Rick Gosselin's Week 17 NFL rankings

Michael Thomas photo courtesy of USA Today

The two best teams in the NFL are in the NFC

Editor's note: Rick Gosselin is in his 46th season reporting on the NFL in 2018. He has covered the Lions, Giants, Chiefs and Cowboys in his career plus 35 Super Bowls. He has served on the Hall of Fame selection committee and is a member of both the senior and contributor sub-committees. Gosselin also is one of the 12 voters for the AP 32, the weekly ranking of NFL teams conducted by the Associated Press. Here is his final ballot for Week 17:

1. New Orleans Saints. Michael Thomas became the first Saint to leads the NFL in receiving since Danny Abramowicz in 1969. Thomas caught 12 passes for 1,405 yards and nine touchdowns. Abramowicz caught 73 passes for 1,015 yards and seven touchdowns 49 years ago to win his crown.

2. Los Angeles Rams. Aaron Donald won his first sack title but did not break Michel Strahan’s single-season sack record of 22 ½. His 20 ½ sacks did set a new mark for NFL defensive tackles, though. Keith Millard of the Vikings set the bar for tackles in 1989 when he sacked 18 quarterbacks on his way to NFL Defensive Player of the Year honors.

3. Kansas City Chiefs. Patrick Mahomes became only the second quarterback in NFL history to pass for 5,000 yards with 50 touchdowns in a single season. The first was Peyton Manning, whose 5,477-yard, 55-TD season in 2013 earned him NFL MVP acclaim. Mahomes led the NFL with 10 300-yard passing games in his first season as a starter. He had two 6-TD games and five 4-TD games.

4. Chicago Bears. Defense still wins in Chicago. The Bears led the NFL with 39 takeaways, eight more than anyone else. They led the NFL with 27 interceptions and also recovered nine fumbles. Chicago returned those takeaways for an NFL-high six return touchdowns, including three by Pro Bowl safety Eddie Jackson.

5. Los Angeles Chargers. QB Philip Rivers was the driving force in L.A.’s 12-4 finish and wild-card playoff berth. He completed 68.3 percent of his passes for 4,308 yards and 32 touchdowns. Only one defense all season denied him a touchdown pass – the Baltimore Ravens, who host the Chargers in the wild-card round this weekend.

6. Houston Texans. DeShaun Watson was sacked an NFL-high 62 times this season – the first quarterback sacked 60 times in a season since Jon Kitna was dumped 63 times with the Detroit Lions in 2006. Watson was sacked seven times apiece by the Colts and Bills, six times apiece by the Jets and Jaguars and five times in another game with the Colts. The only defense that did not sack Watson this season was the Dolphins – and he threw a season-high five TDs in that game.

7. New England Patriots. The Patriots have reached the playoffs 16 times in Tom Brady’s 18 seasons as a starter. He has posted a 26-12 record in the month of January, winning 68.4 percent of his starts on the way to eight Super Bowl games and five Lombardi Trophies.

8. Indianapolis Colts. Stand up and take a bow, offensive line of the Colts. Indy allowed a league-low 18 sacks – protection that allowed QB Andrew Luck to pass for 4,593 yards and an NFL-runnerup 39 touchdowns. Luck has been sacked once or fewer in 11 of the 16 games and his blocking front kept him upright in six of those games for the playoff-bound Colts.

9. Seattle Seahawks. The Seahawks won 10 games this season because they don’t beat themselves, committing a league-low 11 turnovers this season. QB Russell Wilson has thrown only seven interceptions and lost two fumbles. Seattle leads the NFL in rushing yards (2,560) and NFC in rushing attempts (534). The Seahawks have three different backs with 100-yard rushing games this season yet those backs lost just two fumbles all season.

10. Dallas Cowboys. Ezekiel Elliott has now won two NFL rushing titles in his three NFL seasons and is in fast company historically. His 5,247 total yards from scrimmage through three seasons rank him fourth all-time behind Hall of Famer LaDainian Tomlinson (6,145), Hall of Famer Eric Dickerson (5,796) and Hall of Fame finalist Edgerrin James (5,297).

11. Baltimore Ravens. The Ravens bring the NFL’s top-rated defense into post-season play. The NFL’s No. 1 ranked defense has won 12 Super Bowls, including two in the last five years – the 2015 Denver Broncos and the 2013 Seattle Seahawks.

12. Pittsburgh Steelers. The Steelers tied the Kansas City Chiefs for the NFL sack lead with 52. KC’s 52 sacks helped the Chiefs win the AFC West add earn the top seed in the AFC playoff bracket. Pittsburgh’s 52 sacks went for naught. The Steelers finished 9-6-1 and missed out on the playoffs.

13. Philadelphia Eagles. The Eagles are now 9-2 over the last two seasons with Nick Foles filling in for the injured Carson Wentz at quarterback. He posted a 5-1 record in leading the Eagles to their first Lombardi Trophy in 2017 and has won four of his five starts this season. He defeated two division champions in December, the Rams and Texans. He threw for 471 yards and four touchdowns in the victory over Houston.

Nick Foles photo courtesy of USA Today

14. Tennessee Titans. The Titans missed out on the playoffs despite a 9-7 record but don’t blame Derrick Henry. The former Alabama Heisman Trophy winner posted the first 1,000-yard rushing season of his three-year career, averaging 4.9 yards per carry with 12 touchdowns. He rushed for eight of those TDs in the month of December as the Titans went 4-1 to put themselves in position to reach the playoffs.

15. Minnesota Vikings. The Vikings and Jacksonville Jaguars both tumbled from the conference championship game in 2017 right out of the playoffs in 2018. Kirk Cousins was a disappointment at quarterback. The Vikings gave him an $84 million contract to help them take the next step in their progression as a Super Bowl contender – but it was a step backward. His arm wasn’t enough to get the Vikings over the hump against the good teams. Minnesota finished 8-7-1 – but 1-6 against the NFL’s 2018 playoff field.

16. Cleveland Browns. GM John Dorsey was second-guessed for selecting undersized Heisman Trophy winner Baker Mayfield with the first overall pick of the 2018 draft. It turns out he was right. Mayfield came off the bench in the third game and made his first start in the fourth game, leading the Browns to a 7-8-1 record and setting an NFL rookie-record with 27 touchdown passes. In his two games against Baltimore and the NFL’s No. 1-ranked defense, Mayfield threw for 342 and 376 yards with a combined four TD passes in splitting the two decisions.

17. Atlanta Falcons. The Atlanta Falcons need to figure out how to make better use of Julio Jones’ NFL-leading 1,677 receiving yards. He converted them into only eight touchdowns. Antonio Brown caught 15 TD passes, Davante Adams 13, Tyreek Hill 12, DeAndre Hopkins 11 and Calvin Ridley 10. When you catch 113 passes like Jones did this season, you need to get into the end zone more than eight times.

18. Carolina Panthers. Atlanta wasn’t the only offense that wasted a brilliant individual offensive effort on the way to a 7-9 finish. Christian McCaffrey finished sixth in the league in rushing with 1,098 yards for the Panthers and also set an NFL record for receptions by a running back with 107. He finished third in the NFL in yards from scrimmage behind Barkley and Elliott and ninth in touchdowns with 13. But, like Julio Jones, he’ll be watching the playoffs from home.

19. Miami Dolphins. The Dolphins begin their search for a new coach, firing offensive guru Adam Gase one year removed from a wild-card playoff appearance. But the Dolphins were 23-25 during Gase’s three-year tenure and wasted a 3-0 start to this season with a 7-9 finish. Miami ranked 31st in the NFL in offense and 29th in defense. The next coach must determine if Ryan Tannehill is indeed the answer at quarterback.

21. Green Bay Packers. Few teams protect the ball like the Green Bay Packers and their quarterback Aaron Rodgers. He threw only two interceptions and the Packers committed only 15 turnovers, second fewest in the league. But an inability to run the ball allowed defenses to tee off on Rodgers as he was sacked 49 times in a 6-9-1 season. Green Bay needs a running game to complement Rodgers. The Packers haven’t had a 1,000-yard rusher since Eddie Lacy in 2014.

21. Washington Redskins. The Redskins ran through four quarterbacks this season because of injuries. That’s enough to sink a season. But the turnover on the offensive line accelerated Washington’s demise in 2018. The 7-9 Redskins started 11 different players up front and eight different line combinations. Washington lost both starting guards (Shawn Lauvao and Brandon Scherff) for the season with injuries in the eighth game. Right tackle Morgan Moses was the only blocker who started all 16 games at his same position.

22. Buffalo Bills. Josh Allen has the running part down as a quarterback. He led all NFL QBs with eight rushing touchdowns this season and posted a pair of 100-yard rushing games plus two more games in the 90s. But it’s his passing that’s going to need some offseason work. He completed only 52.8 percent of his throws in his rookie season with more interceptions (12) than touchdowns (10). But he finished the season on a high note with a career-best 3 TD passes in a victory over the Dolphins.

Josh Allen photo courtesy of USA Today

23. Detroit Lions. The Lions hired Matt Patricia away from the Patriots in 2018 to fix the defense and he did just that. Detroit vaulted from 27th in 2017 to 10th this season. Now Patricia needs to focus on fixing the offense – and he can do that by putting some playmakers around QB Matthew Stafford. TE Eric Ebron left in free agency last offseason and became a Pro Bowler at Indianapolis, then GM Bob Quinn dealt his best WR Golden Tate to Philadelphia at the trade deadline.

24. Denver Broncos. The Broncos begin their search for a new coach, firing defensive guru Vance Joseph after consecutive double-digit loss seasons. Since 2010 Denver has drafted three quarterbacks with premium picks and none panned out – Tim Tebow in 2010, Brock Osweiler in 2012 and Paxton Lynch in 2016. All are gone. The Broncos still need a quarterback. Denver won Super Bowls with John Elway and Peyton Manning. They aren’t going to win one with Case Keenum.

25. Cincinnati Bengals. The Bengals begin their search for a new coach, firing Marvin Lewis after a 16-year run that did not include a single playoff victory. Bill Belichick was the only NFL coach who had been on the job longer than Lewis and he leaves as the winningest coach in franchise history with 130. There’s much to fix – the Bengals finished 26th in offense and last in defense this season.

26. Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Buccaneers begin the search for a new coach, firing offensive guru Dirk Koetter after a second consecutive 5-11 season. Tampa Bay might want to return to the Tony Dungy-defensive roots and find someone who knows how to stop offenses. The Bucs allowed an NFC-high 464 points and an NFL-high seven 300-yard passers. Opposing quarterbacks completed an NFL-high 72.5 percent of their passes with 35 touchdowns and only nine interceptions.

27. New York Giants. Eli Manning is finding a second wind at 38 years of age with Saquon Barkley in his backfield. Barkley is now the focus of the offense – he led the NFL in yards from scrimmage with 2,028, finishing second in rushing (1,307 yards) and catching a team-leading 91 passes. That’s eased the offensive burden on Manning, who threw his fewest interceptions (11) since 2008. He completed a career-best 66 percent of his passes for 4,299 yards and 21 touchdowns.

28. Jacksonville Jaguars. The Broncos aren’t the only team in the market for a quarterback. GM Tom Coughlin gambled that his defense and running game could carry QB Blake Bortles to another AFC title game. Bortles built false hope, leading the Jaguars on a 2-0 start, including a victory over the Patriots during which he passed for 377 yards and four touchdowns. But Bortles threw only eight TD passes against nine interceptions the rest of the way – a stretch that included a four-game benching. He also lost four fumbles in a 5-11 collapse by the Jaguars.

29. New York Jets. The Jets also begin their search for a new coach today, firing defensive guru Todd Bowles after a 4-12 season. New York may want to find a coach who can accelerate the development of QB Sam Darnold. The third overall selection of the 2018 NFL draft, Darnold completed only 57.7 percent of his passes for an efficiency rating of 77.6 to finish 38th in the NFL in passing. In eight of his 13 starts he threw one TD pass or fewer.

30. San Francisco 49ers. The 49ers will have the second pick of the 2019 NFL draft and GM John Lynch better use it to find a defensive playmaker. San Francisco forced a league-low seven turnovers, intercepting just two passes and recovering only five fumbles. In comparison, the Rams, who won the NFC West, intercepted 18 passes and recovered 12 fumbles. The 49ers didn’t intercept a pass in the last eight weeks of the season. They intercepted Philip Rivers in the fourth game and Josh Rosen in the eighth game.

31. Oakland Raiders. The Raiders have the fourth pick of the 2019 NFL draft and coach Jon Gruden better use it to find a pass rusher. Oakland finished last in the NFL in sacks with 13. The Raiders were limited to one sack or fewer in 15 of their 16 games and were blanked four times. In comparison, the Chiefs, who won the AFC West, collected 41 more sacks than the 4-12 Raiders. If you can’t pressure quarterbacks, you cannot win in the NFL.

32. Arizona Cardinals. The Cardinals own the first pick in the 2019 NFL draft and would be wise to trade it away to a quarterback-needy team. Arizona already has its quarterback in Josh Rosen. GM Steve Keim needs multiple picks to fix all that ails the Cardinals and trading out of the first choice would supply him those picks. The Cardinals finished last in the NFL across the board in passing, rushing, offense and scoring. They also finished last in the NFL in run defense. The Cardinals needed bodies – big bodies – to repopulate the offensive and defensive lines. Games are won in the pits.

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