Watching the Pats-Colts rivalry over the past ten years has been an awesome experience as a sports fan (possibly even better than Yankees-Red Sox). That said, listening to commentators foolishly claim that the “team of the decade” title is a legitimate dispute depending on what happens this season has been pretty annoying; even if the Colts go undefeated and win the Super Bowl, they still won’t have been as successful as the Pats.
Basically the question is just a matter of whether you value the regular season more than the postseason. Assuming the Colts win out, they’ll have two Super Bowl wins (out of two SB trips) to the Pats three (out of four) and gone undefeated once (to the Pats once). The Colts would also have an edge in regular season victories of about 117-113. The Colts missed the playoffs only once this decade (2001), whereas the Pats missed three times (00, 01, and 08). Obviously, the Colts were a better regular season team and the Patriots excelled in the postseason. Clearly, the winning in the playoffs is far more important than winning in the regular season. QED, the Pats were better.
Just to pile on a bit more, three more things that tend to go unmentioned in the “best of the decade” discussion. The first is the continuous history of (utter) playoff failure by the Colts that to some extent continued even after they beat the Patriots in 2006 to enter (and win) their first Super Bowl. Over the past decades, the Colts lost their first playoff game five times (four Wild Card games and one Divisional Championships, all of which (I think) they were favored in). If they win this year’s Super Bowl, they’ll have made three Conference Championships, winning two of them. Compare this to the Patriots, who (with the exception of whatever happens this season) never lost their first playoff game and made five Conference Championships (winning four). The “Team of the Decade” is not the one that constantly disappoints its fans by losing games that matter. Second, the Colts have won more games and been more consistently good, but the Pats have been better at securing a bye in the first round (Pats had four this decade; the Colts had three), so the Patriots were generally better at winning regular season games that matter.
Third and most interestingly, the Pats consistently beat the best teams in the playoffs. This always struck me as the difference between the Pats and the Steelers this decade. Some years in the NFL are marked by a few dominant teams (take this year for example; the Colts, Saints, Vikings and Chargers are a cut above everyone else), and some years have much more parity (last year, two teams, the Steelers and Cardinals, caught fire to make it to the Super Bowl). Each year the Patriots won the Super Bowl, they beat dominant teams, often fairly convincingly. In 2001, they beat the Steelers and Rams both of which were 14-2 one seeds and the latter of which was considered historically good. In 2003, they beat both co-MVPs (Steve Mcnair on the Titans and Peyton Manning of the Colts) before facing a mediocre Carolina team. In 2004 (probably my favorite Pats season), they crushed the Colts, convincingly beat the 15-1 Steelers, and then beat the Eagles (the NFC’s one seed at 13-3, apparently they started out their season 13-1 before resting starters, which I don’t remember at all). By comparison, the 2006 Colts beat a good-but-not-great Pats team (who had upset the dominant Chargers the week before) . The 01, 03, 04, 07, and 09 seasons probably had the most historically great NFL teams this decade, and an underrated Patriots achievement rests in dominating most of those years.