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 15:
1. Pittsburgh. A wide receiver has never been the NFL’s MVP. But Antonio Brown may be working himself into the conversation. He’s on track to win his third NFL receiving crown in the last four years with 99 catches – and he’s been on fire the last four weeks, catching 39 passes for 627 yards and six touchdowns. He has had 100-yard games all four of those weeks and leads the NFL with eight of them this season.
2. New England. Now the NFL season gets down to the nitty-gritty, with its top two teams squaring off in Pittsburgh this weekend for home-field advantage in the AFC. The Steelers are 11-2; the Patriots 10-3. The Patriots have won the last three meetings and nine of the 12 since Tom Brady became their quarterback in 2001.
3. Philadelphia. The Eagles have the best record in the NFC (11-2), giving them a hold on the top seed in the conference playoff bracket. But Philadelphia doesn’t look nearly as imposing with Nick Foles at quarterback as it did with Carson Wentz taking the snaps. Wentz suffered a torn ACL in last weekend’s victory over the Rams that ended both his season and MVP campaign.
4. Minnesota. The NFL’s No. 2-ranked run defense finally allowed a 100-yard rushing game last weekend (Jonathan Stewart, Carolina, 103 yards). That leaves only four NFL defenses that still have not allowed a 100-yard rusher this season: Philadelphia, Chicago, Carolina and Tennessee. The Eagles rank first in run defense, the Panthers third and the Titans fifth. The Bears are 14th.
5. Carolina. Cam Newton has the best game rushing by an NFL quarterback this season, a 95-yard effort on five carries against the Dolphins in November. He also has four of the top seven rushing games by quarterbacks this season. Kansas City’s Alex Smith has the longest rush by a quarterback, a 70-yarder against the Jets this month.
6. LA Rams. The Rams knew exactly what they were getting when they hired Wade Phillips as defensive coordinator – a pass rush. In this his first season, the 9-4 Rams have collected 40 sacks, third best in the NFL. The Rams are the ninth different franchise with whom Phillips has generated a 40-sack pass rush. He also has had 50-sack pass rushes at Dallas, Denver, New Orleans and Philadelphia and a 60-sack pass rush with the Cowboys.
7. New Orleans. The unheralded element of the New Orleans resurgence as both an offense and a Super Bowl contender has been the offensive line. The Saints signed guard Larry Warford in free agency and used a first-round draft pick on tackle Ryan Ramczyk, and now this blocking front is one of the best in the NFL. The 9-4 Saints rank second in offense, fourth in rushing and fifth in passing. Drew Brees has only been sacked 17 times, the second fewest of the league’s 13-game starters.
8. Jacksonville. Blake Bortles has avoided interceptions in seven games this season, and Jacksonville has won them all. In his last two games he has passed for 577 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions. He also has taken only two sacks the last two weeks in victories over the Colts and Seahawks to put the Jaguars in the driver’s seat of the AFC South with a 9-4 record.
9. Atlanta. In 64 games this season an NFL team has been penalized 10-plus times. San Francisco and Seattle have both committed 10-penalty games five times apiece. Atlanta, Dallas and Tampa Bay are the only teams that have not endured a 10-penalty game. In fact, the Falcons have not committed a 10-penalty game for two seasons now.
10. LA Chargers. QB Philip Rivers is on fire – and so is his team. In his last three games, Rivers has completed 71 of his 107 passes for 1,097 yards with six touchdowns and no interceptions. The Chargers have won all three games to improve to 7-6 for a share of first place in the AFC West with Kansas City. Rivers passed for 434 yards against Dallas, 344 against Cleveland and 319 against Washington.
11. Seattle. Since the bye, Russell Wilson has thrown at least two touchdown passes in eight consecutive games. He had a four-TD game against Houston, 3 TDs against the Giants, Eagles and Jaguars and 2 TDs against the Redskins, Cardinals, Falcons and 49ers to single-handedly keep the Seahawks in playoff contention at 8-5.
12. Tennessee. The Titans have 20 sacks in their last three games. That’s more sacks than the Buccaneers have all season. Tennessee has had a pair of eight-sack games on the road against Indianapolis and Arizona during that stretch. Eleven different Titans have had sacks over the last three weeks, topped by the 3 ½ of outside linebacker Brian Orakpo.
13. Baltimore. The Ravens are 7-6 but remain very much in the playoff picture because of their schedule. Baltimore has games remaining with winless Cleveland, 5-8 Cincinnati and 3-10 Indianapolis. Only the Cleveland game this Sunday is in the road. And the Ravens have been playing their best football of late, winning three in a row before losing by a point at Pittsburgh last weekend. A 10-6 record should clinch a wild card for the Ravens.
14. Dallas. Receivers Dez Bryant, Jason Witten and Cole Beasley form the backbone of the Dallas passing attack. But backup running back Rod Smith has more 100-yard receiving games for the Cowboys this season than the combined total of Bryant, Witten and Beasley. Smith has one – a five-catch, 113-yard performance in last weekend’s victory over the Giants. Bryant has now gone 13 games without a 100-yard, Witten 21 games and Beasley 37 games.
15. Detroit. The Lions are trying to mount a late playoff run with the NFL’s worst rushing attack. Their leading rusher, Ameer Abdullah, ranks 29th in the NFL in rushing with 505 yards but was a game-day inactive last week. Detroit is averaging only 76 yards on the ground per game. Three NFL teams reached the Super Bowl with the NFL’s worst rushing attack – the 2008 Cardinals, 2009 Colts and 2011 Giants. But only the Giants won a championship with no running game.
16. Kansas City. Kareem Hunt of the Chiefs, Leonard Fournette of the Jaguars and Jordan Howard of the Bears all rushed for 100 yards last Sunday – the fifth 100-yard rushing game of the season for each. They share the NFL lead for 100-yard games this season.
17. Green Bay. The Packers are 7-6 on the season but a league-leading 3-0 in overtimes. Green Bay has topped Cincinnati, Cleveland and Tampa Bay in extra time. There have been 14 overtime games this season, and Arizona and Chicago have won two overtime games apiece this season.
18. Buffalo. There has been no better snow back in NFL history than LeSean McCoy. In 2013, playing on a Philadelphia field blanketed with eight inches of snow, McCoy rushed for 217 yards in an Eagles’ victory over Detroit. Then last Sunday, on another snow-packed field in Buffalo, McCoy rushed for 156 yards on a career-high 32 carries in a Bills’ victory.
22. Miami. Now we know why Dolphins coach Adam Gase was so eager to unload his Pro Bowl running back, Jay Ajayi. Gase had Kenyan Drake waiting in the wings. Drake was a third-round pick out of Alabama in 2016 who touched the ball only 42 times from scrimmage as a rookie. In the last two weeks Drake has rushed for his first two 100-yard games — 120 yards on 23 carries against Denver and 114 yards on 25 carries against New England. The Dolphins won both games to improve to 6-7.
19. Arizona. The Cardinals have played the last 12 games without their Pro Bowl RB David Johnson, the last six games without QB Carson Palmer, the last three games without backup QB Drew Stanton and the last two games without former NFL rushing champion Adrian Peterson. Little wonder they have been staggered as an offense (20th in the NFL) and as a playoff contender (6-7).
20. Oakland. Pro Bowl WR Amari Cooper had a 210-yard receiving game against Kansas City this season. But he has only 289 yards in the other 11 games he has played. His disappearance from the offense has been a contributing factor in the collapse of the Raiders this season. They entered September with Super Bowl aspirations but are staggering home in December at 6-7.
21. NY Jets. There are still 10 non-conference games left on the schedule, but the AFC would have to win all 10 to catch the NFC. With one more victory, the NFC will have clinched the interconference series for the fifth time in seven years. The Jets, Browns and Bengals all remain winless against the NFC, with the Jets and Browns at 0-3 and the Bengals at 0-2. The Jets have one last chance to salvage a victory Sunday at New Orleans. The NFC has a 32-22 edge over the AFC heading into Week 15.
23. Cincinnati. Andy Dalton says the Bengals are now playing for pride – but they’ll need a three-game winning streak to finish the season at 8-8 to achieve it. Good luck with that. The next three games are against playoff contenders Minnesota, Detroit and Baltimore – and the Bengals are coming off a 33-7 home shellacking at the hands of the lowly Chicago Bears.
24. Washington. The Redskins have allowed a league-high 344 points. They surrendered 30-plus points in their last two games, four of their last five and six of their last eight. Washington has lost all six of those games to tumble out of playoff contention with a 5-8 record.
25. Chicago. Kendall Wright gave the Bears their first 100-yard receiving game of the season with a 10-catch, 107-yard performance last weekend against the Bengals. That leaves Cleveland as the only NFL team still without a 100-yard receiver this season.
26. Denver. Only two NFL teams have failed to win a game on the road this season – the winless Browns and the Broncos. The last time Denver went winless on the road (0-7) was 1964 when the Broncos finished a franchise-worst 2-11-1. Denver has road games remaining against Indianapolis and Washington to pick up that first road victory.
27. Tampa Bay. Alabama’s O.J. Howard was the best tight end in college football in 2016 and had the chance to have a real impact in the NFL after the Buccaneers drafted him with the 19th overall selection last April. Well, it hasn’t materialized. Howard ranks 131st in the NFL in receiving with just 25 catches. He has five touchdowns, but the Bucs have squandered them in a 4-9 season.
28. Houston. DeAndre Hopkins leads the NFL with 11 touchdown receptions. Ten of them have come at home. His lone road TD came in his 224-yard game at Seattle in October. But the Texans now finish with two of their last three games on the road.
29. San Francisco. The 49ers have thrown a league-low 10 touchdown passes this season. Brian Hoyer opened the season as the starter and passed for four TDs in his six starts. He was replaced by C.J. Beathard, who passed for four TDs in his five starts. Now Jimmy Garoppolo has two TD passes in his two starts. The Colts and Titans are next on the passing futility list with only 11 touchdowns apiece.
30. Indianapolis. Adam Vinatieri needs only 83 points to pass Hall-of-Famer Morten Andersen as the NFL’s all-time leading scorer. But with the Indy offense grinding to a halt without Andrew Luck this season, Vinatieri’s pursuit has been slowed to a crawl. He ranks 19th in the NFL in scoring with 84 points and has three games left to score the 16 points that will give him his seventh consecutive 100-point season and 21st of his career. But Vinatieri has scored only 15 points over his last three games.
31. NY Giants. Eli Manning may be back, but his Giants aren’t. The Cowboys welcomed Manning back to the lineup by handing the Giants their third consecutive loss and sixth in the last seven games. In the one game the Giants won during that stretch, they only managed 12 points. The Giants have allowed 122 more points than they have scored. Only the winless Browns have a worse point differential.
32. Cleveland. The Browns have three chances remaining in their bid to win a game and avoid joining the 2008 Detroit Lions as the only 0-16 teams in NFL history. Cleveland closes out its home schedule Sunday against Baltimore, then hits the road for its final two games at Chicago and Pittsburgh. Only the game with the Bears appears winnable – but Chicago is 3-0 against the AFC North this season.