Before the current NFL season started, it seemed to be a no-brainer as to who the best and most accomplished team of the decade was.
#3: Indianapolis Colts
The NFL is a “just win, baby” league. So while the Colts are the most consistent, high-scoring and best regular season team of recent times, they have just one Super Bowl title to show for it. The Peyton Manning-led team hasn’t won a single playoff game since beating the Chicago Bears in Super Bowl XLI in the 2006-2007 season and has won only seven playoff games in the decade so far. Call the Colts football’s version of the Atlanta Braves, if you will.
What also makes them a somewhat strong contender is that this offensive-mined team has gotten better defensively over the last few years, with Dwight Freeney, Bob Sanders –- even if he’s a bit overrated — and Robert Mathis leading the charge. The Colts offense’s ability to take late-game leads and have its defense shut down opposing offenses to seal wins is what made them champions and sent its rival, the New England Patriots, home in the 2006-2007 AFC Championship game. All that said, the Colts finish third on my list due to its low winning percentage in postseason play in the 2000s. Even if the Colts win its second Super Bowl of the decade in February (and thus make me edit this thing), they can finish no higher than second place.
#2: Pittsburgh Steelers
The pluses: Ben Roethlisberger and Steeltown won two Super Bowls in four seasons in the second half of the decade (2005, 2008) and 10 postseason games overall from 2000-2008. The minuses: With average players like Kordell Stewart, Tommy Maddox and others at quarterback in the first half, the Steelers had little playoff success, including an upset home loss to the Pats in the 2001-2002 AFC Championship game. And it has missed the playoffs outright every three years since 2000 and may do so again in this decade’s final year.
However, Big Ben, ex-Steeler Joey Porter, Troy Polamalu, Hines Ward and others have led the Steelers to three AFC championship games in the last five seasons, winning two of them en route to two Super Bowls. For that, they are number two on my list.
#1: The New England Patriots Dynasty
And that leaves these guys, led by a quarterback everyone seems to love (Tom Brady) and a head coach (Bill Belichick) many more seem to intensely dislike.
Simply put, they are the NFL team of the 2000s for winning three Super Bowls (XXXVI, XXXVIII, XXXIX) and achieving an undefeated 16-0 regular season (2007) for only the second time in NFL history — the 14-0 ’72 Dolphins was the other — which took them to a fourth Super Bowl (losing to the NY Giants). Year after year they get the most out of overlooked or average talent. Versatile linebacker Mike Vrabel, the indispensable pass-catching RB Kevin Faulk, the selfless leadership of the now-retired WR/PR (and volunteer CB) Troy Brown, and the essential WR/PR Wes Welker are some examples or major contributors to Pats success few expected at the outset.
With Charlie Weis and later Josh McDaniels as offensive coordinator, New England produced two of the NFL’s most unexpected quarterback success stories of the decade in future Canton inductee Tom Brady, a 2000 sixth round pick out of Michigan, and on a lesser but still impressive level, Matt Cassel. A 2005 seventh round draft pick out of USC who hadn’t played a full football game since high school, he had a near-Pro Bowl-type season in his only full year starting in place of an injured Tom Brady in 2008-2009, winning 11 games. The Pats only missed the playoffs by being on the wrong end of a three-way tiebreaker with Miami and Baltimore.
After the season, Cassel was rewarded for his fine year by being traded to the team that ended Brady’s season, Kansas City, where he received a whopping six-year, $63 million contract.
On defense, the power trio of defensive-minded Belichick, and defensive coordinators Romeo Crennel and one-time successor Eric Mangini -– also a one-time Pats DB coach -– guided the likes of Ty Law, Richard Seymour, Rodney Harrison, Asante Samuel, and Tedy Bruschi to success in the snow, the Louisiana Superdome, and everywhere else for much of the decade.
And finally, on special teams, the X-factor the Pats had that Oakland, San Diego, Pittsburgh, Indy, St. Louis and so many others did not when facing New England in its Super Bowl runs was Adam Vinatieri, the most clutch field goal kicker of the decade by a long mile. (Indy snatched him up in free agency a few years back to help win their Super Bowl.)
With three NFL championships in four seasons, the Patriots were dubbed a “dynasty” halfway through the decade in many corners, the only NFL team who earned that distinction. And in the second half of the 2000s, the Pats came close to winning two more in 2006-2007 and 2007-2008, and set all kinds of offensive records in the latter campaign, with Brady topping friend/rival Peyton Manning’s 49 TDs with a record 50, and Randy Moss, in his first season in Foxboro, shattering Jerry Rice’s record with 23 TD receptions in a season.
What’s most amazing about the Patriots’ three title runs is that except for Deion Branch, Tom Brady did not have elite wide receivers (no offense, Troy Brown) nor an elite running back to hand off to until Corey Dillon came along for the Pats’ Super Bowl XXXIX run in 2004-2005. The defense quietly did their job as well. They won as a group, not as individual stars. And even with Moss in town for almost three seasons, the Pats continue to succeed, winning 37 regular season and postseason games combined through last Sunday, and have won 14 postseason games in the 2000s, the most of any NFL team.
Though another Super Bowl title for the Patriots and two-time SB MVP Tom Brady wouldn’t hurt this year, he and the Patriots have nothing left to prove in this decade. Peyton Manning may be the best quarterback of the 2000s, but the New England Patriots were the Best Damn NFL Team … period.