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The Great Patriots Debate: Which is the all-time best Pats team?

The 2001 New England Patriots shocked the world with their victory in Super Bowl XXXVI, their 20-17 upset of the highly-favored St. Louis Rams bringing the franchise its first title in 42 years. While they are certainly deserving of all the accolades they have received, there remains one unanswered question. Are they the best Patriots team ever?

The question is sure to draw controversy throughout Patriots Nation. Newcomers will surely be on the side of the champs, while others may argue that Bill Parcells' 1996 club or even the Cinderella 1976 team deserves the honor. It's now time to find out once and for all which is the best Patriots team of all-time, not just with a well-conceived argument but on the gridiron, well, the cyberspace gridiron anyway.

A committee of Patriots experts (OK, the staff at PFW) has chosen the 12 best teams in franchise history, and all the statistics and ratings from those clubs for each player have been fed into our trusty PFW computers. With the help of Dave Koch's ActionPC Football simulation all that is left to do is throw the switch and let these great teams loose upon each other.

The elite dozen will compete against each other in a single elimination tournament to determine the all-time champion. The format will be as follows: the teams will be seeded 1-12 determined by their overall record, postseason performance and educated opinions, with the top four teams getting a first round bye. The winners of each game will advance and the losers will be eliminated until one team is left standing, the ultimate Patriots champion. Without further ado here are the 12 contenders for the mythical title:

  1. 2001 New England Patriots (14-5)

The reigning World Champions draw the top seed and deservedly so. Quarterback Tom Brady came off the bench and set a new club record with a 63.9 percent completion rate for the season. Troy Brown was his favorite target with 101 receptions and Antowain Smith rushed for 1,157 yards to help balance the offense. Head Coach Bill Belichick utilized a bewildering array of defensive schemes that kept opponents out of the end zone.

  1. 1976 New England Patriots (11-4)

This was the team that many still believe should have brought the first championship to New England and very well might have if not for a flag dropped by referee Ben Dreith in the closing minutes of the playoff game in Oakland. Sam Cunningham led a powerful rushing attack that was driven by an offensive line paced by Leon Gray and Hall of Fame guard John Hannah. Quarterback Steve Grogan set an NFL record with 12 rushing touchdowns while AFC Rookie of the Year Mike Haynes led the team in interceptions with eight and returned two punts for scores.

  1. 1996 New England Patriots (13-6)

The surprise team that scored 418 points and marched to Super Bowl XXXI in New Orleans before bowing to Green Bay. Bill Parcells' club had a balanced attack led by Drew Bledsoe, Curtis Martin, who rushed for 1,152 yards, and rookie Terry Glenn who led the team in receiving with 90 catches. Willie McGinest and Ted Johnson were the leaders of an aggressive defense that turned it up a notch in the playoffs.

  1. 1985 New England Patriots (14-6)

Head Coach Raymond Berry re-established the Patriots power running game and turned loose a tenacious defense and the result was three straight playoff victories on the road and a trip to Super Bowl XX. Craig James rushed for 1,227 yards while Tony Eason and Steve Grogan shared the quarterback duties. The key element was an opportunistic defense led by linebacker Andre Tippett that forced 34 turnovers.

  1. 1978 New England Patriots (11-6)

This remains the all-time best rushing team in NFL history, rolling up an incredible 3,165 yards on the ground. Four players had better than 500 yards including quarterback Steve Grogan, who had the speedy Stanley Morgan, the veteran Harold Jackson, and all-world tight end Russ Francis to target. The defense faded down the stretch, and Chuck Fairbanks' decision to leave at the end of the season led to a first-round playoff loss to Earl Campbell and the Houston Oilers.

  1. 1986 New England Patriots (11-6)

They captured the franchise's first division title in eight years but the lack of a running game caught up with them in a first-round playoff loss in Denver. Despite finishing dead last in the league in rushing, Tony Eason had a remarkable season, connecting on 61.6 percent of his passes and found a favorite target in Stanley Morgan, who caught a new team record 84 passes for 1,491 yards and 10 touchdowns.

  1. 1964 Boston Patriots (10-3-1)

The club that many members of the 1960s Patriots will tell you was their best. Babe Parilli had his finest season at quarterback, tossing a team record 31 touchdown passes that has never been equaled. Gino Cappelletti caught a career-high 49 passes and led the league in scoring with 155 points. A stingy defense led by linemates Larry Eisenhauer and Houston Antwine allowed only 81.6 yards rushing a game, while safety Ron Hall netted a club record 11 interceptions. Their championship dreams ended with a season-ending loss to Buffalo in a snow-covered Fenway Park, but they left a standard for other Patriots teams to follow.

  1. 1963 Boston Patriots (7-6-1)

This team's record was deceiving because of a very balanced division, but it was the first Patriots team to play in a championship game. A conservative offense rode the outstanding season of all-purpose back Larry Garron and got help from a blitz-happy defense that totaled 56 sacks for the season. It was the first Patriots team to ever win a playoff game with a 26-8 decision over the Bills in Buffalo that led to their only appearance in the AFL Championship Game.

This club is a darkhorse candidate but its smothering defense could offer a surprise.

  1. 1997 New England Patriots (11-6)

Head Coach Pete Carroll's only entry in the tournament is a club that almost matched the Super Bowl team of the previous year. An injury to Martin down the stretch robbed New England of its threat on the ground and left it for easy pickings by the Steelers in the first round of the playoffs. Bledsoe had his best season statistically throwing to eight different receivers who had at least 20 catches.

  1. 1966 Boston Patriots (8-4-2)

A team that had a definitive shot at playing in the first Super Bowl but a season-ending loss to Joe Namath's Jets denied it a spot in the title game. Fullback Jim Nance set an all-time club rushing record with 1,458 yards on a staggering 299 attempts, and his presence in the Patriots backfield helped make Parilli's skillful play action passes extremely effective. An aging defense had problems keeping teams out of the end zone but still had Jim "Earthquake" Hunt around to terrorize quarterbacks.

  1. 1994 New England Patriots (10-7)

Parcells' first playoff team in New England, due mostly to the passing talents of the second-year Bledsoe. Bledsoe tossed up a team-record 691 pass attempts in the absence of a running game and led the Patriots to a seven-game winning streak that secured them a wild card berth. Ben Coates was Bledsoe's favorite target, with the big tight end hauling in 96 receptions that included seven touchdowns.

  1. 1974 New England Patriots (7-7)

One of the most underrated teams in franchise history. Under second-year coach Chuck Fairbanks the Patriots broke fast from the gate and sat atop the division with a 6-1 mark before a slew of injuries wiped out several key performers on offense. Quarterback Jim Plunkett was the team leader with 19 touchdown passes. The spark was provided by the smallest player in team history, 5-5 "Mini" Mack Herron, who had an incredible season setting an NFL record with 2,444 all-purpose yards. The Patriots were the first team to use the 3-4 alignment as their regular defense and finished among the league leaders in rushing defense.

Next: The 1978 Patriots take on the underdog 1974 Patriots, and the 1963 Patriots battle the 1997 Patriots.

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