bad as the running game has been … and as bad as the offensive line has been, the one area of the 2-13 Giants that needs to be the highest priority for the next head coach is the defense. This was once a franchise that won Super Bowls with its defense. Now the Giants trot out the worst defense in the NFL, allowing an average of 385 yards and 25 points per game.
32. Cleveland. The Browns are 0-15 because they have continually beaten themselves this season with turnovers. Cleveland quarterbacks have thrown a league-high 27 interceptions, and the Browns have lost 12 fumbles for 39 giveaways. That’s eight more than anyone else (Denver next at 31). The Browns have committed more than double the turnovers as the team they are chasing in the AFC North, the Pittsburgh Steelers (18).