My first impulse tells me it'll be easy to discern who will follow in the storied footsteps of the Packers in the 1960s, the Steelers in the '70s, the 49ers in the '80s and the Cowboys in the '90s. The New England Patriots, with their three Super Bowl titles and history-making 16-0 regular season of 2007, are the runaway leaders in the clubhouse.
With apologies to Drew Rosenhaus, next question.
Ah, but when you dig a little deeper, and imagine a few scenarios that could unfold in 2009, the Patriots appear something less than a slam dunk. Before the hyper-sensitive Patriots nation inundates my inbox in protest at the suggestion of such, consider the following points in what is unavoidably a less than perfectly empirical debate:
• For argument's sake, let's portend another Steelers Super Bowl-winning season in 2009, giving Pittsburgh back-to-back titles to end the decade, and three rings in the final five years. That would match the Patriots' three Super Bowl wins (over a four-year span, 2001-04, in the first half of the decade), and make the Steelers and Pats the only two teams to earn consecutive crowns, with New England accomplishing that feat in 2003-04.
While the Steelers enter 2009 at 94-49-1 (.656) in the regular season this decade and won't catch league-leading New England (102-42, .708), three more playoff wins would boost Pittsburgh to 13-4 in the postseason, at least interjecting it into the discussion with the Patriots (14-3 playoff record this decade, so far). Presuming the Patriots and Steelers make the AFC's postseason in 2009, they would end the decade with the same number of playoff trips (seven) and losing seasons (one), with New England holding a 9-to-8 advantage in winning seasons.
Not so clear cut any more, is it? Especially given that Pittsburgh would carry all the late-decade momentum, with the Steelers' three recent rings sparkling perhaps a bit brighter than those won by the Spygate-tinged Patriots.
• And just to stir things up, what, if anything, would happen in the team-of-the-decade debate if the Colts finished 2009 with their second Super Bowl victory in the last four seasons? True, Indy can't match the Patriots' three rings, and that would end all argument in a lot of quarters. But the Colts start this season one game behind the Patriots in the decade's regular-season standings (101-43, .701).
If Indianapolis logs an NFL-best ninth playoff season and ninth winning season -- and maybe even extends its league record to a seventh consecutive 12-win season -- that would give some ammunition to the folks with the horseshoes on their helmets. Add another Lombardi trophy and Peyton Manning would shake off most of the vestiges of a so-so playoff reputation based on Indy's 7-7 postseason record this decade.
• And don't look now, but couldn't the same case be made by Giants fans if their team closes out the decade with two Super Bowl titles in the last three seasons? It would be New York's third Super Bowl of the decade (don't forget 2000), and extra consideration would undoubtedly be deserved for the G-Men's upset of the ages against undefeated New England two years ago. Another New York playoff season would be the Giants' seventh of the decade.
Know this before you dive into the team-of-the-decade standings that we've compiled below: Try as we did to make this a scientific and mathematical equation, there's some subjectivity in how certain levels of accomplishment are weighed, even if you do assign an arbitrary point value to various categories. At some level it comes down to making a judgment call, and when the results of this decade's first nine seasons left multiple teams in a clump, I ranked them as I saw 'em.
Using six categories as a barometer got the job done in most cases. I went with regular-season winning percentage, playoff wins/record, playoff seasons, winning seasons, losing seasons, and Super Bowl appearances/wins. We'll see how much 2009 might serve to re-frame the debate. But for now, let the NFL team-of-the-decade discussion and disagreement begin. (Send comments to email@example.com)
Regular season: 102-42, .708Playoff wins/record: 14-3Super Bowls won/appeared: 3 out of 4Playoff seasons: 6Winning seasons: 8Losing seasons: 1
In the past six seasons, the Patriots have won an astounding 77 games in the regular season (one shy of 13 per year), and 11 more in the playoffs. And let's not lose sight of the fact that Bill Belichick's 2001 no-name club authored one of the most remarkable Super Bowl upsets in history. If the 2007 Patriots had just been able to close the deal against the Giants, the only debate would be whether that New England team is the NFL's greatest ever, not whether the Patriots are the best of the current decade. Alas, the Pats are one miraculous David Tyree helmet catch away from all of that.
Regular season: 94-49-1, .656Playoff wins/record: 10-4Super Bowls won/appeared: 2 out of 2Playoff seasons: 6Winning seasons: 7Losing seasons: 1
Losing twice at home to New England in the conference title game as the AFC's No. 1 seed (2001 and 2004) certainly didn't get the Steelers' decade off on a dominating note. But Pittsburgh has rebounded nicely, with its memorable 4-0 wild-card road run to 2005's Super Bowl win, and last year's opportunistic run through the Tom Brady-less AFC. And if you're wondering how the No. 3 Colts can be seven wins better than the No. 2 Steelers in the regular season, it's pretty simple: The playoffs and Super Bowl wins carry the most weight in my book.
Regular season: 101-43, .701Playoff wins/record: 7-7Super Bowls won/appeared: 1 out of 1Playoff seasons: 8Winning seasons: 8Losing seasons: 1
The Colts have been so good for so long, but the fact remains that a team that wins more than 70 percent of the time in the regular season has merely broken even in the playoffs this decade. Five times in the past nine seasons the Colts have gone one-and-done in the postseason, including losing to the 8-8 Chargers in 2008, being upset at home in the divisional round by San Diego (2007) and Pittsburgh (2005), and getting blown out 41-0 by the Jets on the road in 2002. Only 2006's magical 4-0 Super Bowl-winning run keeps Indy from being a full-blown playoff disappointment.
Regular season: 92-51-1, .642Playoff wins/record: 10-7Super Bows won/appeared: 0 out of 1Playoff seasons: 7Winning seasons: 7Losing seasons: 1
At the moment, Eagles fans can at least take heart in being the NFC's team of the decade -- by a healthy margin. Philly's 92 regular-season wins averages out to more than 10 per year, and is eight more than second-place Green Bay. If trips to the NFC title game were all that mattered, nobody would match the Eagles. They've gone five out of nine years, but unfortunately they're 1-4 in those games. Only the Patriots, however, have more playoff wins this decade than Philly's 10.
Regular season: 80-64, .556Playoff wins/record: 6-5Super Bowls won/appeared: 1 out of 2Playoff seasons: 6Winning seasons: 5Losing seasons: 3
The Giants present us with our first real judgment call, because No. 6 Baltimore owns three more regular-season wins, not to mention that Super Bowl XXXV lambasting of New York in January 2001. But we're giving a slight nod to the Giants based on their two Super Bowl trips this decade, and that monumental upset of New England two years ago. New York also has one more playoff season than the Ravens (six to five), albeit one of them was of the cheapie, 8-8 variety.
Regular season: 83-61, .576Playoff wins/record: 7-4Super Bowls won/appeared: 1 of 1Playoff seasons: 5Winning seasons: 6Losing seasons: 3
The Ravens have undoubtedly ridden the roller coaster this decade, only once putting together back-to-back double-digit win seasons (2000 and 2001). But when you total it all up, they've been in the playoffs five times, won seven postseason games, a Super Bowl trophy, and posted three seasons with 11 or more victories. That's not too shabby for a once-vilified franchise that won only 24 games in its first four seasons after relocating from Cleveland.
Regular season: 84-60, .583Playoff wins/record: 3-5Super Bowls won/appeared: 0Playoff seasons: 5Winning seasons: 6Losing seasons: 2
After winning 53 games and going to the playoffs four times in the decade's first five seasons, the Packers are limping to the finish. They own just 31 wins the past four years, and 2007's surprising 13-3 record represents their only postseason trip in that span. Even that was a bit of a downer, given Green Bay's overtime loss at home to the underdog Giants in the NFC title game. Playoff setbacks aside, the Packers are rightfully a top 10 team in this NFL decade.
Regular season: 85-59, .590Playoff wins/record: 1-4Super Bowls won/appeared: 0Playoff seasons: 4Winning seasons: 6Losing seasons: 1
Why on earth did the Broncos fire coach Mike Shanahan? The guy won the AFC's fourth-most regular-season games this decade, posted six winning seasons, made it to the playoffs four times, and had just one losing record. Oh, yeah, that's why. Because Denver lost four of five of those playoff games, beating only defending champion New England in 2005's divisional round. The Broncos have won 59 percent of the time in the regular season this decade, but that only protected Shanahan for so long given his lone playoff win since earning back-to-back rings in 1997-98.
Regular season: 76-68, .528Playoff wins/record: 3-4Super Bowls won/appeared: 1 out of 1Playoff seasons: 5Winning seasons: 6Losing seasons: 3
We told you we valued a Super Bowl run pretty highly in our rankings, and the Bucs prove it. Their .528 regular-season winning percentage is lower than our next two teams (Seattle and Tennessee), but Tampa Bay gets credit for its five playoff seasons, six winning seasons, and most important, getting the job done in 2002, its one and only Super Bowl appearance. That, however, was the only season this decade in which the Bucs won a playoff game.
Regular season: 77-67, .535Playoff wins/record: 4-5Super Bowls won/appeared: 0 of 1Playoff seasons: 5Winning seasons: 6Losing seasons: 3
For the decade, the Seahawks own virtually identical results as that of their 1976 expansion brethren, the No. 9 Bucs. But that Super Bowl win for Tampa Bay is a heck of a tiebreaker over Seattle, which lost its only Super Bowl appearance, against Pittsburgh at mid-decade. I give the Seahawks kudos though for dominating a poor division, with five consecutive playoff trips and four NFC West titles in a row.
Regular season: 83-61, .576Playoff wins/record: 2-5Super Bowls won/appeared: 0Playoff seasons: 5Winning seasons: 5Losing seasons: 3
Though quite successful in terms of regular-season play, the Titans' decade has been marred by twice having the AFC's No. 1 seed in the playoffs, only to lose their postseason opener at home to those scrappy Baltimore Ravens in 2000 and 2008. You have to tip your hat to Tennessee's ability to endure some lean years in the middle of the decade. After making the playoffs three out of the first four years, they missed three years in a row, but have since gone to the postseason in both 2007 and 2008.
Regular season: 72-72, .500Playoff wins/record: 3-4Super Bowls won/appeared: 0Playoff seasons: 4Winning seasons: 4Losing seasons: 3
Knock him if you want, but Chargers coach Norv Turner is 3-2 in the playoffs since replacing Marty Schottenheimer, who was 0-2 and twice lost their postseason openers at home. The Chargers rightfully can be called underachievers this decade, but after going just 18-46 in the first four seasons, they're 54-26 with four playoff trips and four winning records in the past five years.
Regular season: 74-70, .514Playoff wins/record: 2-3Super Bowls won/appeared: 0 of 1Playoff seasons: 3Winning seasons: 4Losing seasons: 5
After telling you how much weight I've given to teams that made Super Bowl runs, how come I have the Chargers ahead of the Bears despite San Diego owning two fewer regular-season wins? Good question, but despite the Bears' 2006 trip to the Super Bowl, I can't get past them posting five losing seasons in nine years. They're better than .500 in the regular season, but for the majority of time this decade, the Bears have been losers. And that's in an NFC that clearly has been the weaker conference.
Regular season: 71-73, .493Playoff wins/record: 5-3Super Bowls won/appeared: 0 of 1Playoff seasons: 3Winning seasons: 3Losing seasons: 5
The Panthers have been a pretty inconsistent bunch this decade, and never once in franchise history have they recorded consecutive winning seasons. But Carolina has won 11 games twice and 12 once in the past six years, and it made deep playoff drives in both 2003 (losing the Super Bowl to the Patriots) and 2005 (losing the NFC title game at Seattle). Only last season's playoff-opening upset at the hands of Arizona mars the Panthers' penchant to make some noise when they do manage to reach the postseason.
Regular season: 71-73, .493Playoff wins/record: 2-4Super Bowls won/appeared: 0Playoff seasons: 4Winning seasons: 6Losing seasons: 3
The Jets crack the top half of our rankings because they've somehow scratched and fought their way to six winning seasons and four playoff trips in the first nine years of the decade. Having just three losing seasons should count for something, even though when it's bad, New York has a tendency to be very bad (three double-digit loss seasons).
Regular season: 70-74, .486Playoff wins/record: 3-4Super Bowls won/appeared: 0 of 1Playoff seasons: 4Winning seasons: 3Losing seasons: 4
Our collective memory is very short in the NFL these days, but it's not right to penalize a team like the Rams just because their success took place in the first half of the decade rather than more recently. I couldn't quite bump St. Louis, with its meager three winning seasons, ahead of the Jets. But the Rams did go to a Super Bowl and make four playoff trips in the first five years of the decade.
Regular season: 72-72, .500Playoff wins/record: 1-3Super Bowls won/appeared: 0Playoff seasons: 3Winning seasons: 6Losing seasons: 3
Last year ended a six-year streak of missing the playoffs in Miami, and the Dolphins haven't won a playoff game since 2000, the year after Dan Marino retired. But despite conventional wisdom, it hasn't been all misery in South Florida. The Dolphins three times had winning seasons but missed the playoffs (2002, 2003, 2005), and last year's worst-to-first turnaround (11-5, after going 1-15 in 2007) was one for the record books.
Regular season: 72-72, .500Playoff wins/record: 2-3Super Bowls won/appeared: 0Playoff seasons: 3Winning seasons: 4Losing seasons: 3
There was a time in Vikings history when they made the playoffs every year (eight out of nine seasons from 1992 to 2000), then disappointed their loyal fans. But this decade, Minnesota probably pined for the always-eventful Denny Green coaching era, after missing the postseason six out of seven years from 2001 to 2007. Last year's division title at least ended the misery for now.
Regular season: 70-74, .486Playoff wins/record: 2-2Super Bowls won/appeared: 0Playoff seasons: 2Winning seasons: 3Losing seasons: 3
With 42 NFL seasons under their belts -- only one fewer than the Super Bowl itself -- the Saints still haven't managed to reach the league's biggest game. But the good news? They at least recorded two playoff wins this decade, which was two more than they owned pre-2000. The Saints made their first NFC title game appearance in 2006, and did keep things competitive -- for the most part -- the rest of the time. They've had just three losing seasons this decade, with three 8-8 finishes to boot.
Regular season: 71-73, .493Playoff wins/record: 0-3Super Bowls won/appeared: 0Playoff seasons: 3Winning seasons: 5Losing seasons: 4
Pretty stinking low ranking for America's Team, huh? The team of the 1990s slips all the way to 20th this time around? Well, yeah, that can happen to the best of 'em when you go 12 years between playoff wins. About the best thing you can say for Jerry's team is that those 5-11 years in the Dave Campo era seem like a long time ago. But Dallas remains synonymous with underachievement for the time being.
Regular season: 69-75, .479Playoff wins/record: 1-2Super Bowls won/appeared: 0Playoff seasons: 2Winning seasons: 3Losing seasons: 5
The decade has been neatly divided into the lost years (2000-2003, 24-40 record) and the return to relevance (2004-2007, 40-24 record). Unfortunately, last season was a bit of tiebreaker in J-town, and the Jaguars' 5-11 finish was a first-rate disaster. That makes 2009 kind of a big season in Jacksonville to my way of thinking. The proverbial fork in the road.
Regular season: 66-77-1, .462Playoff wins/record: 2-3Super Bowls won/appeared: 0Playoff seasons: 3Winning seasons: 3Losing seasons: 5
As bad as NFL football has been in Atlanta for the most part, there have been highlights for the Falcons this decade. Like the 2002 team ending the Packers home playoff winning streak at Lambeau. Like the 2004 team earning its way to the NFC title game. And like the wholly unexpected 2008 team, which went 11-5 and made the playoffs following Atlanta's calamitous 2007 -- one of the worst years endured by any franchise in any sport. But other than that, the Falcons have richly earned their No. 22 ranking.
Regular season: 66-78, .458Playoff wins/record: 1-2Super Bowls won/appeared: 0Playoff seasons: 2Winning seasons: 2Losing seasons: 4
I'm sorry. I know Redskins fans think I'm always trashing their team, but after spending boatloads and boatloads of money this decade, this is all Daniel Snyder has to show for it? The 23rd best team in the NFL in the 2000s? That's something to hang from the rafters. One playoff win. Two playoff appearances. Two winning seasons. Six head coaches. I'm guessing the 1980s seem further away than ever in Washington.
Regular season: 57-87, .396Playoff wins/record: 4-3Super Bowls won/appeared: 0 of 1Playoff seasons: 3Winning seasons: 3Losing seasons: 6
What are the sad-sack Raiders and their sub-.400 winning percentage doing above four other clubs at .406 or better? None of those teams went to a Super Bowl earlier this decade. None of those teams were seeded second, third and first respectively in the AFC playoffs of 2000-02. So while I know the memory of the Raiders going 33-15 to start this decade is distant and ever-fading, it did happen. And let's be honest: Oakland got jobbed in the Snow Bowl. You know it, and I know it. It was a fumble.
Regular season: 66-78, .458Playoff wins/record: 0-2Super Bowls won/appeared: 0Playoff seasons: 2Winning seasons: 3Losing seasons: 5
With the exception of those hazy, crazy, high-scoring days of 2003, when Kansas City produced and surrendered points in almost equal measure, the entire decade was something of a downer for the Chiefs. But they did give us one of the more entertaining playoff games in history, that no-punt, point-a-minute 38-31 Colts win at Arrowhead in 2003.
Regular season: 60-84, .417Playoff wins/record: 1-2Super Bowls won/appeared: 0Playoff seasons: 2Winning seasons: 2Losing seasons: 7
It's six consecutive losing seasons and counting in San Francisco, where a playoff berth was once a birthright. The 49ers hope their long drought is nearing an end and that Mike Singletary will be the coach to lead them back into the postseason. But does anybody know what George Seifert is doing these days? I mean, would it hurt to make a phone call?
Regular season: 58-85-1, .406Playoff wins/record: 0-1Super Bowls won/appeared: 0Playoff seasons: 1Winning seasons: 1Losing seasons: 5
The Bengals this decade are a prime example why you never take anything for granted in the NFL. When Cincy went 11-5 in 2005 and made the playoffs for the first time in 15 years, everybody and their brother raced to label the team one of the league's coming powers. Then Carson Palmer hurt his knee early in that playoff game, a dozen or so arrests transpired, and the NFL's next big thing became its next big bust. You just never know.
Regular season: 52-92, .361Playoff wins/record: 3-1Super Bowls won/appeared: 0 of 1Playoff seasons: 1Winning seasons: 1Losing seasons: 7
I tried to push the Cardinals as high as I could in recognition of the most improbable Super Bowl season in NFL history, but they're banging their head on the No. 28 slot in my rankings. They came ever so close to becoming the ultimate playoff Cinderella story last winter, but the bottom line says seven losing seasons and just one playoff berth so far this decade. I'll give them this much: The 2008 Cardinals were not who we thought they were.
Regular season: 60-84, .417Playoff wins/record: 0-0Super Bowls won/appeared: 0Playoff seasons: 0Winning seasons: 1Losing seasons: 6
Best I can tell, there's no truth to the rumor the Bills organization this season plans on staging a 10th anniversary reunion of the franchise's last playoff qualifier: the 1999 team. But if the Bills did decide to go that route, I'd make sure the celebration was at halftime of one of their Toronto games, thereby not needlessly reminding Buffalo fans it has been a decade since they had a playoff team to call their own.
Regular season: 52-92, .361Playoff wins/record: 0-1Super Bowls won/appeared: 0Playoff seasons: 1Winning seasons: 2Losing seasons: 7
Truth be known, would Browns fans say the 10 years since Cleveland returned to the NFL were more enjoyable than the three seasons (1996-98) they did without Browns football of any kind? Think about it. Cleveland went undefeated for three years, but has averaged 10.6 losses since resuming play in 1999. I think it's a tough call.
Regular season: 40-72, .357Playoff wins/record: 0Super Bowls won/appeared: 0Playoff seasons: 0Winning seasons: 0Losing seasons: 5
The Texans are the only NFL team not playing with a full decade in this particular exercise, having debuted as an expansion team in 2002. But in seven full seasons, they've posted five losing records and a pair of 8-8s the past two years. Then again, the Oilers lasted 37 seasons in Houston without ever making a Super Bowl trip, so there's still three decades to play with if you're the Texans.
Regular season: 40-104, .278Playoff wins/record: 0Super Bowls won/appeared: 0Playoff seasons: 0Winning seasons: 1Losing seasons: 8
Who knew that when Bobby Ross and Gary Moeller combined to coach the Lions to a 9-7, third-place finish in the NFC Central in 2000 -- losing their final game at home against the 5-11 Bears on Christmas Eve to narrowly miss the playoffs -- it would represent the high-water mark of NFL football in Detroit this decade? Apparently Matt Millen was one of those who didn't know.
GALLERY: Moments that helped define the 2000s.