PLAYER OF THE DECADE:Peyton Manning, ColtsThe Colts are the winningest regular-season team in the decade, and Manning's immense presence, skill, accuracy and mastery of the offense are the biggest reasons. Twenty years ago, Fran Tarkenton was the all-time leader in passing yards, with 47,003. Barring some surprise in the last month of this regular season, Manning will finish 2009 with more than 42,000 in this decade alone. He is not the leader of his offense; he is the commandant.
BEST COACH: Bill Belichick, PatriotsSpygate will always stain his résumé, but it's not enough of a stain to erase the tremendous accomplishment of winning three Super Bowls in a salary-cap era and, in a fourth season, going 16-0 before losing in Super Bowl XLII. What makes Belichick's accomplishment all the more stunning is that he built his foundation in 2001 with castoffs and undeveloped players, and coached the tar out of them. He and Paul Brown may go down as the smartest to roam an NFL sideline.
BEST GM: Bill Polian, ColtsSmart GMs make do with less, and because the Colts were hamstrung for much of the decade with huge contracts for stars like Manning and Marvin Harrison, Polian and his scouting staff had to find gems in middle and low rounds and college free agency. They crafted the winningest regular-season team of the decade with productive players like Gary Brackett, Antoine Bethea, Jeff Saturday, Robert Mathis and Pierre Garçon, all either fifth-round-or-lower draft picks or college free agents.
Click here for Peter King's complete All-Decade team
BEST FRANCHISE: New England PatriotsThree Super Bowl wins this decade, none more impressive than the first. (No other team has more than two SB wins as we head down the stretch, with only Pittsburgh capable of matching the Pats for Super Bowl kings of the 2000-2009 seasons). Before that first Super Bowl win, the salary-cap-strapped Patriots signed 17 middle- and lower-class free agents for less than $3 million in total bonus money, and seven of those players, like linebacker Mike Vrabel, became the backbone of the 2001 team that shocked the Rams in the championship game.
Indianapolis leads New England 113-109 in regular-season wins heading into the last four games of this season, but the Patriots won the big ones more often than the Colts. Scott Pioli, vice president of New England until departing for Kansas City earlier this year, liked to say: "Individuals go the Pro Bowl. Teams win championships.'' Bob Kraft, Belichick and Pioli, in ownership, coaching and player-mining terms, respectively, have proved that for the past nine years.
WORST FRANCHISE: Detroit LionsThey had one winning season -- 9-7, in 2000. Since then, in nine seasons, the Lions have won 33 games and ruined the reputations of four football men (Matt Millen, Marty Mornhinweg, Steve Mariucci and Rod Marinelli), one piano-playing quarterback (Joey Harrington) and three receivers (Charles Rogers, Roy Williams and Mike Williams).
BEST SINGLE-SEASON TEAM: 2007 PatriotsLet the controversy begin. It was a bit bullyish, but this New England team storm-trooped through the season, winning its first eight by 24, 24, 31, 21, 17, 21, 21 and 45 points. Tom Brady threw a record 50 touchdown passes. Randy Moss caught a record 23. The Patriots set an NFL record for a single season with 589 points. And I realize it's a quirky deal, naming the best team and knowing that it didn't win its final game. The 2007 Patriots have a scar that will never go away, the 17-14 loss to the Giants in Super Bowl XLII. But no team since the advent of the 16-game schedule in 1978 won every regular-season game. No team in history has been 18-0. To me, a three-point loss in the final minutes of the Super Bowl doesn't mean there was a better team in the last 10 years.
WORST SINGLE-SEASON TEAM: 2008 LionsFirst team ever to go 0-16. Signature moment: At 0-4, coach Rod Marinelli yanked quarterback Jon Kitna and started Dan Orlovsky. Late in the first half, while being chased in the end zone and looking downfield, Orlovsky -- inexplicably, ridiculously, embarrassingly -- ran several steps out of the back of the end zone. Safety. The final: Minnesota 12, Detroit 10. And, ummm, safeties are worth two points.
MOST DRAMATIC REGULAR-SEASON GAME: Packers 41, Raiders 7; Dec. 22 2003Not the most competitive game, but the most memorable. Taking the field 26 hours after the death of his father and former high school coach, Irv, Brett Favre played at Oakland, got a standing ovation from the Black Hole, threw four touchdowns and passed for 399 yards in the strafing of the Raiders. Two of his touchdowns were classic no-no-no-yes throws into the teeth of double coverage that somehow found their way into the hands of his guys. "I don't know how I did it,'' he said later. "But I just know I had to, and my dad would have wanted me to play.''
BEST REGULAR-SEASON GAME: Colts 38, Buccaneers 35 (OT); Oct. 6, 2003Six years later, the game reverberates in the head of Jon Gruden, who coached Tampa Bay that night. Belichick was roasted recently for his decision not to punt to Peyton Manning on fourth-and-two with two minutes left in his own territory and a six-point lead. "I've been through that once,'' Gruden said, "and I know why Bill didn't want to give the ball to Peyton Manning. Manning got 21 points on us in four minutes. So you'll never get me to say I blame Bill.''
Manning put the Colts in the 21-point hole by throwing a pick-six interception to Ronde Barber with six minutes to go. Then, rapid-fire, this is what happened: 90-yard Bray Pyatt (who?) kickoff return, three-yard James Mungro (who?) touchdown run, onside kick recovered by Idrees Bashir (who?), 28-yard scoring pass from Manning to Marvin Harrison, three-and-out for the Bucs, 85-yard drive by the Colts, culminating in a one-yard scoring run by Ricky Williams (no, not that one; the unknown one) and, in overtime, a 29-yard field goal by Mike Vanderjagt.
BEST PLAYOFF GAME (NON-SUPER BOWL): Steelers 21, Colts 18; 2005 AFC divisional gameStrangest game of the decade, too. The Colts, once 13-0 and a near-lock to get to the Super Bowl, instead didn't even win a playoff game. But they certainly were in position to do it.
With a minute to go, Pittsburgh led 21-18 and was going for the kill shot. Sure-handed Jerome Bettis whammed into the middle of the Indy line for the insurance touchdown. Bam! The ball popped out on a hit by by linebacker Gary Brackett. Living rooms all over America exploded. Nick Harper picked up the ball -- the same Nick Harper who'd been stabbed in the knee in a domestic dispute a day earlier -- and instead of waiting for a blocker to help, he sprinted up the middle of the field as Ben Roethlisberger, backpedaling, tried to get into position for a game-saving tackle. And Big Ben got a paw on Harper, forcing him into a stumbling fall at the Colts' 42. Still time. Plenty of time. Manning got the Colts into field-goal range to tie and send it to overtime, but Vanderjagt was wide right from 46 yards. Steelers exhale. Steelers win.
Click here for Jim Trotter's top 10 games of the decade
BEST SINGLE-GAME SUPER BOWL PERFORMANCE: Ravens, XXXVThe 34-7 trouncing of the Giants in 2001 was impressive enough, but when you consider that New York qualified for this embarrassment by totally outclassing the Vikings 41-0 in the NFC Championship Game, it's doubly good. By limiting the Giants to 152 yards, holding them without a first down on 11 of 17 possessions and forcing five turnovers, Baltimore nudges the Giants' Super Bowl upset of the Pats out of the top spot here.
BEST SUPER BOWL: Steelers 27, Cardinals 23; XLIIIThe Steelers led 20-7 with 10 minutes left, and the sixth Super Bowl in Pittsburgh's glorious history was a foregone conclusion ... or was it? The Steelers' defense let the suddenly no-huddling Cardinals drive the length of the field twice in an eight-minute span, and, adding a safety, Arizona took a 23-20 led with 2:30 to play. A penalty on first down left the Steelers with first-and-20 at their 12-yard line. Now for the corny line about Ben Roethlisberger etching his name into Steelers lore forever.
Big Ben drove the Steelers 88 yards, the final six coming on a you-had-to-see-it-to-believe-it catch and toe drag in the corner of the end zone by Santonio Holmes. Now, Giants fans will go crazy at me for picking this as the best game, but it had the best defensive play ever (James Harrison's 100-yard interception return for a touchdown) and, along with Joe Montana's drive to beat the Bengals a generation earlier, the best winning touchdown and winning catch.
UPSET OF THE DECADE: Giants 17, Patriots 14; Super Bowl XLIIYou go 10-6, you win playoff road games by 10, four and three points (beating the Packers at Lambeau in minus-24 wind chill for the last of those victories), you enter the Super Bowl as a gazillion-point 'dog, and your defensive line plays the game of its collective life. And when the game is down to the nitty-gritty, an all-world cornerback, Asante Samuel, allows the Giants' fifth wideout, David Tyree, to get inside him for a touchdown to the post, and then a few minutes later, allows Tyree to get inside him again for the most famous play in Super Bowl history, the Tyree Velcro catch. An upset for the ages.
BEST TRADE: Patriots deal a fourth-round pick to the Raiders for wide receiver Randy Moss;April 29, 2007The fourth-round pick became cornerback John Bowie, who never started a game for the Raiders and was cut in 2009. Moss caught 23 touchdown passes for the Patriots in his first year and became the deep threat Tom Brady never had. Classic case of the Patriots pilfering a problem child from a bad team, and the problem child being so happy to be out of football jail that he becomes a model citizen and helps the Patriots win big.
WORST TRADE: Jets deal two first-round picks (Nos. 13 and 22) and a fourth-round pick to the Bears for the No. 4 overall pick in the 2003 draft (Dewayne Robertson); April 25, 2003Robertson was supposed to be Warren Sapp andthe centerpiece of a Jets defensive rejuvenation. He was nothing more than a run-of-the-mill defensive tackle in his five years there, and the Jets were 12 games below .500 and winners of one playoff game in his time in green.
BEST FREE-AGENT SIGNING:Saints sign quarterback Drew Brees to a six-year, $60 million deal; March 14, 2006The Saints were coming off a 3-13, Katrina-ravaged season in 2005, and the city was petrified that it would lose the team to San Antonio or Los Angeles in a year or two. Miami passed on Brees because he was fresh off major shoulder surgery, and the Saints jumped to sign him. No quarterback, including the great Peyton Manning, has thrown for as many yards as Brees in the past four years, and the Saints are entrenched in a city that still has hurricane scars. The biggest reason is Brees.
WORST FREE-AGENT SIGNING: Raiders sign wide receiver Javon Walker to a six-year, $55 million deal; March 5, 2008Before free agency in February 2008,Denver coach Mike Shanahan had a pro scout compile an analysis about all looming Broncos free agents, including Walker. The report on the oft-injured Walker: He couldn't stay healthy, and the scout wrote it would be a terrible risk at any salary. So with no competition on the market for him, Oakland still gave Walker $16 million in guaranteed money. An idiotic signing if there ever was one (the contract has since been restructured). In nearly two years, Walker has produced this: 15 catches, 196 yards, one touchdown.
BIGGEST DRAFT STEAL: Tom Brady, 2000, 199th pick (sixth round), PatriotsSpergon Wynn was drafted 16 picks higher. Enough said.
BIGGEST DRAFT BUST: JaMarcus Russell, 2007, first pick (first round), RaidersHe obviously has time to turn around his career, but Russell's story seems a classic case of a kid who got too much money way too early in an immature life.
Click here for Don Banks' views on the decade in trades, free agency and the draft
SIGNATURE PLAY: David Tyree's leaping helmet catch on the game-winning drive of Super Bowl XLIIWith Plaxico Burress nursing a sore knee, Tyree had to play more than anyone on the Giants' side would have wanted -- which might have been a bit of a competitive advantage for New York. "We never prepared for Tyree,'' Patriots safety Rodney Harrison said. "We never thought we'd see him on offense.'' And in practice two days before the game, he dropped four balls, was down in the mouth about it, and got a rare bearhug from Eli Manning back at the team hotel to tell him to shake it off.
The Giants had a third-and-five at their 44. Manning went back to pass. Three Patriots got their paws on Manning, and Jarvis Green nearly took him down. He rainbowed a ball into the deep middle. Tyree had run past Asante Samuel toward the post. The wideout leaped and, as Harrison crashed into him from the left, caught the ball and gripped it to the side of his helmet. Oddity of the decade: That could well be Tyree's last catch in the NFL. He caught on with Baltimore this season after being cut by the Giants, but as a special-teamer only. Not a bad catch to have as the last on your résumé.
BIGGEST CONTROVERSY: SpygateThere'd been rumors and sketchy reports of the Patriots using an in-house cameraman to videotape opposing sidelines, then matching up the signals from coaches to the defense the team played later, giving the team an illegal competitive advantage. The league issued a memo in the 2006 season warning teams that such a practice was illegal. Then, in the first game of the 2007 season, the Patriots were caught -- and of all the nerve, they were caught on the archrival Jets sideline -- videotaping the opposing signals again. Commissioner Roger Goodell came down hard on New England, docking the Pats their first-round pick in 2008, fining Bill Belichick $500,000 and the team an additional $250,000. In the three seasons since the incident, brushfires about Spygate still rage. This year, Miami's Joey Porter was the latest player to say the Patriots' three titles were tainted by the videotaping.
BEST PERFORMANCE: Ray Lewis, Super Bowl XXXV, AtlantaA year earlier, in 2000, Lewis was on trial for his life, charged in connection with the deaths of two men in an Atlanta fight. After being exonerated on the major changes but found guilty of obstruction of justice, Lewis was fined $250,000 by the NFL ... and then Lewis went out and had a season like few others in his career. He won the AP Defensive Player of the Year award, and was MVP of the Super Bowl, flying around the field, breaking up four passes and pressuring the Giants into mistakes in the running and passing game.
Click here for a gallery of memorable performances in the decade
VILLAIN: Terrell OwensThe human distraction flitted from San Francisco (where he criticized quarterback Jeff Garcia's arm) to Philadelphia (where he said Favre would have been a better fit for Philly than Donovan McNabb) to Dallas (where he was a professional whiner if he didn't get the ball thrown to him enough) to Buffalo (where the franchise is losing but hasn't burned down yet). All in all, quite a nice decade for the man known as T.O.
HERO: Drew BreesIn 2006, the city of New Orleans was still recovering from Hurricane Katrina (it will be recovering until 3006), and Brees was recovering from postseason shoulder surgery, major surgery, in San Diego. As a free agent, he seemed headed for Miami, but Dolphins coach Nick Saban had doubts about Brees' readiness for the season, so Brees signed with the Saints instead. There, he's raised more than $5 million for projects, like three new ballfields in the city at depressed schools, and became the symbol for the area's recovery. It doesn't hurt that the Saints are 12-0 for the first time in their history, and Brees is the primary reason why.
OUTSIZED PERSONALITY: Chad Ochocinco (nee Johnson)He plays games in the end zone that have nothing to do with football. He takes 100 Cincinnatians to the movies, free, on Friday nights. He plays football pretty well, though he drives his coach and quarterback crazy with his off-field nuttiness. My favorite Chadness of the decade: When the Bengals played in Pittsburgh this season, upon arrival he tweeted that he'd treat whoever met him in the lobby of the team hotel to a shopping spree at a local mall, if that person would drive. And he did.
BEST TEAM RIVALRY: Colts vs. PatriotsThe Ravens-Steelers interceded, briefly, in 2008 with three memorable games, including the AFC Championship slugfest. But Manning-Brady, Belichick-Dungy -- you can't beat that with a stick. The Pats won six straight from 2001 to 2004. The Colts have won five of six since. To say there's some distrust between the two organizations might be slightly understated. The Pats are sure the Colts jacked up the noise on the speakers every time they played in the RCA Dome. The Colts have been careful about security every time they go to Foxboro. And with Brady and Manning not retiring anytime soon, this one should be the best rivalry for a few years to come.
BEST INDIVIDUAL RIVALRY: Peyton Manning vs. Tom BradyAmazing thing is, they actually like, admire and text each other.
BEST INNOVATION: The first-down line on TVBrilliant idea. The "1st and Ten'' line, invented in 1998 and on most NFL games by 2002, uses yellow pixels superimposed on the screen to create a clear vision of where a team has to go to get a first down. What'd we do before this to figure out the first down?
BEST PERSONNEL MAN/SCOUT: Scott Pioli, Patriots and ChiefsThere's always been a debate when the Patriots' greatness comes up. Who deserves the architectural credit for assembling the players built into champions -- Belichick solely, or Belichick and Pioli? It's certainly the latter. Pioli built such a good relationship with Belichick that Pioli was the only one in the building who could tell him he was nuts. The relationship was so strong that Belichick trusted him implicitly on many of the draft picks down the line, like Brady in the sixth round in 2000 and Matt Cassel (who hadn't started a college game at quarterback) in the seventh round in 2005.
BEST COORDINATOR: Dick LeBeau, Bills and SteelersWith the Bills in 2003, he parachuted in and built the league's No. 2 defense. (Buffalo shut out the Pats in the season opener.) Then he went to Pittsburgh, refined his fire-zone concepts (linemen dropping in coverage, back-seven players rushing) with solid talent, and in three of the five years that followed, he had the top defense. What's more, his players borderline-worship him. Five current and former Steelers defenders have pushed me to select LeBeau for the Hall of Fame when his candidacy comes up this year.
FACTOID OF THE DECADE THAT MAY INTEREST ONLY METhe 2008 Lions team that went 0-16 also went 4-0 in August, winning four preseason games by an average of 12 points
BEST NEW STADIUM: Cowboys Stadium, 2009The square footage for the beer room (yes, a beer room, a refrigerated place where every keg and bottle in the place is stored) was more than the square footage of the spacious house where my wife and I raised two girls and two golden retrievers in New Jersey for 18 years. The TV hanging over the middle of the field is the biggest high-def TV in the history of the world. Cowboys owner Jerry Jones wanted to build the most comfortable stadium in American history, and he did.