Year in review: The best teams of 2021
Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Year in review: The best teams of 2021

Individual sports accomplishments are nice, but things seem better when a team is involved. There were plenty of notable team performances spanning the sports world in 2021. Here's our ranking of the 20 best.

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20. Phoenix Suns

Phoenix Suns
Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY Sports

Prior to the 2021-22 campaign, the Phoenix Suns had not enjoyed a winning season since going 48-34 in 2013-14. The Suns were also trying to reach the postseason for the first time since 2010. Well, they accomplished both and nearly won the franchise's first NBA title. Phoenix went 51-21, topped the Los Angeles Lakers in the first round before sweeping a powerful Denver squad. After a six-game series win over the Los Angeles Clippers, the Suns found themselves in the NBA Finals for the first time since 1993. Though they fell short of that achievement, star Devin Booker (23.2 points per game) twice scored 40 or more in that final series against Milwaukee and solidified himself as one of the game's best.

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19. New England Patriots

New England Patriots
Rich Barnes/USA TODAY Sports

Who needs Tom Brady? The New England Patriots -- at least that seems to be the case this season. While it might have been tough for Pats fans to watch their former superstar quarterback win a Super Bowl in his first year with Tampa Bay last season, his former team is doing quite well in 2021. New England, led by rookie Mac Jones (2,869 passing yards, 16 touchdowns, eight interceptions in 13 games) and a defense that allows just 11.5 points per game, entered Week 15 at 9-4 and riding a seven-game winning streak. Apparently, there is life after the G.O.A.T.

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18. Stanford (women's basketball)

Stanford (women's basketball)
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY Sports

It had been nearly 20 years since Stanford won its most recent women's basketball national championship. In 2020-21, the Cardinal looked like it could accomplish that feat again. Stanford entered the NCAA Tournament with just two losses and a No. 1 seed. When it got to the Final Four, fellow No. 1 seed South Carolina was waiting. The Cardinal squeezed out a 66-65 victory after the Gamecocks missed two straight short-range shots at the buzzer. In the national championship game, the Cardinal faced Arizona, a third seed that just knocked off Connecticut 69-59. But, Most Outstanding Player Haley Jones had 17 points with eight rebounds and Lexie Hull added 10 and 10. Then Stanford watched as Arizona star Aari McDonald's long, rather off-balanced 3-point attempt didn't fall, giving the Cardinal a 54-53 win and third national title. 

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17. Montreal Canadiens

Montreal Canadiens
Kim Klement/USA TODAY Sports

Speaking of the Canadiens. Hockey purists likely loved to see one of the most storied franchises in all of professional sports play for a Stanley Cup in 2021. Montreal finished fourth in the all-Canadian North Division after losing its final five regular season contests. However, the Habs caught fire in the playoffs behind star netminder Carey Price (2.28 postseason goals-against average). They overcame a 3-1 hole to stun archrival Toronto, then swept Winnipeg and took down Vegas in six games to reach their first Stanley Cup Final since 1993. Montreal's season ended without the Cup, but the run was pretty special.

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16. New York City FC

New York City FC
John David Mercer/USA TODAY Sports

NYCFC has had better regular seasons, but it's funny how things play out. In 2021, City started strong, then stubbled into a 14-win finish -- second-fewest in the six-year history of the squad. However, as the No. 4 seed in the MLS playoffs, NYCFC enjoyed plenty of good fortune. It opened with a 2-0 victory over Atlanta United FC, then upset Supporters' Shield winner New England on penalties. Then, punched its ticket to the final with a 2-1 win at Philadelphia. After playing Portland to a 1-1 finish, penalties, again, would decide the MLS Cup champion. A couple of big saves by Sean Johnson and Alexander Callens' title-clinching conversion gave City the 4-2 edge and its first league championship.

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15. Italy (soccer )

Italy (soccer )
Christian Charisius/picture alliance via Getty Images

Postponed one year due to the coronavirus pandemic, Euro 2020 returned with plenty of fervor in 2021. After favorite France was bounced in the Round of 16, it seemed anybody's title to win. While England looked unstoppable through the elimination rounds, Italy topped Belgium 2-1 in the quarterfinals and outlasted Spain on penalties in the semis to set up a title-match showdown with The Three Lions in front of their home Wembley crowd.  Italy conceded two minutes into the match but leveled the contest through Leonardo Bonucci in the 67th minute. Things eventually went to penalties, where England missed its final three shots and Italy prevailed for its second European Championship triumph.

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14. Chicago Sky

Chicago Sky
Matt Marton/USA TODAY Sports

The Chicago Sky  brought in WNBA superstar and area native Candace Parker to help win the franchise's first league title. Bingo! Parker  helped the Sky, 16-16 during the regular season and the No. 6 seed, get hot in the playoffs. They won single-elimination games against Dallas and Minnesota, dropped top-seeded Connecticut, and outlasted Phoenix in four games of the WNBA Finals. Allie Quigley scored 26 points and Parker added 16 with 13 rebounds, five assists, and four steals during Chicago's 80-74 title-clinching victory over the Mercury on Oct. 17. Not to be lost amid Parker's popularity, Kahleah Copper averaged 14.4 points and shot 46 percent during her stellar season.

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13. Cincinnati (college football)

Cincinnati (college football)

The Group of Five Bearcats are 22-1 since the start of the 2020 season. They have a uber-talented, veteran quarterback in Desmond Ridder (10,095 career passing yards, 87 touchdowns, 28 interceptions, 28 rushing TDs) and a 2021 defense that gives up an average of 16.1 points. At 13-0, Cincinnati is the only undefeated of the four teams in the College Football Playoff. Yet, it's a serious underdog against semifinal opponent Alabama. But, everybody likes an underdog, right? Come New Year's Eve, we'll see if the underdog can shock the world.

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12. Chelsea

Alexander Hassenstein/UEFA/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

In 2020-21, Manchester City won its third Premier League title in four seasons. City was 21 points better than fourth-place Chelsea. However, when it came time for the two league rivals to meet in the finals of the prestigious UEFA Champions League over the summer in Portugal, the roles were reversed. Chelsea, the 2012 winners, stymied the mighty City attack. Kai Havertz's 42nd-minute goal turned out to be all the scoring needed by the Blues to pull off the upset and keep Manchester City from its first Champions League crown.

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11. Michigan (college football)

Michigan (college football)
Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY Sports

Hail to the Victors! Finally, Michigan will be in position to win a national championship for the first time since its last at the conclusion of the 1997 season. At 10-1, with a run game averaging 223.9 rushing yards and defense that's yielded more than 18 points three times this season, the Wolverines believe they are as good as any of the four teams in the hunt. Starting with 12-1 Georgia, which still might be reeling from its 41-24 loss to fellow CFP participant Alabama from the SEC title game.

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10. Gonzaga (men's basketball)

Gonzaga (men's basketball)
Kyle Terada/USA TODAY Sports

From the start of the 2020-21 season, Gonzaga had the look of a national champion. As the season progressed, Drew Timme (19.0 ppg), Corey Kispert (18.6), Jalen Suggs (14.4), and the rest of the Zags rolled over the competition and took the No. 1 overall seed into the NCAA Tournament. While Gonzaga had little trouble getting to the Final Four, its dream of becoming the first program since Indiana in 1975-76 to go undefeated for a season, needed a Suggs' long heave at the buzzer to top upstart UCLA 93-90 in overtime of the national-semifinal round. That dream of perfection was officially dashed two nights later by Baylor, in impressive fashion. Leaving the Zags 31-3 and again waiting for that now-elusive national championship.

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9. United States women's basketball

United States women's basketball
Kyle Terada/USA TODAY Sports

Only three times in the history of the U.S. women's Olympic basketball program, has it lost a game in official competition. The most recent coming in 1992. During the Summer Games in Tokyo, the U.S. women pretty much dominated their way to a seventh consecutive gold medal, while padding the program's overall win total to 70 in Olympic competition Paced by WNBA stars Brittney Griner and Breanna Stewart, the Americans outscored their six opponents by an average margin of 19.3 points.

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8. United States Men's basketball

United States Men's basketball
? Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Remember when panic set in after the U.S. men lost its Olympic opener, 83-76 to France this summer in Tokyo? How foolish were we to think that the heavy favorites were about to flop? Pretty foolish, it turned out. Though the Americans, paced by NBA stars Kevin Durant, Damian Lillard, and Jayson Tatum, didn't completely dominate the tournament, they regrouped and eventually avenged that earlier defeat by beating France 87-82 to win their fourth consecutive Olympic gold medal.

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7. Baylor (men's basketball)

Baylor (men's basketball)
Kyle Terada/USA TODAY Sports

Baylor (28-2) was among the nation's top teams during the 2020-21 season, but some COVID-19 issues in the second half of the campaign left Scott Drew's squad a little lethargic. The Bears still earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament but weren't receiving the same level of love as the other top seeds -- Gonzaga, Michigan, or even Illinois. However, when the lights turned on, Baylor shined bright. Paced by the versatile Davion Mitchell (14.0 ppg) and Jared Butler (16.7 ppg), the Bears got better as the tournament moved forward. They rolled over Houston 78-59 in the national semifinals, then took control early and never relented during an 86-70 national-title-game victory over top-overall seed Gonzaga for the program's first championship.

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6. Milwaukee Bucks

Milwaukee Bucks
Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY Sports

It took the Milwaukee Bucks  just three seasons into their existence to win the NBA championship in 1971. The gap between a second title was much wider. Led by superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo, the NBA Finals MVP, after he averaged 35.2 points, 13. 2rebounds and 5.0 assists in the title series, Milwaukee overcame an 0-2 hole in the Finals at Phoenix by winning the next four -- including the final three contests by a combined 17 points. While Giannis has become the face of the franchise, forward Khris Middleton (20.4 points per game) finally got his due as one of the game's best players, and guard Jrue Holiday (17.7 ppg, 6.1 assists per game) might finally have found a home in Milwaukee.

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5. United States Ryder Cup team

United States Ryder Cup team
Mike De Sisti/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel via Imagn Content Services, LLC/USA TODAY NETWORK

It didn't matter that the United States fielded the youngest team in Ryder Cup history at Whistling Straits in Wisconsin, with cheesehead native Steve Stricker as captain, this summer. This was a determined group and proved that by rolling to a 19-9 victory over Team Europe and returning the prestigious hardware back to American soil. Postponed one year due to the coronavirus pandemic and with Wisconsin's Whistling Straits -- Sept. 24-26 -- as the stage, the U.S. got stellar performances from Dustin Johnson (five points) and Patrick Cantlay  and Collin Morikawa, who each posted 3 1/2 points, to dominate the Europeans. The Americans set the stage on Day One when they lost just one match over the two sessions.


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4. Tampa Bay Lightning

Tampa Bay Lightning
Douglas DeFelice/USA TODAY Sports

The Tampa Bay Lightning  won the franchise's second Cup during the COVID-interrupted 2020 season, then turned their game on when the lights shined brightest in the postseason to repeat as champions come 2021. Paced by Nikita Kucherov (32 playoff points) and Andrei Vasilevskiy (16 wins, 1.90 goals-against average in playoffs), the Lightning disposed of fellow Cup contenders Florida and Carolina, respectively, in the early rounds. They then outlasted the New York Islanders in seven games before needing five in the Stanley Cup Final in early July to take care of the upstart Montreal Canadiens. Interestingly, the Lightning join Pittsburgh as teams to win back-to-back Cups in the last six seasons.

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3. Alabama (college football)

Alabama (college football)
Jason Getz/USA TODAY Sports

Alabama opened 2021 with a 52-24 victory over Ohio State for its sixth national championship since the 2009 season. Now, the Crimson Tide is in position to become the first program to repeat as national champion since they did in 2011 and '12. At 12-1, and coming off an impressive SEC Championship Game-victory over previously undefeated Georgia, Alabama and Heisman Trophy winner Bryce Young (4,322 passing yards, 43 touchdowns, four interceptions) are ranked No. 1 with aforementioned Cincinnati in sight. Another year, another run of greatness.

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2. Atlanta Braves

Atlanta Braves
John David Mercer/USA TODAY Sports

Rewind to June 16, the Atlanta Braves  were 30-35 and wondering what to do with the rest of their season. Then, they lost Ronald Acuna Jr. to a season-ending knee injury in July. Not to be deterred, Atlanta woke up and went 58-38 down the stretch to eventually win the NL East by 6 1/2 games. With leader Freddie Freeman (.300 batting average, 31 home runs, 83 RBIs) and a pair of 14-game winners in Max Fried and Charlie Morton at the forefront, the Braves beat Milwaukee in four games in the NL Divisional round, then upset the Los Angeles Dodgers in six of the NLCS. Led by mid-season pickup Jorge Soler, who belted a three-run homer in its World Series-clinching 7-0 win at Houston in Game 6, Atlanta dropped the mighty Astros to claim the franchise's first title since 1995.

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1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY Sports

It's never wise to count Tom Brady out. Have we learned that yet? The 2020 Tampa Bay Buccaneers sat 7-5 before winning their final four games of the season. When the playoffs rolled around in '21, Brady guided the Bucs to road wins over fellow superstar quarterbacks Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers. So, was it really surprising that Brady and that stout Bucs defense were able to dominate the favored, defending Super Bowl champion  Kansas City Chiefs 31-9 in the NFL's title game on Feb. 7? Playing on his home field in Tampa, the 43-year-old Brady went 21-of-29 for 201 yards with three touchdowns en route to padding his record-Super Bowl win total to seven, while also securing his record fifth game MVP award -- and only one to accomplish the latter with two different teams. Meanwhile, Tampa Bay's defense held the potent Chiefs without a touchdown and picked off quarterback Patrick Mahomes twice, while sacking him three times. Entering Week 15 of the 2021 season, Tampa Bay was tied for the best record in the NFC at 10-3.

Jeff Mezydlo has written about sports and entertainment online and for print for more than 25 years. He grew up in the far south suburbs of Chicago, 20 minutes from the Mascot Hall of Fame in Whiting, Ind. He’s also the proud father of 11-year-old Matthew, aka “Bobby Bruin,” mascot of St. Robert Bellarmine School in Chicago. You can follow Jeff at @jeffm401.

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