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 16:
1. New England. That 27-24 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers has the Patriots in the driver’s seat for the top seed in the AFC playoff bracket. The Patriots have claimed the AFC’s top seed six times in Tom Brady’s first 16 seasons as the starting quarterback.
2. Pittsburgh. The Steelers’ Super Bowl bid took a double hit last weekend. First, that loss to New England likely cost them the top seed in the AFC playoff bracket. Second, Pittsburgh lost WR Antonio Brown in the game with a torn calf. Earlier in the game, Brown became the first receiver in NFL history with five consecutive 100-catch seasons. He’s money for the Steelers. He’ll miss the final two games of the regular season.
3. Minnesota. Win out, and the Vikings still may not … and probably won’t … claim the top seed in the NFC for the first time since Randy Moss’ rookie season in 1998. Reason: All Philadelphia must do is win Monday, and the Eagles are in. Moss enjoyed a Hall-of-Fame-caliber career, finishing with the second-most receiving touchdowns of all time, and is now in his first year of eligibility for the Hall-of-Fame’s Class of 2018. The Vikings visit the 7-7 Packers and then host the 4-10 Bears over the final two weekends of the season.
4. Philadelphia. The Eagles have won 12 games for the first time since 2004, their last Super Bowl season. They went 13-3 that year. If the Eagles win out – and that would mean victories over Oakland an Dallas at home the final two weekends – they will set a franchise record with 14 victories.
5. Carolina. Cam Newton has committed only one turnover in the last six games – an absence of quarterbacking mistakes that has powered the Panthers to the top of the NFC South with a 10-4 record. Newton has passed for 11 touchdowns and rushed for two more scores during that six-game stretch, lifting Carolina to five victories.
6. LA Rams. There’s a reason the Rams retained their interim head coach John Fassel after hiring Sean McVay as the head coach last offseason. Fassel is one of the NFL’s best special-teams coaches – and special teams have been an edge for the NFC West-leading Rams this season. Los Angeles has blocked a league-high five kicks this season and scored three special-teams touchdowns on a kickoff return and two blocked punt returns.
7. New Orleans. Rookie running back Alvin Kamara ranks second in the NFL with his 12 touchdowns. The player with whom he shares the running back chores on the Saints, Mark Ingram, ranks second in the league in rushing touchdowns with 11. Kamara trails Todd Gurley of the Rams in total touchdowns (17) and Ingram trails Gurley in rushing touchdowns (13).
8. Jacksonville. The Jaguars defense has held half of its 14 opponents this season to single-digit scoring. Jacksonville has allowed a league-low 209 points this season – 33 fewer than anyone else. The last time the Jaguars led the NFL in scoring defense was 1999 when a unit featuring Tony Brackens, Kevin Hardy and Fernando Bryant allowed only 217 points.
9. Atlanta. Last season, when QB Matt Ryan threw 38 touchdown passes on his way to NFL MVP acclamation, he passed for as few as one touchdown in only four games. This season, Ryan has thrown for one touchdown or fewer nine times in 14 games for the 9-5 Falcons. He has struggled to find his 2016 form and so have his defending NFC champions, who find themselves in third place of the NFC South with two games to play.
10. Kansas City. There are receivers with greater quantity than Tyreek Hill this season. But in terms of quality of the catch, Hill stands alone. He has eight touchdowns this season and the shortest one was from 30 yards out. He has TD receptions of 79 (Jets), 75 (Patriots), 64 (Raiders), 64 (Chargers), 56 (Cowboys), 40 (Jets) and 30 (Chargers), plus an 82-yard punt return for a score against the Texans.
11. Baltimore. The Kansas City Chiefs led the NFL with 33 defensive takeaways in 2016. The Ravens already have 33 this season with still two games remaining. That defensive opportunism is a key reason Baltimore controls its own destiny as a wild-card qualifier. The Ravens are 8-6 and can claim an AFC playoff spot by winning out. That doesn’t seem too tall challenge with games left against the 3-11 Colts and 5-9 Bengals.
12. Dallas. During NFL rushing champion Ezekiel Elliott’s six-game NFL suspension, the Cowboys managed to stay alive in the wild-card hunt by posting a 3-3 record. Elliott returns this week against the Seattle Seahawks with his Cowboys on a three-game winning streak for an 8-6 record.
13. Detroit. In the last three weeks Matthew Stafford has completed 80.2 percent of his passes, and his Lions have won the last two games to stay in the wild-card hunt with an 8-6 record. He is now 80 yards away from his sixth consecutive 4,000-yard season. He also is averaging a career-best 7.8 yards per pass.
14. Buffalo. The lack of big plays from QB Tyrod Taylor led to his benching for a week in November. Overlooked by coach Sean McDermott, however, were the lack of negative plays by his quarterback. Taylor has thrown only four interceptions in his 13 games, so he hasn’t been making the mistakes that have beaten himself and his team. His arm and legs have the Bills 8-6 with a chance to end a NFL-long 16-year post-season drought.
15. Seattle. The Seattle defense is melting away with injuries and so are the Seahawks’ playoff hopes. Pass rusher Cliff Avril, cornerback Richard Sherman and safety Kam Chancellor are all recent Pro Bowl selections, and all are watching the Seahawks finish the season on injured reserve. Avril has missed the last 10 games and both Chancellor and Sherman the last five – and the Seahawks, a perennial Top-5 defense, have slid to No. 15 in defense. They also are reeling from a 35-point shellacking at the hands of the Rams last weekend.
16. Tennessee. The Titans are teetering on the verge wild-card playoff elimination with an 8-6 record but there’s nothing teetering about their run defense. Tennessee is one of only four teams that has not allowed a 100-yard rushing game this season. The Titans have a streak of 22 consecutive games without allowing a 100-yard rusher, the longest such streak in the NFL. The Titans rank third in the NFL in run defense with an average yield of 87.2 yards per game and 3.5 yards per carry.
17. LA Chargers. Wide receiver Keenan Allen may want to start skipping that annual trip by the Chargers to Kansas City. For the second consecutive season, Allen left the Arrowhead Stadium field in a golf cart. On opening day in 2016, Allen suffered a season-ending knee injury in Kansas City. Then last Saturday, Allen suffered a back injury at Arrowhead and departed with five catches for 54 yards, snapping his streak of four consecutive 100-yard games. Allen was having a Pro Bowl-caliber season with 88 catches for 1,197 yards and five touchdowns.
18. Green Bay. The Packers may want to invest in the offensive line this offseason. Specifically, pass protectors. Green Bay lost franchise QB Aaron Rodgers for seven games this season with one injury and he was knocked around for three sacks by the Panthers in his return last weekend. Rodgers and Brett Hundley, his replacement, have been sacked 46 times this season, third most in the NFL. Rodgers endured a six-sack game against Cincinnati and Hundley a six-sack game against Baltimore.
19. Washington. The Redskins hoped to line up a blocking front in 2017 of, from left to right, Trent Williams, Shawn Lauvao, Spencer Long, Brandon Scherff and Morgan Moses. But only Moses has started all 14 games. Long has missed eight games, Lauvao five, Williams four and Scherff two. The Redskins have started 10 different players on the offensive line with 30 different blocking combinations. Little wonder the Redskins have had trouble protecting Kirk Cousins (36 sacks) and running the football (26th in the NFL).
20. Miami. The Dolphins have thrown an NFL-runnerup 20 interceptions through the first 14 games. With Ryan Tannehill as the season-long starter in 2016, Miami threw only 12 interceptions. But with Tannehill on injured reserve in 2017 with a summer knee injury, Jay Cutler and Matt Moore have had difficulties keeping the football out of opposition hands. Cutler has thrown 14 of the interceptions.
21. Arizona. The Cardinals may be having a miserable season (6-8) but their edge rusher Chandler Jones certainly isn’t. He leads the NFL with 15 sacks and also has forced two fumbles in a Top 10 defense. That’s a follow up to his 11-sack season in 2016 after the Cardinals acquired him from the Patriots for a second-round draft pick.
22. Oakland. The lame-duck Raiders are finding they no longer have a homefield advantage at the Oakland Coliseum. The vaunted Black Hole has been anything but for the Raiders in 2017 as they closed the home schedule with a 4-4 record. Their last gasp as a playoff contender came last weekend with a 20-17 home loss to the Cowboys. The Raiders are just biding their time in Oakland until their move to Las Vegas in 2020.
23. San Francisco. These are not the same 49ers that lost their first nine games of the season. Since the acquisition of Jimmy Garoppolo from the Patriots, the 49ers are now a team not only with a future but a present. Garoppolo has started the last three games and the 49ers have won them all, improving to 4-10. He has passed for 300 yards in each of the last two victories.
24. Denver. The Broncos will be changing quarterbacks for the fifth time this season after placing Trevor Siemian on injured reserve with a shoulder injury suffered in last Thursday night’s game against the Colts. Denver opened the season with Siemian, then went to Brock Osweiler in the eighth game, then to Paxton Lynch in the 11th game, back to Siemian in the 12th game and now back to Osweiler for the 16th game Sunday against Washington. Little wonder Denver finds itself 5-9.
25. NY Jets. QB Josh McCown’s season has come to an end with a broken hand in Week 14. Not only do the 5-9 Jets miss his arm – he completed 67 percent of his passes with twice as many touchdowns (18) as interceptions (9) – they also miss his legs. Even though McCown has missed the last game and a half with his injury, he still leads the Jets in rushing touchdowns with five.
26. Cincinnati. The Bengals will move on in 2018 without Marvin Lewis as head coach. The two sides mutually agreed to part ways at the end of this season. Lewis won games and division titles – he just didn’t win in the playoffs. Lewis won 52.3 percent of his games (123-112-3) and three AFC North titles in his 15 seasons as head coach. He took the Bengals to the playoffs seven times but never won a game in the post-season. So he’s gone.
27. Tampa Bay. I thought the signing of free agent WR DeSean Jackson would provide huge dividends for both the Bucs and their emerging QB Jameis Winston in 2017. One of the best speed receivers in the game, Jackson was a 1,000-yard receiver with Kirk Cousins and the Redskins in 2016, averaging 17.6 yards per catch. He could stretch defenses for the Bucs and ease the double teams on Pro Bowl WR Mike Evans. But those dividends have never materialized. He has caught almost as many passes with the Bucs (50) as he did with the Redskins (56) but for 337 fewer yards. He’s averaging only 13.4 yards per catch with a long of just 41 yards. And the Buccaneers are going no where at 4-10.
28. Chicago. The Bears have done their rookie quarterback Mitch Trubisky a disservice, sending him out this season against NFL defenses without any weapons in the passing game. Little wonder he has passed for fewer than 200 yards in seven of his 10 starts. His favorite target is Kendall Wright, who ranks 54th in the NFL with 50 catches and just one touchdown. The Bears rank last in the NFC in passing.
29. Houston. Two of Houston’s top three pass rushers are out for the season with injuries (J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus) and their absence has impacted the pass defense. The Texans have collapsed in coverage, tumbling from second in the NFL in pass defense a year ago to 26th this season. Houston has allowed a league-high seven 300-yard passers this season.
30. Indianapolis. No one misses Andrew Luck more than T.Y. Hilton. With Luck on the field a year ago, Hilton was a Pro Bowl receiver with 91 catches for an NFL-leading 1,448 yards and six touchdowns. Without Luck this season, Hilton’s stats have collapsed. He has 48 catches for 852 yards and four TDs. He went from averaging 90.5 yards per game with Luck to 60.8 yards per game with Jacoby Brissett.
31. NY Giants. I’m guessing interim head coach Steve Spagnuolo will concentrate in practice this week on kick protection. The Giants had three kicks blocked last weekend in a 34-29 loss to the Eagles – a punt by Brad Wing and both an extra point and field goal by Adam Rosas. The Giants have now had an NFL-high five kicks blocked this season.
32. Cleveland. The Browns are 0-14 for the second consecutive season – but this is the weekend the losing ended in 2016. Cleveland shocked San Diego, 20-17, to avoid that 0-16 season, finishing 1-15. If the Browns are to repeat their 2016 script they will have to upset the Bears in Chicago on Christmas Eve.