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Posted: Wednesday June 3, 2009 10:42AM; Updated: Wednesday June 3, 2009 11:52AM
Don Banks Don Banks >
INSIDE THE NFL

NFL team of the decade: 2000s

Story Highlights

With one season left, Patriots appear to be the team of decade

With a Super Bowl XLIV title, Steelers could make legitimate case

Ranking all 32 franchises based on their performances from 2000-08

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Bill Belichick's Patriots have won three Super Bowls during the 2000s.
Peter Read Miller/SI

It may have slipped up on us all, but when training camps begin late next month, this decade's final NFL season will be at hand. Could there be a more natural starting point for the debate about which franchise deserves the league's team of the decade designation?

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 siwriters@simail.com)

1. New England

Regular season: 102-42, .708
Playoff wins/record: 14-3
Super Bowls won/appeared: 3 out of 4
Playoff seasons: 6
Winning seasons: 8
Losing 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.

2. Pittsburgh

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The Steelers are 2-for-2 in Super Bowls this decade, winning XL and XLIII.
Bill Frakes/SI

Regular season: 94-49-1, .656
Playoff wins/record: 10-4
Super Bowls won/appeared: 2 out of 2
Playoff seasons: 6
Winning seasons: 7
Losing 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.

3. Indianapolis

Regular season: 101-43, .701
Playoff wins/record: 7-7
Super Bowls won/appeared: 1 out of 1
Playoff seasons: 8
Winning seasons: 8
Losing 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.

4. Philadelphia

Regular season: 92-51-1, .642
Playoff wins/record: 10-7
Super Bows won/appeared: 0 out of 1
Playoff seasons: 7
Winning seasons: 7
Losing 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.

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