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NFL Films Declares Patriots “Team of the Decade”

With the decade over, NFL Films has put together a compilation called “Best of the Decade”, which I can only presume is now airing on the NFL Network. In it, they have declared the New England Patriots the Team of the Decade for their achievements. No team won more Super Bowls than the Pats in the 2000s. The Steelers came close, and had it not been for a dominant 2004 AFC Championship Game performance by the Pats, we may be talking about the Steelers’ dynasty right now. The Colts could have two rings right now, and if they did, their entry into the conversation would be difficult to deny. But the Patriots have defeated those foes time and time again in the playoffs, and in doing so established one of the most successful runs any team has ever had.

When the decade began, the Patriots were coming off of an 8-8 record in 1999. The team had not performed to expectations under head coach Pete Carroll, who was fired after four years of mediocrity. Their search for a new coach led them to the front door of Bill Belichick, a man whose previous stint as head coach of the Cleveland Browns had ended with a 36-44 record and a solitary playoff win against the Patriots in 1994. The Patriots traded a first-round draft pick to the New York Jets in exchange for his rights, and team owner Robert Kraft bequeathed full control over football operations to the once-derided Belichick.

The team stumbled at first: it was a rebuilding year. A 5-11 record gave New England the draft position they needed to select defensive tackle Richard Seymour from Georgia, who would stick with the team until the 2009 season and serve as a staple of the defensive line.

In 2001, expectations were as low as ever for New England. The team started off slow, and disaster struck when franchise quarterback Drew Bledsoe took a vicious hit in the second half of a Week 2 game against the Jets. The hit sheared a blood vessel in his chest, sidelining him for the rest of the season. In his place stepped second-year signal caller Tom Brady, a sixth-round draft pick from the University of Michigan. Patriots fans were skeptical at first, but Brady proved himself up to the challenge. At first, his job was only to manage the game: he didn’t throw a touchdown pass until his third start, and runningback Antowain Smith was tasked with being the engine of the defense while Brady got up to speed. He bested Colts QB Peyton Manning twice, and ended the season with a six-game winning streak and an 11-3 record as a starting quarterback. In doing so, he earned the Patriots their first playoff bye since 1996.

The AFC divisional game was a harsh lesson for the young quarterback. The Oakland Raiders were coming to town and flying high after a 38-24 crushing of the Jets in the Wild Card round. The Patriots had all they could handle early and found themselves down 13-3 through three quarters. In the fourth, Brady got hot in the wintry snow, completing 10 straight passes and scoring a touchdown to close the gap to 3 with less than five minutes left. The defense came up with a crucial stop, and the Pats went to work again until Brady coughed up the football after a vicious hit by CB Charles Woodson. The fumble gave the Raiders the ball with the lead, but a booth review overturned the call. Brady’s arm was moving forward at the time of the fumble, thus it was an incomplete pass. The overturned call deflated the Raiders defense, and allowed the Pats to get into good enough position to attempt a 45-yard field goal. Kicker Adam Vinatieri kicked it through the uprights, and then kicked another in overtime to get a 16-13 victory, their first in the playoffs since 1997.

In the AFC title game, the Patriots were up against the 13-3 Pittsburgh Steelers, a team that had earned its place in the game by besting the defending world champion Ravens in the Divisional Round. This time, the Pats were determined to keep the game from going to overtime. The Pats struggled on offense, but managed to force four turnovers while not committing any themselves. Tom Brady suffered an injury that allowed Drew Bledsoe to come in and throw his first pass in three months: an 11 yard touchdown to David Patten. The Patriots shocked the Steelers, and were headed to their third Super Bowl in their 41-year existence.

Super Bowl XXXVI was considered one of the greatest mismatches of the Super Bowl era. The St. Louis Rams, led by league MVP QB Kurt Warner and three-time Offensive Player of the Year RB Marshall Faulk, had earned the best record in the NFL and were 14-point favorites heading into the game. Unlike the Patriots’ close victories in the playoffs, the Rams had paved their way to the Super Bowl by crushing the opposition in the tournament. No one thought they had a chance, but the Pats knew what they had to do. The Patriots hung in tough, racking up a 17-3 lead in the third quarter. The Rams came roaring back with two quick fourth-quarter touchdowns to tie the game at 17. The Patriots got to the Rams’ 31 yard line to set up a 48 yard field goal attempt by Adam Vinatieri. As he had done in the two playoff games before, his kick was the final score of the game, sealing a Patriots victory, their first Super Bowl win in franchise history. Tom Brady earned MVP honors for his performance. Drew Bledsoe, who had spent the first eight years of his career with New England, would be signed by the Buffalo Bills after that year.

2002 was a strange year for New England. The defense was average at best all season long, forcing the Patriots to win shootouts with the Chiefs, Raiders, and Bears. Through fourteen weeks, the Patriots were 8-5 and looked to be in position for another playoff run, but consecutive losses to the Titans and Jets doomed their chances. They would finish the season 9-7 and out of the playoffs despite Tom Brady leading the NFL in touchdowns in only his third year in the league, with 28. That offseason, the Patriots made some changes. They got rid of star safety Lawyer Milloy, who would go on to join Bledsoe in Buffalo. In his place, the Patriots added the talent of Rodney Harrison. They also brought Ty Warren, Asante Samuel, and Eugene Wilson in the draft to bolster the defense, as well as Dan Koppen to beef up the offensive line. The additions would pay dividends of championship proportions.

In 2003, the Patriots opened the season against the Buffalo Bills. The Bills put on a clinic and handed Belichick the worst loss of his tenure as coach of the Patriots, 31-0. They’d lose again three weeks later against the Washington Redskins. It was the last game they’d lose all season. The Patriots set the league on fire, winning 12 straight to end the year. The last win was a repayment for their Week 1 defeat at Buffalo. The Bills came to Gillette Stadium and were routed by the exact same score: 31-0.

At 14-2, the Patriots earned yet another playoff bye. They clashed with the Titans, who took the Patriots to the wire. At 14-all, it was up to Adam Vinatieri to once again deliver the Patriots a playoff victory. From 46 yards, the ball split the uprights and secured a playoff date with the Indianapolis Colts in the conference championship.

The Colts were the league’s second-best offense, and had earned their way into the AFC title game by winning a shootout against Trent Green and the Kansas City Chiefs, who were the top offense. However, the Patriots held the Colts scoreless in the first half and held off their attempts to rally late. With a 24-14 win, the Patriots earned yet another trip to the Super Bowl to play the Carolina Panthers.

Carolina had one person to thank for their entry into Super Bowl XXXVIII: K John Kasay. The 12th-year veteran from Georgia had kicked 29 of the Panthers’ 72 playoff points. Another part of the Panthers’ success story was QB Jake Delhomme who, like Tom Brady before him, took over for a veteran quarterback in QB Rodney Peete and became a hero for the team, which had gone 1-15 the year before. Known for his gunslinger mentality, Delhomme wasn’t afraid to take big risks, and they usually paid off with big rewards. His receiving corps, starring WRs Steve Smith, Muhsin Muhammad and Ricky Proehl, was among the betters in the league. Regardless, the Patriots were favored to win over the insurgent Panthers by a 7-point spread.

The game began with both defenses playing tough. It was expected to be a Patriots’ blowout, but neither team scored until there were only three minutes left in the second quarter. Then, things erupted. Brady and Delhomme traded touchdown passes. Brady would then score again on a quick 78-yard drive that took all of 49 seconds. The score was 14-10 at halftime. One egregious wardrobe malfunction later, the teams were back on the field, but were once again held scoreless for an entire quarter. The Patriots expanded their lead to open the fourth, marching 71 yards in four minutes to make it 21-10. The Panthers didn’t lie down, and threw together two fast scoring drives to make it 22-21. The Pats answered with Brady’s third touchdown pass of the game, a 1-yard pass to linebacker Mike Vrabel. A two-point conversion made it 29-21, but the Panthers refused to go quietly. With three minutes left, Delhomme went 5-of-6 for 79 yards, capping off the drive with a 12-yard touchdown pass to Ricky Proehl.

The game was knotted at 29, and it was anyone’s contest, but a disastrous kickoff by John Kasay, who had been unflappable in the games leading up to the Super Bowl, sailed out of bounds. The penalty gave Brady and company the ball at their own 40 yard line with 1:08 on the clock and all three of their timeouts. It was more than enough. The Patriots moved into field-goal range and, once again, Adam Vinatieri got to play the role of the hero, kicking another spectacular field goal with mere seconds left to win his team the Super Bowl, 32-29.

In 2004, New England started the season 6-0, and then ran into the white-hot Pittsburgh Steelers. The Steelers took a 21-3 lead and never let up, finishing the game with a 34-20 win. The loss ended the longest consecutive win streak in NFL history at 21 games. The Patriots would only lose once more, on a last-second rally by the Miami Dolphins in Week 15. Throughout the season, the Patriots were the class of the league, shutting down opponents by an average score of 27-16. In the playoffs, the Patriots’ two largest nemeses would face-off against them.

The Indianapolis Colts of 2004 were the league’s top offense, led by Peyton Manning and his record-breaking 49 touchdown passes and season QB rating of over 120. To paraphrase what play-by-play man Gil Santos would go on to say at the end of the game, the Patriots held the offensive juggernaut to just 3 points in the AFC divisional game. Manning was visibly frustrated by the Pats’ defense, which managed to hold him scoreless. The 20-3 win set up a rematch with the Steelers in the AFC Championship.

The Steelers’ were the league’s top seed, a 15-1 defensive powerhouse with an awe-inspiring run game and an impeccably aware quarterback in Ben Roethlisberger. This time, it was New England that drew blood early and refused to let up. A 24-3 halftime advantage combined with their throttling of RB Jerome Bettis and the Steelers’ run game, forced Roethlisberger to throw more often than he was used to, baiting the rookie into costly and unseemly interceptions. When all was said and done, the league’s best defense allowed 34 points, and the Pats avenged their only big loss of the year, 41-27. For the fourth time in ten years, the Patriots were Super Bowl-bound and were squared up against yet another great team.

The 2004 Philadelphia Eagles were at the top of their game in the playoffs, earning easy wins against the Vikings and Falcons en route to their place on the world’s biggest stage. All season long, QB Donovan McNabb earned his place in the NFL’s elite with his accuracy and affinity with WR Terrell Owens. In the Super Bowl, it was Owens who would steal the show early, playing like his All-Pro self despite having multiple screws in his ankle after a horse-collar tackle left him brutalized. He led the Eagles receivers with nine catches and 122 receiving yards. The game was tied at 7 at halftime, then tied at 14 in the third quarter, with Brady and McNabb trading touchdown passes. Unfortunately, McNabb threw three picks despite having thrown only eight throughout the regular season and none in the playoffs. It didn’t take much for the Pats to capitalize on the costly mistakes. They were up 24-21 when McNabb had his last chance to drive the Eagles downfield to tie or win it, but his third and final pick was caught by Rodney Harrison, and the Pats became just the second team in NFL history to win three league titles in four years. The Eagles joined the Bills, Vikings, and Bengals as the only teams to lose two or more Super Bowls without having won at least once.

In 2005, the Patriots were forced to contend with the departure of both offensive coordinator Charlie Weis and defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel. The team declined sharply, with the defense finishing below league-average for the first time since 2000. Finishing at 10-6, the team won its third straight AFC East title and pounded the Jacksonville Jaguars in the Wild Card round of the playoffs, scoring 28 points on a top-10 defense. Unfortunately, the team ran into the Denver Broncos and the suddenly mistake-free play of QB Jake Plummer. The Broncos allowed the Patriots to rack up nearly 500 yards of offense, but captured five costly turnovers including an end-zone interception by CB Champ Bailey that they then returned 98 yards to set up a 1-yard touchdown run by RB Mike Anderson. After taking a 24-6 lead in the third quarter, the Broncos held on for a 27-13 win. The loss was the first ever in the playoffs for Brady, snapping a ten-game playoff winning streak.

2006 saw a return to the championship form of two years prior. The Patriots lost Deion Branch and David Givens to free agency, but they were replaced admirably by Reche Caldwell and 35-year old Troy Brown, the only offensive player remaining from the 1995 squad that lost Super Bowl XXXI. The team ran roughshod over weaker teams like the Texans and Vikings, and eked out a 4-point win against the eventual NFC champion Bears. In the playoffs, the Patriots smashed the rival Jets 37-16, and earned themselves a match with the 14-2 San Diego Chargers and league MVP LaDainian Tomlinson, a popular pick to win it all that year.

On January 14, 2007, the Patriots came out to Qualcomm Stadium with an air of confidence, despite their status as steep underdogs in one of the most hostile playing environments in the NFL. The team had a single goal: stop the Chargers’ aerial attack. The Chargers ripped off a 14-3 lead in the second quarter thanks to their harrying ground game, but Brady took the team down the field in time to score on a 6 yard pass to Jabar Gaffney to close the gap to just four points at halftime. In the third quarter, the Chargers would manage no points, as Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski drilled a 34-yard field goal to bring his team to within one. The fourth quarter allowed Tomlinson to score his second touchdown of the day on a three-yard dash, but New England wasn’t fazed. Down 21-13, the Pats drove down the field and scored on a four yard pass from Brady to Caldwell. The Chargers were forced to punt the ball back to New England, who then punched in a 31-yard Gostkowski kick to send San Diego home empty-handed. For the fourth time in six years, the Patriots were headed to the AFC Championship Game. For the third time, Brady would square off against Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line.

The Patriots started quickly, taking advantage of mental errors and turnovers to generate a 21-6 halftime advantage. It looked like business as usual for Manning, who just couldn’t seem to overcome the title of a choker who couldn’t win big games. However, the Colts stormed out of the gate at halftime and would outscore New England 32-13 in the second half. The Patriots and Colts traded shots throughout the fourth quarter until RB Joseph Addai ran into the end-zone from four yards out to take a four-point lead with less than two minutes to go. I’ll never forget the look on Peyton Manning’s face when Brady took the field. He’d seen this movie before, as the saying goes. Brady was known for winning close games with a combination of relentless precision, unparalleled vision, and ice-cold nerves. But it was this game in which he met his match, throwing an interception to CB Marlon Jackson and ending a season that had begun with such promise.

In the 2007 offseason, the theme was clear: Brady needed weapons to compete with the Peyton Mannings and Philip Riverses of the league. Scott Pioli and Belichick found him three: Wes Welker, an undersized slot receiver from Miami who’d made a reputation of being a dragon-killer against the Pats; Donte Stallworth, who had been cut by the Eagles for failing to abide by a substance abuse treatment program; and Randy Moss, a veteran once considered the second coming of Jerry Rice who had been disgraced after several years of poor performance for the cellar-dwelling Oakland Raiders. In addition, the Patriots snagged Kyle Brady, Sammy Morris, and Adalius Thomas.

The result was the greatest offense in the history of the NFL. Despite beginning the season by being humiliated with a scandal involving the recording of opponents’ playcalling signals, the Pats put on a show that nobody could stop, and became one of the greatest and most controversial teams of all time. Running what amounted to a pro-style spread offense the entire season, they ran up the score furiously and with reckless abandon on nearly every opponent. The average score of a Patriots game before the bye week was 39-16. Their closest win was a four-point contest against the Colts in Week 9. The Colts themselves were undefeated before that game, and it looked like another historic AFC Championship game between the league’s two best quarterbacks would be in the offing in January.

After their bye week, the Patriots’ picked up where they left off, dominating the rival Bills 56-10 in Buffalo. It was the most points scored by a road team in nearly 35 years. The team would then face daunting challenges from the Eagles and Ravens, beating both sub-par teams by three points each. Blowout wins against the Steelers and Dolphins left the Patriots 15-0 and awaiting their final game of the season: Week 17 at the New York Giants.

The 10-5 Giants had nothing to play for in terms of the playoff picture. Their division was already clinched by the 13-2 Dallas Cowboys, and their fate would be decided by the NFC’s other playoff contenders and how they finished. Coach Tom Coughlin decided to play his starters anyway, to force Belichick and Brady to play a meaningful game and earn their perfect season, not back into it. The game would be simulcast on three networks to potentially showcase the league’s first ever 16-0 perfect season.

The Giants gave the Pats all they could handle and then some. The game was 21-16 Giants at the half, the first time all year that the Patriots trailed at midgame. New England responded in their usual tremendous fashion, scoring 22 unanswered points to pound the Giants into submission. The 38-35 win was capped by Tom Brady breaking Peyton Manning’s record for touchdown passes in a season and Randy Moss breaking Jerry Rice’s record for touchdown receptions in a season on the same throw, a 65-yard bomb that signified a challenge: “We’re gunning for 19-0. We’ll take all comers. If you can stop this offense, you’ve earned your place among the 41 other champions, but we wouldn’t bet on it.”

The Patriots’ playoff run began in Foxboro, against the surging Jaguars. The Patriots were overwhelmingly favored, and Tom Brady looked peerless as usual. All game long, only two of his 27 throws were incompletions. Both of those were drops. QB David Garrard played at a high level, but it wasn’t enough to beat the Jaguars, who were sent home with a 31-20 loss.

The San Diego Chargers came to town after posting a shocking upset of the Indianapolis Colts, looking for their first AFC title since 1994, but were unable to find the end zone against New England. Four field goals and three interceptions of Brady weren’t enough, and the game ended with a 21-12 victory. The stage was set for Super Bowl XLII, to be played in sunny Glendale, Arizona. The 18-0 Patriots, the league’s showcase team, playing the 13-6 New York Giants, who had made it to the big game by besting the NFC’s two best teams in the playoffs. It was supposed to be a coronation for the Patriots, who had already beaten the Giants once before. The line for the game: New England, minus-14.

I’ve dissected the game to death in my head. I still have nightmares of multiple Giants linemen committing blatant holding while QB Eli Manning spins out of the worst sack attempt I’ve ever seen in the Super Bowl, then throwing a 32-yard bomb that gets caught in the most bizarre way as Rodney Harrison foolishly attempts to wrestle the receiver to the ground instead of attacking the ball. The game was decided by a mere three points, 17-14. The Giants got lucky: there were three fumbles in the game, all recovered by New York. Fumble recoveries are essentially random. The only interception in the game was thrown by Manning, and the Patriots failed to get points off of it. It was the most heartbreaking loss I’ve ever had to witness. New England hasn’t won a playoff game since.

2008 was supposed to be a year of redemption. The Pats were expected to steamroll the rest of the league again until, seven minutes into the first quarter of Week 1, Chiefs S Bernard Pollard slammed into Brady’s knee during a sack, shredding two crucial ligaments and ending his season. In his place came Matt Cassel, a career-long backup that never started a game in college or in the pros. Despite his inexperience and the total collapse of the Patriots’ pass defense due to the departure of multiple defensive starters, the Pats posted an 11-5 record that included blowout thrashings of the Cardinals, Broncos, Raiders, and Dolphins. It wasn’t enough, however, as the Dolphins posted a superior division record and earned their first AFC East title since 2000.

In 2009, questions lingered regarding how well Brady would recover from the brutal injury. For the first 55 minutes of the Pats’ season opener in Foxboro, he was inaccurate and unstable in the pocket, and the Buffalo Bills seized a 24-13 lead on the arm of underrated QB Trent Edwards. At that point, it was Brady and Ben Watson, a longtime staple of New England’s offense, who would deliver victory, with a little help from a boneheaded fumble by Bills KR Leodis McKelvin. The 25-24 victory was razor-thin, but it was enough to extend the Patriots’ streak of dominance over the Bills to 12 straight games.

In Week 6, Brady would look unstoppable in a snowy face-off against the 0-5 Titans. He threw for five touchdowns in the second quarter, an NFL record, and the Patriots would score 59 unanswered points. They’d continue where they left off in Week 7 in a London game against the winless Buccaneers, racking up a 35-7 win.

The team was high on life and confidence when they walked into Lucas Oil Stadium to play the undefeated Colts in Week 10. A win would put the Patriots in prime position to secure a playoff bye, as well as defend their record of 24 consecutive wins from the Colts, who needed just three more wins to break it. They started off quickly, posting a 24-14 halftime lead that would become 31-14. However, the Patriots would be outscored 21-3 in the final 18 minutes of the game, losing when a 4th and 2 pass to Kevin Faulk from their own 29 was stopped just short of the first down. They’d end the season 10-6, and lose at home in the playoffs for the first time in 31 years on January 10, 2010, against the Baltimore Ravens. Three first-quarter turnovers allowed the Ravens to compose a 24-6 halftime lead from which the Patriots would never recover.

The Packers of the 60s, the Steelers of the 70s, the 49ers of the 80s, the Cowboys of the 90s, and now, the Patriots of the 2000s. Team of the Decade. How sweet it is.

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