Aught Lang Syne: The Sporting Decade

The defining sports game of this decade occurred at University of Phoenix Stadium on February 3, 2008. That night, in a game that moved about as quickly as the clock in Tecmo Super Bowl, the New York Giants upset the unbeaten New England Patriots, 17-14, to win Super Bowl XLII.

It is debatable whether Super Bowl XLII is the single best game across sports in the Aughts; however, it is almost certainly the game that crystallizes the two competing movements in sports this decade: the quest for historical transcendence and the ascension of the postseason underdog.

Sports are too broad and diverse a subject to write a coherent essay that addresses what happened in the Aughts. Too much happened to be melded into a sustainable theme or argument. And although for many the story of the Aughts is what occurred off the field—be it scandals surrounding performance-enhancing drugs, referees, or personal conduct—to me, the defining narrative of sports in the Aughts is of those two competitors in Super Bowl XLII: the unbeaten Patriots and the pedestrian Giants.

Prior to the Aughts, perfection in sports was a vestige of a prior era—the remnants of Wooden in Westwood or the early days of the merged NFL. It is not as if the ‘80s and ‘90s lacked historically transcendent teams; it is that, in the Aughts, dalliances with said transcendence became an almost annual conversation.

The Aughts provided us with the first 16-0 and 0-16 regular seasons in NFL history—in back to back years no less. Four teams in the past five years have started an NFL season 13-0; that had happened twice in the first 39 years of the Super Bowl Era. The three longest regular-season winning streaks and two longest single-season losing streaks have all occurred in the Aughts.

College basketball saw four teams flirt with perfection deep into February and even into March, with Saint Joseph’s becoming one of two teams in the last 30 seasons to complete an undefeated regular season in 2004. Twice this decade, a team entered the national championship with a record number of wins against only one loss.

That's right: This is the greatest regular-season team in American League history.

In Major League Baseball, the Aughts witnessed the greatest regular season in American League history when the 2001 Seattle Mariners won 116 games. They could have had 117 and the all-time mark, too, if they hadn’t blown a 12-run lead in an August game with the Indians—the biggest comeback in baseball history.

The NBA gave us five teams with 65 or more regular-season victories—four in the last three seasons. Prior to 2000, only nine teams had reached that mark since the 82-game schedule was established in 1967-68.

In college football, we witnessed not one, but two different programs reel off 34-game winning streaks—the longest in the sport since the early 1970s.

In individual sports, we saw the most dominant stretches ever by a golfer and a men’s tennis player, the most decorated athlete in Olympic history, and an inconceivably fast sprinter.*

*If you’re looking for any mention of Jimmie Johnson and NASCAR, well, look elsewhere, in a post that isn’t labeled “Sports.”

But while the Aughts were home to some of the greatest regular-season teams of all time, they also had a tendency to undercut those teams come playoff time. The first two teams to start an NFL season 13-0 this decade did not win the Super Bowl; the third and fourth will try to do so in February 2010. None of the college basketball teams that flirted with perfection won the national championship; two didn’t even make the Final Four. The 116-win Mariners unceremoniously bowed out in the ALCS in five games to the Yankees. Two of the five 65-win NBA teams (the ’07 Mavs and ’09 Cavs) didn’t make the Finals, losing to inferior teams—in stunningly short series, no less. And those 34-game college football winning streaks each ended in championship game upsets.

Postseason upsets became the rule rather than the exception in the Aughts. Only one team seeded No. 1 in either conference (the 2003 Patriots) has won the Super Bowl this decade; meanwhile, teams have won three playoff road games en route to a Super Bowl title twice.

And a team that won 33 fewer games than the Mariners won the title five years later.

Eight of the 20 pennant winners in Major League Baseball this decade didn’t even win their own division; three of those won the World Series. And that doesn’t include the 83-win Cardinals who won it all in 2006.

The NBA witnessed more 50-win NBA champions than 60-win ones, and only twice did the team with the outright best record claim the Finals. And this again doesn’t mention the 2006 champion Heat, whose 52 wins are the second-lowest ever by an NBA champion since the late-70s.*

*When a lot of champions were pretty mediocre.

And even college football—a sport seemingly immune to giving us bad champions (if also immune to legitimate ones)—saw its share of mediocre title-winners, including 2002 Ohio State, 2003 LSU, and the two-loss LSU squad from 2007.

Ironically, the only sport that didn’t give us a fluke champion this decade was college basketball,* and even that saw the biggest underdog to ever make the Final Four during the Aughts (in a year where, for the first time, no top seeds made the sport’s final weekend).

*It’s debatable whether 2005-06 Florida is a fluke champion; whenever I’m tempted to say they are, I have to remember they won it again the next season.

This is all the backdrop to that epochal Super Bowl in Glendale, Ariz., which pitted the single most dominant regular-season team in sports history against one of the most unimpressive conference champions ever.

The 2007 Patriots will almost certainly be the most remembered team of the Aughts.* Several teams had tossed around the idea of perfection in the NFL since the ’72 Dolphins—most notably the ’85 Bears, ’98 Broncos, and ’05 Colts. The rhetoric that surrounded those teams’ runs to 19-0, however, was laced with the idea that it simply could not be done: We didn’t know who they would lose to, but we knew they would lose. Teams did not go undefeated, not anymore.

*Even if the Colts finish this season 19-0, it will seem somehow derivative of the 2007 Patriots.

The 19-0 talk started pretty early that season.

But the 2007 Patriots defied that that notion even before they finished the regular season 16-0. They won games by ridiculous Pop Warner scores like 52-7 and 56-10; they embodied the philosophy from the rival Hawks in The Mighty Ducks: “It’s not worth winning if you don’t win big!” Their Pythagorean seemed like it should be 20-(-1). By the time they beat the nemesis Colts in Week 9, it was difficult to conceive of a fellow NFL team that could beat the Patriots, let alone would. They were on the cover of Sports Illustrated five times that season with headlines such as “Scary,” “Tom Brady As God,” and “Perfect Season’s Greetings.” New England had its share of close calls down the stretch, including a trio of three-point victories on national television in the season’s final six weeks. But when the Patriots walked off the turf at Giants Stadium on December 28, 2007, after overcoming their largest deficit of the season in a 38-35 win, it was hard not to label them the greatest team in NFL history—one that was bound to finish 19-0.

The Patriots, then, became the paradigm for this historical transcendence-as-telos movement of the Aughts; indeed, New England was the first team I can remember for whom winning the Super Bowl did not seem a satisfactory goal. They rewrote the possibilities and expanded the limits for what a team could accomplish. In a decade full of transcendent teams, the Patriots were above all of them–and it wasn’t even close.

The Giants, on the other hand, represent the Aughts’ other major movement: the fluke champion that hit its stride at the perfect time. New York came into the season with low expectations following a disappointing close to an 8-8 2006 season and the retirement of Tiki Barber. With the help of a soft schedule, the Giants rebounded from an 0-2 start to win six straight games, eventually clinching a playoff berth with a Week 16 win in Buffalo. Even for a Wild Card team, though, the Giants were particularly unimpressive. Only one of their 10 wins came against a playoff team, and they routinely beat bad teams by thin margins. They had lost three games to the top two seeds in the NFC by the combined score of 111-68.

The Eli Manning we were used to.

They were a team that had deservedly merited little national attention or even local excitement. After a road win over an equally unimpressive Tampa Bay team in the first round of the playoffs, the Giants proceeded to stun the Cowboys and Packers on the road to reach the Super Bowl. Even then, they were branded one of the worst teams to ever reach the title game, boasting even fewer credentials than the 2000 team that was blown out by the Baltimore Ravens.* They weren’t even a good Cinderella story, being a big-market team that was coming off back-to-back playoff seasons with a quarterback that had more or less swindled his way to the Big Apple on Draft Day.

*Time, of course, has not been kind to that Giants team, which actually entered the game as the favorite.

New York, then, was vaguely reminiscent of Major Major from Catch-22: “Even among men lacking all distinction he inevitably stood out as a man lacking more distinction than the rest, and people who met him were always impressed by how unimpressive he was.” The Giants were impressive only in how unimpressive they had been, even in reaching the Super Bowl. Their proudest moment that regular season, after all, was a loss.

But New York was both a team playing over its head and uniquely built to compete with the Patriots: Its defense, led by a relentless front four that could get to the quarterback without added blitzers while its offense, with a two-headed running back attack (which the Giants started to use in Week 16) and a suddenly reliable quarterback could control the clock and consistently convert third downs.

The Giants played to those strengths all game while the Patriots seemed to buckle under the pressure of history, playing more conservatively than they had all season. New York took advantage with one miraculous play and a last-minute touchdown to pull off the 17-14 shocker.

It was an upset for the ages, but also one of the age. It was the everyteam—one that had not been considered a legitimate Super Bowl contender until it actually reached the Super Bowl, if even then—surpassing and, in the process, undercutting perfection.

It was the story of the Aughts, symbolically played out on a winter night in Arizona.

3 responses to this post.

  1. […] Of course, for me, nothing tops Super Bowl XLII… […]


  2. […] and then we went an anointed that one of the greatest games ever, too. And the same with that low-scoring Super Bowl a few years […]


  3. […] perfection — and yes, historical transcendence — was, at least in one man’s opinion, the storyline in sports over the last decade. And last season, it got to the point of becoming, well, […]


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