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2000s: The Decade in Sports
Posted: Tuesday December 8, 2009 10:52AM; Updated: Tuesday December 8, 2009 4:55PM

NFL: Highlights and lowlights

Story Highlights

The decade's best single-season team ('07 Pats) didn't even win the Super Bowl

The Saints hit it big -- both on and off the field -- with the signing of Drew Brees

Colts vs. Patriots (and Manning vs. Brady) was the hottest rivalry of the 2000s

By Peter King,

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Bill Belichick and Tom Brady have led the Patriots to three Super Bowl titles and a perfect regular season during the decade.
Harry How/Getty Images
2000s: NFL
King: Highlights and lowlights
King: All-Decade team
Banks: 10 signature moments
Banks: Trades, free agency and the draft
Clemons: 10 best fantasy seasons
POLL: Share your thoughts on the decade in the NFL

PLAYER OF THE DECADE: Peyton Manning, Colts
The 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, Patriots
Spygate 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, Colts
Smart 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 Patriots
Three 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.

They 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).

Let 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.

First 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.

Brett Favre had a memorable, emotional performance in Oakland in 2003.
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

MOST DRAMATIC REGULAR-SEASON GAME: Packers 41, Raiders 7; Dec. 22 2003
Not 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, 2003
Six 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 game
Strangest 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

The 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; XLIII
The 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 XLII
You 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.

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