Gosselin NFL rankings: Patriots, once again, the team to beat


Tom Brady photo courtesy of the New England Patriots

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 final ballot for Week 18:

1. New England. Only two players in NFL history have won five Super Bowl rings. Only one has a chance to win a sixth – Tom Brady, this post-season. Hall-of-Fame pass rusher Charles Haley won his five with the Cowboys and 49ers, and Brady all five of his with the Patriots. New England has the top seed in the AFC, which means potentially two home games for Brady in January before a trip to Minneapolis.

2. Pittsburgh. Antonio Brown did not play the final two games of the regular season for the AFC North champion Steelers because of injury but still led the NFL in receiving yards with 1,533. He was leading the NFL in receptions as well at the time of his injury with 101 but wound up fifth on that list.

3. Minnesota. The Vikings fielded the NFL’s most dominant defense, finishing no lower than second in any of the four major statistical categories – run, pass, total and scoring defense. Minnesota led the NFL in both total and scoring defense and finished second in both run and pass defense. The last defense this dominant was the 2008 Steelers, who finished first or second in those same four categories. The Steelers won the Super Bowl that season.

4. Philadelphia. The Eagles finished with the NFL’s third-best rushing attack this season – and they are going to need that ground game this postseason. When Philadelphia lost QB Carson Wentz in the 14th game of the season, the Eagles also lost their swagger in the passing game. Nick Foles struggled against Oakland and Dallas in the final two games of the season, completing only 46.9 percent of his passes for 202 yards with one TD and two interceptions. Look for the Eagles to focus the offense on RBs Jay Ajayi and LaGarrette Blount this post-season.

5. LA Rams. Todd Gurley shared the NFL lead with six 100-yard rushing games this season along with Kareem Hunt of Kansas City. The Rams went 6-0 when Gurley rushed for 100, as did the Chiefs when Hunt rushed for 100. Both teams won division titles.

6. New Orleans. Rookie Alvin Kamara started only three games this season, but his versatility was a big part of the reason the Saints won the NFC South. He rushed for 728 yards, averaging 6.1 yards per carry and scoring eight touchdowns. He also caught 81 passes for 826 yards and five more scores and returned 11 kickoffs for 347 yards and another score. He returned a kickoff 106 yards for a touchdown against the Buccaneers, rushed 74 yards for another TD against the Rams and caught a 33-yard TD pass in another game against the Bucs. Not bad for a third-round draft pick.

7. Carolina. The Eagles and Bears both allowed 100-yard rushers on the final day of the regular season – the first 100-yard rushers those two defenses would allow in 2017. That left only one NFL defense that did not allow a 100-yard rusher all season – the Carolina Panthers. The Panthers finished third in the NFL in run defense with an average yield of 88.1 yards per game and 4.0 yards per carry.

8. Kansas City. Kareem Hunt became the second consecutive rookie to win the NFL rushing title with 1,327 yards. Ezekiel Elliott of the Cowboys also won as a rookie in 2016 with 1,631 yards. Hunt becomes only the 14th rookie in NFL history to win the rushing crown, joining an illustrious fraternity that includes Hall-of-Famers Jim Brown, Earl Campbell and Eric Dickerson.

9. Atlanta. The difference between the Atlanta juggernaut that went 11-5 and won the NFC crown in 2016 and the team that went 10-6 and qualified as a wild card in 2017? The 2017 Falcons gained 816 fewer yards and scored 27 fewer touchdowns. QB Matt Ryan threw for 18 fewer touchdowns than 2016, WR Julio Jones caught three fewer TD passes and RB Devonta Freeman rushed for four fewer scores.

10. Jacksonville. For the first time since 1999, the NFL did not have a 200-yard rusher in a single game. Rookie Leonard Fournette came the closest with as 181-yard game in October against Pittsburgh. It was one of five 100-yard games for Fournette, who gave the Jaguars their first 1,000-yard season (1,040) since NFL rushing champion Maurice Jones-Drew in 2011.

11. LA Chargers. The Chargers allowed a league-low one 300-yard passer (Tom Brady) and one 100-yard receiver (Amari Cooper) this season. But there’s a logical explanation – teams didn’t need to throw against the Chargers, they could run the ball at will. The Chargers finished third in the NFL in pass defense but 31st in run defense, allowing a league-high seven 100-yard rushers.

12. Buffalo. Middle linebacker Preston Brown shared the NFL lead in tackles with 144 along with Green Bay’s Blake Martinez and Cleveland’s Joe Schobert. A walk-in starter as a rookie, Brown’s tackle count has increased all four of his NFL seasons from 109 in 2014 to 120 in 2015 to 139 in 2016 to that career-best 144 this season.

13. Tennessee. Jacksonville led the NFL with seven defensive touchdowns this season, followed by Baltimore and Detroit with five apiece. Only four teams failed to score a point on defense this season – the Jets, Raiders, Steelers and Titans. Only Pittsburgh and Tennessee advanced to the playoffs, the Steelers as AFC North champion and the Titans as an AFC wild card.

14. Seattle. Russell Wilson led the NFL with 34 touchdown passes in a valiant and almost single-handed effort to extend Seattle’s playoff streak to six consecutive seasons. He also rushed for three touchdowns but came up short as the injury-riddled Seahawks finished 9-7, a game out of the playoffs.

15. Detroit. The Lions put together their first back-to-back winning seasons in 20 years, then fired head coach Jim Caldwell. Back-to-back 9-7 seasons were not enough to save the coach of a franchise that has never won a Super Bowl and hasn’t won an NFL title in 60 years. The more pressing offseason need for the Lions’ GM should be a running back, not another head coach.

16. Dallas. NFL referees slapped 79 teams with 10-plus penalty games last season. The Seattle Seahawks were the culprit in six of those games, followed by the Miami Dolphins and San Francisco 49ers with five apiece. The Cowboys were the only team in the NFL that did not endure a 10-penalty game in 2017.

17. Baltimore. Bad weekend for the Harbaugh clan. John’s Ravens lost in the final minute at home to Cincinnati Sunday to miss out on an AFC wild-card with a 9-7 record. Then Jim’s Michigan Wolverines became the only Big Ten team to lose this bowl season on Monday with a setback to South Carolina in the Outback Bowl. The Big Ten finished 7-1 this post-season.

18. San Francisco. The 49ers were a 1-10 team without Jimmy Garoppolo and a 5-0 team with him, wining their final five games with him taking the snaps after coming over from the Patriots. His last three conquests were all playoff teams – the Titans, Jaguars and Rams.

19. Arizona. The Cardinals were mediocre collectively in 2017 with an 8-8 record but certainly not individually. WR Larry Fitzgerald captured the NFC receiving title with his 109 catches and outside linebacker Chandler Jones captured the NFL sack title with his 17.

20. Cincinnati. The Bengals have a ground problem. They couldn’t run the ball nor could they stop the run. Cincinnati finished 31st in the NFL in rushing and 30th in run defense. Little wonder the Bengals managed a league-worst time of possession of only 27 minutes, 12 seconds per game. It’s difficult to score (and win games) when you don’t have the football.

21. Washington. Like the Bengals, the Redskins had a ground problem in their 7-9 season. They  couldn’t run the ball nor could they stop the run. Washington finished 28th in the NFL in rushing and 32nd in run defense. The Redskins allowed five 100-yard rushers last season and managed only two themselves on offense.

22. Tampa Bay. The Bucs carried Super Bowl aspirations into the 2017 season but suffered the Hard Knocks jinx. Tampa Bay became the 13th team to be featured in the HBO series, “Hard Knocks.” Only five of those teams advanced to the playoffs, only three won division titles and only two went on to win a playoff game. Two teams even fired their head coaches. At least the Bucs resisted the urge to fire Dirk Koetter after this 4-12 season.

23. Oakland. Jack Del Rio coached the Raiders to 12 victories in 2016 for the first time since 2000, also taking them to the playoffs for the first time since 2002. But when the Raiders stumbled home 6-10 in 2017, the Raiders fired Del Rio — 11 months after giving him a contract extension.

24. Green Bay. Lambeau Field gives the Packers one of the best home fields in the NFL – but not for QB Brett Hundley. Hundley started nine games in place of the injured Aaron Rodgers, throwing eight touchdown passes and nine interceptions in those starts. But in his five starts at Lambeau, Hundley threw six of his interceptions and not a single TD pass.

25. Miami. WR Jarvis Landry became the first Dolphin to lead the NFL in receiving since O.J. McDuffie in 1998. Landry caught 112 passes but could only covert them into 987 yards, a modest 8.8-yard average. He did catch nine TD passes.

26. Chicago. The Bears need to push for realignment and a move to the AFC. Chicago won only five games all season – but four of them came against the AFC North. The Bears defeated the Steelers, Ravens, Bengals and Browns to finish as one of only three NFL teams unbeaten in interconference play. The Rams and Panthers were the other two and both are playoff bound. Not so the Bears, who have fired coach John Fox.

27. NY Jets. The NFC had never won 40 games in interconference play since the AFL and NFL merged in 1970. The AFC had done it a few times, most recently 2006 when it held a 40-24 edge. But all that changed in 2017 when the NFC smoked the AFC in interconference play, 41-23. Every AFC team suffered a defeat at the hands of an NFC opponent. Two AFC teams finished 0-4 against the NFC, the Jets and the Browns.

28. Denver. Football was a lot more fun in Denver when the Broncos had John Elway and Peyton Manning taking the snaps. There were wins and championships aplenty. The Broncos found out how the other half lives in 2017. Denver shuttled three quarterbacks through the offense and wound up throwing more interceptions (22) than touchdowns (19) in a 5-11 season.

29. Houston. CB A.J. Bouye was more valuable than the Texans realized. Houston finished second in the NFL in pass defense with Bouye in their secondary in 2016. But he left for Jacksonville in free agency last offseason. Without him, the Texans sank to 24th in pass defense. With Bouye, the Jaguars led the NFL in pass defense. Houston allowed an NFL-high seven 300-yard passers in 2017.

30. Indianapolis. Chuck Pagano was hired by the Colts in 2012 and promptly put together five consecutive non-losing seasons, winning two division titles and advancing to the playoffs three times. When he finally suffered a losing season – finishing 4-12 in 2017 playing without his franchise quarterback Andrew Luck – the Colts fired Pagano.

31. NY Giants. The Indianapolis Colts allowed a league-worst six defensive touchdowns this season, followed by the Dallas Cowboys and Detroit Lions with five apiece. Only one team did not allow any defensive scores this season – the Giants. Not that it helped. The Giants still finished with an NFC-worst 3-13 record.

32. Cleveland. Little wonder the Browns became just the second team in NFL history to endure an 0-16 season. They continually beat themselves, committing a league-high 41 turnovers. Cleveland led the NFL with 28 interceptions and lost 13 fumbles. The Browns committed more than double the turnovers (20) of the team they are chasing in the AFC North (Pittsburgh).

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