The Patriots were (indisputably) the Best NFL Team this Decade

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.

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7 thoughts on “The Patriots were (indisputably) the Best NFL Team this Decade

    • Absolutely true. Brady is a prima donna deadbeat, and so is Randy Moss. And Bill Belichick is a cheating sack of crap in a sweatshirt.

      The Pats are absolutely the team of the decade, though. Luckily, in sports, only the current season matters.

  1. I seem to remember all the shit-talking of 2002, 2004, 2005…and I love defending my team. So here’s my take.

    I like to think a classy team hunkers down and does their job in the face of bullshit commentary, public “scandal” (read: the mangini spygate affair, out-of-wedlock babies, and Tom Brady’s personal life), and speculation by announcers and reporters who usually know no more about football than my mother does.

    The Colts have had their share of classlessness over the years, if memory serves me: Polian screaming on the sidelines to break Doug Flutie’s leg, team mgmt intentionally increasing the temperature on the flu-stricken Pats last January, and lest anyone forget, “speakergate” – the colts’ own little audio/video scandal.

    It’s been a rough day though for Colts fans… losing their undefeated season and still living in the shadow of the Pats. In light of this, calling the Pats classless seems a little more forgivable 😉

    David & Josh – I wanna write my own post on the rapidly-dwindling quality of any and all of the NFL announcers (namely, MNF). While I realize I’m not exactly the target audience, I’d appreciate less kissing of Wes Welker’s ass (though admittedly, I’d kiss his ass too) and less useless crap overall. I’m currently compiling a list of my favorite commentary. Today’s pearl of pigskin knowledge: “the only way to stop the pats from scoring is to not give them the ball.”

  2. Are you just trying to antagonize me josh? Really? After last night’s game, this does not make me happy.

    Here are a few of the problems with your analysis.

    Problem 1:
    If it is bad to disappoint your fans by losing playoff games you “should win”, I fail to see how it is better for your fans to not even get a playoff game at all. So, i’ll take 3 close losses in the playoffs as being better for fans than NOT playing a game at all. Advantage COLTS.

    Problem 2:
    You can’t assume the premise Post-season success is all that matters. Of course a pats fan would say that. Some people agree with you and I understand why. Others, like myself, value super bowl wins, but appreciate a team that consistently wins and puts an excellent football product on the field. When you go to watch the colts play, you know that you have a great chance of winning every time when you go to watch the game. Thus, the colts regular season success, is directly fulfilling their obligation to their fans. There is also an argument to be made about how giving fans the “hope” of a super bowl season is a reward in of itself, even if it never happens. DRAW

    Problem 2:
    Fact 1: The AFC South has been and is a far stronger division than the AFC East. The Jets, Dolphins, and Bills haven’t been relevant for a long time.
    Note; the colts were in the AFC east until 2002. I’m to lazy to remove the 2001 2002 seasons for the bills, jets, dolphins, but it makes my case stronger, as the jets were somewhat decent in 2001-2002, which inflates their near mediocrity.

    Since 2000
    The bills record: 65-99
    The jets = 79-84
    The dolphins = 79-85

    Since 2002
    The Texans (didn’t exist until 2002) = 40-79
    The Titans = 63- 48
    The Jaguars = 55-56

    That means the colts have played at least one consistent rival their entire history in the division. Either the Titans or the Jaguars have been good teams and challenged the colts in their division. SO, the colts record is even more impressive than the Pats. ADV COLTS.

    Problem 4:

    Selective memory: Many pats fans, when they love to proclaim their teams’ dominance tend to forget that 2 of their 3 super bowl victories were far from dominant. Super bowl victory 1: won by a field goal after the infamous tuck play. Yeah, winning by 3 points due to a highly questionable call, not exactly domination.

    Super bowl victory 2: won by a field goal. Note, this was BEFORE spygate was discovered, which means that Bill B probably had tape on the panthers. Now, it is clear that taping wasn’t responsible for the juggernaut that was the 16-0 2007 patriots, even I concede that team was just amazing, but presumably Bill B, who is a smart guy, was cheating FOR A REASON. And that it must have given him some sort of an adavantage. Perhaps enough of an advantage to affect a 3 point margin of victory over a “mediocre” carolina team? I don’t know. Also, you fail to mention that Rodney Harrison admitted to taking HGH and was suspended for that. Perhaps that could explain his success in intimidating (some would say beating up) receivers.

    The point is that the victories happened. But they are not pristine victories, nor are they particularly impressive. If the colts win another untainted super bowl and do so in a dominant fashion, I just don’t think a 3 (2 marginal/tainted victories + 1 real sb win) >>> 2 margin is enough to say, “greatest team of the decade” when one considers that they have missed the playoffs multiple time, depriving their fans of more football.

    Problem 5:

    Ignoring the colts injuries.
    And this one is not your fault, as no-one in the media discusses this. Unlike the patriots, we are not a “next-man” up team in reality. For 70% of the roster, yes, the players are fungible. But there are a handful of players who absolutely MUST play, or else we will lose. In each of those playoff games we were favored, we were missing a key player.

    Those players (in the modern era) are:
    Peyton Manning
    Reggie Wayne
    Gary Brackett MLB
    Dwight Freeney DE / Mathis
    Dallas Clark TE

    Now, I understand the argument, Injuries happen deal with it, that’s not an excuse. And for most teams that is true. But the whole colts system is built around these guys. Without them it all falls apart–they are unique. Without Dwight Freeney pressuring the QB, a good QB will pick apart our zone. (See the 2005 season when both Mathis and Freeney were injured and we could not get any pass rush on Big Ben; see also the first loss to san diego when we couldn’t put any pressure on BILLY VOLEK).

    Without Gary Brackett, we don’t have anyone athletic or intelligent enough to cover quality TEs. (See last year’s game against the Chargers, where antonio gates caught about 85+ more yards than he had in the regular season (when brackett played him), and caught the crucial first down to let them kick a field goal). A cover 2 is useless if you can’t cover a TE up the middle.

    The point is that saying that we underachieved in the playoffs relative to the regular season is only fair if we played with the same team we had in the regular season. In multiple years, we have had crucial players be entirely absent, or severely limited. Its not realistic to say we were expected to win and disappointed them. True fans, like myself, did not expect us to beat San Diego, we were too injured. Moreover, with the exception of the one pats blowout, we lost 2 of those games by a field goal. I strongly suspect that if that SD game last year was in indy we still win that game, even with a horribly crippled defense. If anything, we over acheived.

    Problem 6:

    As for beating the best teams in the playoffs, that also is putting too much weight on regular season records. Those are far from accurate indicators of quality. Too often regular season records reflect a team that no longer exists by week 17. Either bc of injuries, or because they padded their stats on terrible teams. Also, while momentum is overrated for the colts, it does seem to matter for more emotional teams like the Cardinals. They had a TERRIBLE record last year, but sliced through the NFC because they were healthier and had better momentum then the other contenders. Secondly, whether a pundit claims that team x is favored should be ignored. They don’t know what they are talking about. I don’t see how anyone’s perception of whether a team should or should not win affect the team’s overall quality or success. The playoffs, by design, are a fresh slate. Your regular season performance gives you distinct advantages, but they don’t make you automatically favorites.

    I can keep going (and probably will), but this should be enough to enrage Josh for the time being while i go have lunch.

  3. To respond to Ryne’s comments (which don’t enrage me, since I don’t take offense at self-delusion)

    1 This is true in general, but it’s not like the Patriots missed the playoffs five times and the Colts never did; they missed three times (once as a terrible team, once as a frustrating 9-7 team, and once unfairly as a very good 11-5 team after Brady was injured), and the Colts missed it once. I agree that if you compare the Patriots lows to the Colts lows, the Colts clearly win. The issue is that when you compare the highs (or the middles, for that matter) the Patriots did consistently better, since they were one of the top four teams left in the postseason for at least half the decade, whereas the Colts only achieved that in three years. Also, there’s something aesthetically displeasing to me about a team that constantly loses big games to inferior teams. When picking my team of the decade, I want it to be the plucky, overachieving team, not the one that constantly folds.

    2 is just the idea that consistency is better than ultimate achievement. Even if that were the case, the Colts weren’t that much more consistent than the Pats and were not more dominant during the regular season (they won only a couple more games than the Patriots over the course of the decade). On the other hand, the Pats have a clear edge in ultimate achievement.

    More interestingly, I think it’s obviously the case that if you asked the Colts players to switch records with the Pats, they’d do it in a heartbeat, since, being competitive, they’d desperately want to have won their game’s biggest prize. Also, I think if Colts fans are being honest, they’d exchange a good regular season with a Wild Card game loss for another Super Bowl (I know I would boot the Pats out of this years’ playoffs in a heartbeat for David Tyree not to make the helmet catch).

    Finally, no one remembers teams for their regular season success. What teams won the most regular season games in the 90s? Apparently, the 49ers, who (according to Yahoo Answers) won 114 games, more than during the 80s (103 games), but (1) no one would say the 49ers were the Team of the Decade for the 90s, and (2) no 49ers fan would prefer the 90s-era team to the 80s version that won 4 championships. Similarly, though the Cowboys apparently won the most games in the 70s, clearly the Steelers were the more dominant, notable team.

    3 This is a fair criticism though it’s not that huge of a difference (the Texans were really really bad). It’s also completely regular season focused

    4 I think this misunderstands the idea of dominance – the 03 and 04 Pats were not a dominant team in any statistical sense: they rarely blew teams out, and their offense wasn’t that great. They were just really really good at winning, and in particular, they were really good at beating great teams. They were also terrible at putting teams away (except for the Colts) so lots of the games were fairly close. A good example of this is the 04 SB, where the Eagles lost by 3 in a game that didn’t feel nearly that close. Ultimtely, it’s impossible to judge based on a standard of “well, it really could have gone the other way.” It’s true that the Tuck Rule play (which was an intuitively incorrect call that absolutely conformed to the rule that existed at the time and that was reenacted after the league specifically reconsidered it) could have lost the Pats one of their Super Bowls; similarly, if there’s no Helmet Catch or if Troy Brown gets a first down in 06, the Pats win another championship. The Spygate thing I find a bit silly; they broke the rules and (deservedly) paid for it, but it couldn’t possibly have given them an advantage in the playoffs against teams they hadn’t played (and thus could not have taped) during the regular season.

    5 The Pats had important injuries too: notably to Richard Seymour, Ty Law, Rodney Harrison, Willy Mcginist Sammy Morris, Lawrence Maroney, and Tom Brady. If a team’s uniquely built around star players and those players get injured, that’s a weakness of the team.

    6 The teams the Pats beat that I mention in the post were not just teams that were great in the regular season but weaker in the playoffs (with the exception of the Eagles since Terrell Owens was injured when they played the Pats) but were instead all favored going into the postseason (e.g. Rams, Steelers, Colts, Chargers). Clearly some years have more great teams than others; the Pats won in those years.

  4. Things to clarify:

    I think that both teams should be co-leaders of the decade; between us we have dominated the league. The steelers don’t count because they are inconsistent as all hell.

    Also, this comment is all over the place. So, I’m going to summarize at the top and explain it at the bottom.

    Basic Points:
    0) I don’t concede that postseason success is the most important consideration.

    1) I don’t think that your additional criticisms have merit. we haven’t underacheived in the playoffs, we over achieved to get in the playoffs.

    2) Even assuming postseason success is the end-all, I don’t think that a 3-2 margin is sufficiently clear to crown one team as the greatest of the decade when one considers the context.

    Point 0:

    I think that a number of people do remember teams that played exceptional ball. No-one forgets about the 90 buffalo bills as being an excellent team even though they did not win. I will always have fond memories of these colts teams even if they lost in the playoffs. I love that when I turn on a colts game, that i will likely witness a win. A more fair trade would be, would I trade what we have now, for the Steelers (who have won 2 super bowls). ((This is of course assuming that I did not hate the patriots more than life itself and wouldn’t take the 3 superbowls just so that I never have to hear tom brady’s name spoken again). I would not prefer to have the steelers as my team for the 2000s, as I value consistency. I enjoy being able to count on my colts not to lose to the browns. That’s worth more than another super bowl.

    The point about injuries was added merely to point out that we did not consistently underachieve in the playoff. My argument is that, even if the team is flawed in building its core around a small group of irreplacable players, by definition the “team” can’t underachieve in the playoffs if the “team” is not intact. The patriots didn’t underachieve when Brady went out.
    The team itself was something fundamentally different and should be judged by it

    An independent source (who i can’t find at the moment) applied a statistical technique to every teams’ records over the course of the decade. Basically, the colts were the team with the greatest favorable disparity between their predicted record (based on their DVOA strength, the most accurate statistical predictor of success) and their actual record. What this means is that the colts have consistently OVERachieved in the regular season. Since most pundits think that regular season success is the greatest indicator of success in the playoffs (which is flat out wrong, as is “hottest team”) that led to the perception of the colts as playoff underachiever. One of the reasons why the colts consistently overpreform is because we do not lose trap games that other teams do–see Saints v. Tampa Bay. We are the most professional team in the league (you are number 2, which explains why you win a whole hell of a lot too).

    It is unfair to claim that the colts are perennial post-season chokers because they over-achieve to get into the playoffs in the first place. I don’t think we would have been a better team had we lost some of those games we weren’t expected to win and had “lowered” the expectations of the uneducated. The teams that we lost to were extremely talented, highly quality teams. We were the plucky overachieving team. You just wouldn’t know that unless you watched all the games and looked past the record. We weren’t expected to win when you look at many statistical indicators and as fans. The ONLY colts team, aside from this one, that I thought could win the super bowl was 2003. The loss last year to SD, I was surprised it was as close as it was because that team was fundamentally flawed.

    In fact, the second weakest team of the past 5 years was the 06′ colts, who, won the super bowl; I distinctly remember Maurice Jones Drew running for 200+ yards on the colts in week 17. That was some high quality overachieving.

    2)
    So, lets assume that the colts win this year, which is far from guaranteed, although I strongly doubt you can win it either with that defense.

    Then the score is 3-2. Pats

    Here’s why even under Josh’s criteria I don’t think that one team clearly wins.

    1) the difference of 1 super bowl victory isn’t inherently enough to draw the conclusion that the pats are better. Its too small of a statistical sample. Trent Dilfer won one super bowl, but that doesn’t make him a better QB than Dan Marino.

    2) the differential of 1 is particularly insignificant when one considers the context. That’s where spygate, luck, etc. comes in. While the pats can’t do anything about their luck, I think that an objective analysis of the facts CAN take into account luck. And if you take into account the unbelievable amount of good luck the pats have had in the playoffs and the bad luck the colts have had (see vanderjagt missing a 46 year old field goal to win the wild card game) that differential seems more arbitrary.

    3) even if you don’t think that regular season success is the most important thing, it should certainly be relevant when one considers the “team of the decade”. I think that making 3 more playoffs may be enough to close the small gap between 3 and 2 wins.

  5. My original post was browser-refreshed out of existence, so let’s try this again:

    I’ve been thinking about the regular season vs. postseason question that’s been brought up here a few times, particularly in the context of baseball. Baseball, of course, has a much longer schedule, playing 10 games for every NFL game. With a season that stretches for six months, it’s impossible to pick out five or seven games from the regular season at random and definitively prove that this team was among the elite or dregs of the league that year. Sometimes 162 games isn’t enough to truly prove which team has the highest level of talent. And yet the baseball postseason takes place in five or seven game stretches, and is used to determine who the “best” team was that year. A team optimized to gain entry to the postseason is generally not a team that’s best optimized to WIN the postseason. The regular season and postseason operate with extremely different values and incentives, and creates something of an identity crisis. It has me wondering whether to heavily discount who wins the World Series in a particular year and look to regular season record to discover who I would consider to be the true MLB champ.

    I don’t feel that way about football, however. In a 16 game season, high variance and small sample size is the name of the game. There’s really no way to increase the length of the season due to the physical toll, which also disqualifies longer series-style playoffs. With the way the game is played and structured, a tournament-style, single-elimination playoff is really the only way to determine a true NFL champion. It feels much more in keeping with the spirit of the league than it does in baseball, for example. Thus, I’d say that the structure of the NFL puts significantly more weight on postseason performance than any other professional American sport. I think Josh is right in giving the postseason performance of the Patriots such great weight, and ranking them ahead of the Colts for that reason.

    And just a couple points to Ryne, who I take it is a Colts fan:

    – If the Colts “over-achieve to get into the playoffs in the first place.”, I don’t view that as a compelling case to place them ahead of a team that didn’t over-achieve in the same way, yet had nearly identical regular season records in the Brady vs. Manning era. That seems like a testament that the Patriots were a more talented team.

    – The Colts were willing to throw away a chance at a legendary regular season to gain what they perceive to be an advantage heading into the postseason. They clearly view the regular season as little more than a chance to give themselves their best chance to win the postseason. Playing until they have home-field and then rolling over the rest of the season is proof that in the NFL, only playoff success truly matters. It’s why 16-0 rings so hollow for Patriots fans (or at least myself) without the Super Bowl to cap it off.

    – The comparison of Trent Dilfer vs. Dan Marino rings hollow to me because it’s a team game, rather than an individual contest. If the argument Josh was making was that Brady was a better QB than Manning because Brady has more rings, it’s a much more valid point, but if we’re purely debating the merits of the teams against each other, it doesn’t seem particularly relevant.

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