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Best of the 2010s: A different kind of Patriots end-of-the-decade ranking

Ranking each season of the decade.

Super Bowl LI - New England Patriots v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

As we approach the end of the year, it’s only natural to take a look back. Because this is also the end of a decade, a lot of people have spent time reflecting not only about the past 365 days, but the past 10 years as a whole. I’d like to do that as well. However, if you’re familiar with my writing, you should know I try to look at things a little differently, so, instead of looking at the best games of the decade, I’d like to take a look at the most exciting seasons.

This allows me to take you on a fairly deep dive of every New England Patriots season, and some of the most memorable games from those years, most of which a lot of people have completely forgotten. So, counting down from 10 to 1, here are the most exciting seasons of the last decade. This is a long one, so buckle up, and if you’re reading this in the bathroom, be prepared for some serious pins and needles.

Luckily, you’re probably not working today, so you don’t have to explain to your boss what you’re doing... just your spouse.

10.) 2019

Yes, the 2019 season is incomplete, and hopefully it ends up being a lot more memorable. As we sit here right now, however, there is no choice but to put this season at number 10. It’s the first time all decade that the Patriots were unable to secure a first-round bye in the playoffs, and the way they lost it — at home, against the lowly Miami Dolphins — leaves me no choice but to put it here. Combine that with the fact that the only semi memorable game was last weekend’s win over the Bills, and it’s an obvious choice.

It’s been a fairy boring season, where the Patriots started 8-0 while playing a bunch of bad teams, and limped to the finish line at 4-4 since. There’s always a chance, however unlikely it might seem right now, that they go on a deep playoff run, but, as this season stands at the moment it belongs firmly back number 10.

9.) 2012

The 2012 season ended with the Patriots losing to the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC Championship Game at home, but there were a few very good games that year. The reason why this season ends up at number nine is because two of the most memorable moments were losses.

The first came in Week 3 against those same Ravens: Baltimore scored 10 unanswered points in the fourth quarter, while the Patriots were twice unable to finish the game off, and Justin Tucker hit a short field goal to give his team a 31-30 victory. The kick went directly over the goal posts, and it looked like it would have hit the post if it had been lower. Bill Belichick went nuts on the replacement referees coming off the field, but they insisted the play could not be reviewed. Too bad the Patriots get all the calls.

The second memorable loss of 2012 was Week 15’s against the San Francisco 49ers. The Patriots were down 31-3 in the third quarter to Colin Kaepernick and company, but scratched and clawed their way back to tie the contest in the fourth. Unfortunately, they would allow a long kick return and then a touchdown pass on the first play of the drive after tying it up. The 49ers would add another field goal, and, although the Patriots would kick a late field goal themselves they would lose after failing to recover the ensuing onside kick. It was a cold and rainy night in Foxborough, and as poorly as the Patriots played at points, they showed that prototypical New England fight and never quit all night.

The most memorable win of the season, meanwhile, came Week 7 over the New York Jets. In that game, the Jets would score 13 points in the final six minutes of the game to take a three-point lead, only to watch Tom Brady drive the Patriots 54 yards in 97 seconds, with only one timeout, to kick the game-tying field goal at the buzzer. The Patriots would win in overtime with another field goal, and a Rob Ninkovich strip-sack.

Oh, and there was also the Buttfumble later that year.

8.) 2010

The most memorable moment from the 2010 season to me is Bart Scott screaming “Can’t Wait!” like a lunatic after the Jets bullied the Patriots out of the playoffs in the divisional round. It was the second consecutive year the Patriots finished one-and-done in the postseason, and things seemed to be trending in the wrong direction.

The 2010 regular season, however, was a good one. Brady was named NFL MVP, and finished the year with 36 touchdowns and only four interceptions. There were no unbelievably noteworthy games in 2010, but a few worth noting. This year ends up at number eight because all of those were actually wins that year.

Let’s start with back-to-back three-point victories, in Weeks 6 and 7. Week 6 was against — who else? — the Ravens, and Week 7 was against the Chargers. In the Ravens game, the Patriots would score 10 unanswered points in the fourth quarter to force overtime and then hit a field goal to win towards the end of the fifth quarter. The defense would force five straight punts from the Ravens, including three in extra time, and New England would eventually win 23-20.

In Week 7, on the other hand, the Chargers scored 17 fourth quarter points to cut the Patriots’ lead to three. After the Patriots were unable to convert a fourth-and-one, San Diego drove back into field goal range, but a false start pushed the team back five yards to make it a 50-yard attempt, which Nate Kaeding would miss, allowing the Patriots to hold on and win the game.

The last game of 2010 worth talking about came Week 15 against the Green Bay Packers. Aaron Rodgers was hurt, so people assumed the Patriots would crush them, but Matt Flynn had a great game, and threw for three touchdowns. That run of games got him a big contract in Seattle, where he would never play a game because they would draft a comparatively short guy in the third round by the name of Russell Wilson.

The Patriots were actually down 27-21 in the fourth quarter and scored 10 unanswered points to win 31-27, but the most memorable part of this game was starting offensive lineman Dan Connolly taking a kickoff 71 yards and getting tackled just before the end zone. It was a great play, and, once it came out that the Patriots practiced it, just another example of their greatness. What most people don’t remember was that Connelly would get hurt a few plays later and be out for the rest of the season. His absence may not be the reason New England didn’t go anywhere in the playoffs, but it certainly didn’t help.

7.) 2015

At number 7 we find the 2015 season. As with eight of the seasons over the soon-to-be-over decade, the Patriots made the AFC Championship Game, this time losing in Denver, which we’ll talk about later. This season has one very memorable win, but there were some other moments throughout also worth talking about.

The best game from 2015 came against the Giants in New York. It was touted as a battle between Malcolm Butler and Odell Beckham Jr, and, although the latter would catch a long touchdown pass he ended up having a pretty quiet night. The Butler play most remember from this game was him knocking a touchdown pass away from OBJ as he was coming down with it. It was a great play, and saved a touchdown for the Patriots. As for the rest of the contest, the Patriots entered the fourth quarter down 23-17. They took the lead on a long touchdown pass to Rob Gronkowski, and then, after giving up a field goal, would win on a last-second, 54-yard kick by Stephen Gostkowski.

I told you we were going to talk about it, and here it is. The AFC Championship Game in Denver obviously ended up being a loss, and everyone remembers that Gostkowski missed an extra point, which forced the Patriots to — unsuccessfully — go for two after scoring a last-minute touchdown. But it was the two plays that got them into that position that make this game so memorable. First, on fourth-and-10, Brady would complete a ridiculous 40-yard pass to Gronkowski, then, on fourth-and-goal from the 4-yard line, the tight end would “Moss” a defender to make a great catch in the back of the end zone.

6.) 2011

The Patriots made the Super Bowl in 2011, but based on how it ended, it still ends up at number six. In fact, if it wasn’t for one particularly memorable game, it would be significantly lower. There were no wins in the regular season that stood out, but New England made up for lost time in the AFC Championship Game against the Ravens.

The Patriots would score an early fourth quarter touchdown to take a three-point lead, and then hold on for the rest of the game. At the very end, Joe Flacco hit Lee Evans in the corner of the end zone for what looked like the game winning touchdown, but the ball was knocked away by Sterling Moore. Two plays later, Billy Cundiff would shank a 32-yard field goal try. The only explanation that ever made sense to me was that the late Myra Kraft blew it off the spot from up in heaven.

Unfortunately, the Patriots’ luck would not continue two weeks later in Super Bowl 46 against the Giants. That AFC title game, however, and the fact that New England made it to the Super Bowl to begin with, puts this just outside the top-five.

5.) 2013

Yet another year the Patriots would lose in the AFC Championship. However, with three of the most memorable regular season games of the decade, 2013 still ends up at number five on this list.

The first memorable game came in Week 6 against the New Orleans Saints. After the Patriots gave up a touchdown late in the fourth quarter, they went for a fourth-and-six deep in their own territory and failed to convert. Luckily, the defense held the Saints to a field goal on the next drive, putting them up four. On the very next play, Tom Brady promptly threw an interception, giving New Orleans the ball back with just over two minutes left.

After a three-and-out, the Patriots eventually got the ball back with just over a minute left and no timeouts available. Brady then led them on an eight-play, 70-yard touchdown drive culminating with a scoring pass to Kenbrell Thompkins in the corner of the end zone that made Scott Zolak go ballistic and start screaming nonsense into the microphone on the radio broadcast. Combine this game with Big Papi hitting a Grand Slam for the Red Sox against the Tigers later that night, and it was one of the most exciting days in Boston sports this decade.

The next noteworthy game came in Week 12 against Peyton Manning, Wes Welker and the Denver Broncos. The Broncos jumped out to a 24-0 halftime lead, but something happened at halftime that changed things. The Patriots celebrated all of their three-time Super Bowl champions, right in Manning’s eyeball. Colts killers like Ty Law and Tedy Bruschi were there, and Manning performed like he was playing them in the second half. The Broncos turned the ball over twice, and the Patriots ended up taking a seven-point lead in the fourth period, only to watch Manning tie it up with a late touchdown to force overtime.

In extra time and after New England decided to kick off to take the wind instead of the opening possession, both teams had two drives and were unable to score. However, the Patriots got some help from an old friend on their second punt of overtime: Wes Welker didn’t call “fire” on an uncatchable punt, and it hit one of his blockers. The Patriots recovered at the Denver 13, and would kick the game-winning field goal a few plays later.

One last memorable game from 2013 came in Week 14 against the Cleveland Browns. Josh Gordon had a monster game for the visitors, including an 80-yard touchdown. The Browns scored with just over two minutes left to take a 12-point lead before the Patriots went on an 11-play drive that ended with a Julian Edelman score. With no timeouts and just over a minute left, the Patriots had to attempt an onside kick, which they recovered.

A long pass interference call on an attempt to Josh Boyce (yes, Josh Boyce) gave them the ball at the 1-yard line, and they would score on the next play. The Browns would actually complete a few passes and end the game on a 58-yard field goal attempt, which thankfully they missed. A game that is sometimes forgotten about outside of Rob Gronkowski tearing his ACL, but one that was incredible nonetheless.

4.) 2017

Another year, another Super Bowl appearance — this one a loss to the Philadelphia Eagles. Two memorable regular season games, and two memorable playoff games make this the number four season of the past decade.

Let’s start with the first regular season contest, a Week 3 meeting with the Houston Texans. In the second half, the Texans scored 13 straight to take a five-point lead — the last of which with just over two minutes left in the game. The Patriots got the ball back and went on an eight-play, 75-yard touchdown drive that ended with a gorgeous 25-yard pass from Tom Brady to Brandin Cooks. The throw was perfect, and the catch by Cooks was sensational. Deshaun Watson would then be picked by Mr. Fourth Quarter himself, Duron Harmon, to seal the victory.

In Week 15 against the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Patriots would play another fantastic game. Everyone remembers the Jesse James catch at the goal line that was reviewed and called incomplete, but the drive before that — when Rob Gronkowski just completely took over — was the most memorable part of the night to me. Three catches for a nice 69 yards on the drive, followed up by a two-point conversion catch where he laughed at the defender trying to stop him. It was one of the most Gronk sequences of his career, just completely awe-inspiring. Also, Ben Roethlisberger was picked in the end zone to end the game by who else but Duron Harmon.

Onto the playoffs, starting with the AFC Championship Game against the visiting Jacksonville Jaguars. Down 10 halfway through the fourth quarter, Brady would throw two touchdowns to Danny Amendola to take the lead at the end of the game. Then, the Jaguars would get the ball back and start driving down the field. They would make it as far as the Patriots’ 38, before Blake Bortles was sacked by Kyle Van Noy. On the ensuing fourth-and-15, Bortles looked for Dede Westbrook and threw an almost perfect pass. However, Stephon Gilmore flew through the air and broke it up. The picture of that play could be hung in the Louvre. The Patriots would then pick up one first down and head to their second straight Super Bowl.

Said Super Bowl did not end the way everyone in New England wanted, obviously, but Tom Brady still put on a show. He threw for 505 yards and three touchdowns, and his fourth quarter scoring pass to Rob Gronkowski was his ninth drive in the fourth quarter or overtime of a Super Bowl to tie the game or take the lead. Unfortunately, the defense would ultimately let the team down, as they would allow 41 total points — the most the Patriots have ever given up in the playoffs under Bill Belichick.

A Brandon Graham strip-sack all but sealed the game for the Eagles — one that also is not without controversy, from a questionable Corey Clement touchdown to the mysterious Malcolm Butler benching. Overall, though, the 2017 season deserves its place as fourth on this list, only behind the three Super Bowl-winning campaigns.

3.) 2018

Third on the list and the lowest of the three Super Bowl winners is 2018. If it weren’t for the Chiefs, the Patriots might not have had any non-Super Bowl memorable games, but the two meetings with them make this year pretty unforgettable. People often say that last year’s Super Bowl wasn’t a great game, and it was boring, but the defense put on an absolute clinic, and the game set a record for the least amount of points scored in a title game, so it’s got that going for it.

Let’s start with the Kansas City games, though. The first meeting came in Week 6 and the Patriots were up 24-9 at the half. They got a good taste of how explosive the Chiefs offense could be, however, as they put up 31 in the second half — including a 67-yard touchdown to Kareem Hunt and a 75-yarder to Tyreek Hill. Hill’s catch tied the game 12 seconds after Stephen Gostkowski had boomed a 50-yard field goal to put the Patriots up by seven. With the game tied, the home team then went on a seven-play, 65-yard drive that ended with Gostkowski hitting a short field goal to win as time expired.

The second time the Patriots and Chiefs met that year, came in the AFC Championship Game at Arrowhead Stadium. This time, New England’s defense would completely shut the Chiefs out in the first half, taking a 14-0 lead into the locker room. The Chiefs would score 31 in the second half, however, including 24 in the fourth quarter alone. The Patriots, trailing by four with two minutes left, would then drive down the field and take a three-point lead with 39 seconds left.

The Chiefs then went 48 yards in four plays and just 31 seconds to hit a game-tying field goal. The Patriots received the kickoff in overtime (I know, I was pissed that the game ended sooooo unfairly too. I mean, everyone should have a chance in OT) and picked up three third-and-10’s on their way to punching their ticket to the Super Bowl for the third consecutive season. It was one of the best non-Super Bowl games of the decade. I could hardly breathe by the end, but the Patriots won, and that’s all that matters.

Then, two weeks later, the Patriots took the field against the red-hot Los Angeles Rams and everyone assumed it would be a shootout. Everyone was wrong, though, as New England and L.A. would combine for the lowest point total in Super Bowl history. The Patriots would score the first touchdown of the game in the fourth quarter on a Sony Michel run after a gorgeous pass from Brady to Gronkowski. On the ensuing drive, Stephon Gilmore then picked off Jared Goff, and the Patriots would drive down the field again to kick a field goal and put the game away.

As low scoring of a contest as it was, it still had some amazing moments, like the pass-breakup by Jason McCourty in the end zone, and the aforementioned pass to Gronk that put a nice bow on his Hall of Fame career. The Patriots walked away with their sixth Super Bowl title, and proved once again that you should never count them out.

2.) 2016

I went back and forth about how I would rank the last two seasons of the decade, but I think that this is the way that makes the most sense. The 2016 Patriots faced incredible adversity, starting the year without Tom Brady for the first four games of the season, but they still managed to finish 14-2 and win their fifth Super Bowl. Obviously, that final game was incredible, but there were only two really memorable moments in the regular season, and one of them came without Brady.

Let’s start with the first game of the season. With no Tom Brady, Jimmy Garoppolo would start against the Arizona Cardinals, a team people thought was poised to be a playoff team. After scoring on the first two drives of the game, including a touchdown pass on the season’s opening possession, the Patriots would lose the lead in the fourth quarter on a Larry Fitzgerald touchdown. Garoppolo then led the Patriots on a 13-play, 61-yard drive that would end in a Stephen Gostkowski field goal. The Cardinals got the ball back and drove all the way down to the Patriots 29, only to have Chandler Catanzaro miss a 47-yard kick with 40 seconds left.

New England would end up going 3-1 without Brady, with the only loss coming in Week 4 against the Buffalo Bills with rookie quarterback Jacoby Brissett — who could barely hold onto the ball because of a fracture in his wrist — filling in for an injured Jimmy Garoppolo.

The only other really memorable regular season game came in Week 12 against the Jets in New Jersey. The Jets scored early in the fourth quarter to take a 17-13 lead. The Patriots would then score nine straight points, including the game winning touchdown pass to Malcolm Mitchell. Ryan Fitzpatrick was strip-sacked by Chris Long two plays later, and the eventual world champions held on for the win.

The season would end in Super Bowl 51 against the Atlanta Falcons. As I’m sure you remember, the Falcons jumped out to a 28-3 lead, only to see the Patriots come flying back and win the game in overtime. There are tons of plays that could have swung the game the other way — like Matt Ryan dropping back to attempt what could have ended up being a long touchdown pass when he was strip sacked by Dont’a Hightower. If you watch the replay, Tylor Gabriel was breaking open against Malcolm Butler with no help over the top. A score would have been the nail in the coffin, but then Hightower came in and changed the game.

The Julio Jones catch, the Julian Edelman catch, the Tom Brady throw to Chris Hogan on third-and-10 from his own end zone, the James White dive into the end zone and subsequent two-point conversion to Danny Amendola — there are tons more plays from the game, but at the end of the day it boils down to this: Super Bowl 51 is the most improbable win in NFL history, and will quickly wipe away anyone’s bad feelings. Simply thinking of 28-3 can brighten a Patriots fan’s day, and ruin a Falcons fan’s week.

It isn’t enough to push 2016 past the final year on the list, however...

1.) 2014

There is only one year that rightfully belongs at the top of this list, and it is 2014.

Let’s go back to the start of that season. The Patriots hadn’t won a Super Bowl in 10 years, they had lost two heart-breakers to the Giants, and had just been defeated by Denver in the AFC Championship Game. Then, everything changed. They signed Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner, which would change the way they played defense, and Rob Gronkowski would finally be healthy for the majority of the season. Then, just before the season started, they traded Logan Mankins, and everyone thought Brady was pissed and the team would never recover. The season started, and people thought they were being proven right. Let’s head to the end of Week 4, when everything changed.

The Patriots got their doors blown off by the Chiefs in Kansas City on Monday Night Football, and everyone was ready to declare the dynasty dead. Tom Brady was benched, and rookie quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo had looked good in relief at the end of the game. Trent Dilfer declared that the Patriots “are not good anymore!” Bill Belichick was busy laughing at reporters who asked if there would be a quarterback change, and then let everyone know they were “on to Cincinnati.” And that’s exactly what they did. They rallied around #12, and hung 43 points on the previously unbeaten Cincinnati Bengals in front of a national audience on Sunday Night Football. It was the real start of the second dynasty.

There were the two close games against the Jets and the memorable loss in Green Bay on a Sunday night, but the second most memorable moment of the season to me came against the Chargers. It happened in the third quarter with the Patriots trailing 14-13. Philip Rivers threw a pass to one of his tight ends, Ledarius Green, and Brandon Browner absolutely destroyed him and the ball popped in the air. It was picked off by Devin McCourty and returned for a touchdown. The touchdown was called back because of a penalty on Browner for the hit but the play mattered so much to that team.

It was the first time I had seen an explosive play like that from the New England defense in quite a while. It was a message that these Patriots were tough, physical, and unafraid of any opponent. Rivers would throw an interception to Akeem Ayers later in the drive, and the Patriots would go on to score 10 unanswered points to win the game.

Before we get to Super Bowl 49, there’s arguably the best game in the history of Gillette Stadium. The Patriots would trail the Ravens by 14 twice in the game, and come back both times. The Julian Edelman touchdown pass to Danny Amendola is one of the best moments of the last decade, and the game-winner to Brandon LaFell might be a top 10 pass in Tom Brady’s career. It’s amazing how many people completely forget about that play, though: the Patriots were still losing, and Brady hit LaFell for a touchdown on the left side where he just fit the ball into an incredibly tight window, in stride. The Closer, Duron Harmon, would pick Joe Flacco off to end the game, and the Patriots would be on their way to hosting the Colts in the AFC Championship Game.

Let’s, for the sake of time, and my sanity, just pretend like nothing of note happened in that game at all.

Super Bowl 49, meanwhile, might be the best game of the decade by any team. It certainly features the greatest play in NFL history, and any game that features something like that must be considered for game of the decade. You all know the story of this game too, but I want to take you back to the start of Seattle’s final drive.

After the Patriots had overcome the largest fourth quarter deficit in Super Bowl history (at the time), after they had completed a third-and-14 down 10 in the fourth quarter, and after the Patriots ran the same play on back-to-back red zone trips, the second resulting in the eventual game-winning touchdown.

The Seattle Seahawks got the ball back with 2:02 left and all three timeouts. After hitting Marshawn Lynch for 31 yards on the first play, they had the ball just at midfield, and still all their timeouts. What occurred next is a case of clock management so poor that it makes Andy Reid look like Christiaan Huygens (probably worth a google). The Seahawks through an incomplete pass on first-and-10 from the New England 49, and then called their first timeout, with the clock stopped. Three plays later, Russell Wilson and Jermaine Kearse hooked up for the most unbelievable catch no one remembers, taking the Seahawks down to the 5-yard line and getting out of bounds to stop the clock.

Side note: Every time I watch this game, I get goosebumps when I hear Cris Collinsworth say, “But they’re not in yet.” Love him or hate him, but it’s one of the best calls in NFL history. So, what do the Seahawks do with the clock stopped? Call another timeout, of course. Now, here’s where it gets interesting. You just used a timeout, you have just over a minute remaining in the game and you’re five yards away from winning the Super Bowl. Instead of preparing his offense for two consecutive plays, which would have forced the Patriots and Bill Belichick to take a timeout, Pete Carroll assumed that Belichick would use his time outs no matter what. He was wrong.

After Dont’a Hightower made an incredible individual effort to tackle Marshawn Lynch at the 1, Belichick didn’t call timeout, and instead sent his goal line package onto the field. With the clock ticking down, Carroll needed to make a decision, if you run on second down and don’t get in, you have to use your final timeout, and then you either have to pass on third down, or you have one more chance to run it in. Seeing the goal line package, Carroll decided to call a pass play. I want to stop here for a second and appreciate the fact that, despite the fact that the Seahawks had the ball at the 1-yard line with less than a minute left in the Super Bowl, Bill Belichick was still in control of what happened on the field. The Seahawks, who should’ve been controlling the play on the field, were simply reacting to his moves. It’s the most ballsy, bad ass coaching in the history of the NFL.

Malcolm Butler, who had been covering Kearse on his improbable catch, and had the sense to push him out of bounds after he secured the catch, was sent in for the goal line situation. You know the rest, Wilson throws the pass to Ricardo Lockette, Butler runs in front of his and makes the pick, and the Patriots win their fourth Super Bowl. Imagine for a second if that play doesn’t happen. Where are the Patriots now? Do they win two more Super Bowls? What is Tom Brady’s legacy, who would’ve been 3-3 in Super Bowls after 2013? It’s amazing how much was changed by a single play in a single game.

We made it! Thanks for coming along for this ride back through the decade with me. I hope you had as much fun reading and reminiscing as I did. What an amazing decade we had. No matter what happens in the weeks and years to come, the past 20 years have been a privilege that we will never fully understand, try to keep that in mind. Have a safe and happy New Year! Talk to you next year! (You lasted this long, surely you can survive one little dad joke)

Pat is a host of The Patriot Nation Podcast

Interact with him on Twitter @plane_pats