Like the Seahawks' drive to Super Bowl XLVIII in 2013, the Panthers' ascension to the NFL's big stage this season marks their arrival as one of the league's upper-echelon teams, and I expect to see them fighting for the Lombardi Trophy for years to come. The Denver Broncos, on the other hand, are facing a cloudier immediate future, given that Peyton Manning seems to be at the end of the line, and his ostensible replacement, Brock Osweiler, remains something of an unknown quantity who also happens to be headed for free agency.
The Panthers' exceptionally sizable window for Super Bowl contention got me thinking about the windows of the league's other legitimate contenders -- specifically, which other teams have the biggest? That is, which teams are best set up to compete for a title for the longest time frame from 2016 on?
So I put together the list below. Of course, this is not merely a list of the six best teams in the NFL; this is about the teams whose ability to compete for the next three to five years I feel strongest about. So you won't find the Cardinals (great roster with questions about the quarterback position), the Packers (great quarterback, but too many questions about the rest of the roster), the Colts (same, provided Andrew Luck returns to his 2014 form) or the Broncos. That's not to say I wouldn't list any of those teams as Super Bowl contenders in 2016; I just don't feel as strongly about their long-term prospects as I do the teams below. One note before we begin: The Raiders nearly made the cut -- in fact, they'd be in the top 10 -- but I think they're still a year or so away from true contention.
1) Carolina Panthers
I wouldn't take any quarterback in the NFL over Cam Newton right now. Not many guys can beat you throwing the ball and with their feet like Newton can; consider that he's the only player in NFL history to record 35-plus passing touchdowns and 10-plus rushing touchdowns in a season. He's just 26, works extremely hard and continues to trend upward, having improved dramatically in accuracy and decision-making. Newton won with a receiving corps that lacked a true No. 1, meaning he should only be better in 2016, once receiver Kelvin Benjamin -- who missed the year with a torn ACL -- returns to action. Many key offensive pieces, including running back Jonathan Stewart and tight end Greg Olsen, are locked up long-term and should continue to produce for some time.
By their nature, Carolina's defenders will force turnovers -- the Panthers led the NFL in both takeaways (39) and takeaway differential (plus-20) in 2015. The tackle tandem of Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short is probably the NFL's best, while Luke Kuechly stands among the league's top linebackers. Cornerback Josh Norman, who is set to hit free agency, should be retained; there's otherwise no reason to think a unit that has ranked in the top 10 in each of the past four seasons will slow down. The NFC South will be a tougher division in 2016 than it was in 2015, but the Panthers are a team on the rise -- they are the new darlings of the NFL.
2) Seattle Seahawks
The Seahawks have certain core elements in place that all but guarantee a certain baseline level of success. They're anchored by two things: their defense and quarterback Russell Wilson. Led by stalwarts like Bobby Wagner, Michael Bennett, Kam Chancellor, Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas, Seattle's defense finished 2015 ranked second overall and first in scoring. Wilson, who's made the Pro Bowl in three of his four NFL seasons and finished with the league's best passer rating (110.1), is Seattle's offensive engine. He played out of his mind in the second half of the season (25 TD passes against two picks, a passer rating of 124.3, 5.6 yards per rush and a 6-2 record) to help the Seahawks secure a playoff berth after a 4-4 start. Undrafted rookie Thomas Rawls emerged as a serious rushing threat, putting up four triple-digit rushing games, including a 209-yard effort against the 49ersin Week 11; he should be a fine replacement for Marshawn Lynch, whenever the veteran's time in Seattle comes to a close.
Seattle's offensive line was something of a weak spot, made more so by the trade of center Max Unger to New Orleans as part of the deal to acquire tight end Jimmy Graham, who didn't contribute much before being felled by a torn patellar tendon in late November. But position coach Tom Cable is one of the best in the league, and the unit improved in the second half, especially once Patrick Lewis was starting at center. This roster is good enough that the Seahawks can withstand flaws like the O-line or missteps like the trade for Graham last year or receiver Percy Harvin in 2013. The organization has a solid plan in place.
3) Pittsburgh Steelers
Pittsburgh's window is being firmly held open by a trio of offensive stars. When you have a top-five quarterback (Ben Roethlisberger), running back (Le'Veon Bell) and receiver (Antonio Brown), all of whom should be operating at a high level for the foreseeable future, you have to like your odds. Even with Big Ben (three games) and Bell (eight) missing big chunks of 2015 with knee injuries, the Steelers still won 10 games and advanced to the Divisional Round of the playoffs. Though he made just 11 starts, Roethlisberger came within 62 yards of notching his fifth 4,000-yard season in his last seven seasons. Brown (265 catches, 3,532 yards and 23 scores over the past two seasons) is practically impossible to stop. And not too many teams have a receiving corps composed of players like Brown, Martavis Bryant and Markus Wheaton.
The fifth-ranked run defense made the 30th-ranked pass defense less worrisome than it might otherwise have been, given how important it is to stop the run. Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt are studs along the defensive line, and linebackers Ryan Shazier and Bud Dupree are really good players. Coordinator Keith Butler, coming off his first year in the post, will grow on the job. The Steelers have some flaws -- in addition to the pass defense, the offensive line was something of a piecemeal unit in 2015. And, of course, there's the health of their Big Three, which, with Roethlisberger banged up and Bell and Brown (as well as standout backup running back DeAngelo Williams) unavailable for Pittsburgh's season-ending loss to Denver, is basically what held the Steelers back. But presuming Bell recovers from knee surgery smoothly and Roethlisberger, Bell and Brown stay on the field together, this is a very good team.
4) Cincinnati Bengals
Cincinnati's snakebitten recent playoff history aside, the Bengals might be the most complete team in the NFL. They have a solid quarterback in Andy Dalton, pass-catching studs in receiver A.J. Green and tight end Tyler Eifert and a strong running-back tandem in Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill. And don't forget about a defense that held opponents to 17.4 points per game, making it the second-stingiest unit in the league. Dalton should come back healthy after a fractured thumb held him out of the final three regular-season games and Cincy's wild-card loss to the Steelers. He's a very good quarterback who's helped the Bengals reach the postseason in each of his five pro seasons.
One thing that hurt the Bengals was their apparent inability to control their emotions in that loss to Pittsburgh, with Vontaze Burfict and Adam Jones drawing penalties that cost the team 30 yards and, basically, the game. Burfict, who has been suspended for the first three games of the 2016 campaign, will have to do a better job of managing that. Also, the team faces some decisions in free agency, with receivers Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones, tackle Andre Smith and a bevy of secondary members (Leon Hall, Reggie Nelson, George Iloka and Adam Jones) set to hit the market. The Bengals should prioritize Jones over Sanu and should try to get younger in the secondary, but otherwise, I think they're in pretty good shape.
5) Minnesota Vikings
Minnesota had some bad losses, including the opener (to the 49ers) and, of course, the wild-card heartbreaker to the Seahawks. But the Vikings are an ascendant team. The defense, which ranked fifth in points allowed, is powered by several good, young players, like Everson Griffen, Harrison Smith, Anthony Barr, Eric Kendricks, Linval Joseph and Danielle Hunter. Hunter is a gem who picked up six sacks and really came on at the end of the year. Teddy Bridgewater improved quite a bit in his second pro season; I think the hard-working quarterback can keep getting better under coordinator Norv Turner. And, of course, there's running back Adrian Peterson, who showed he's still got it at 30. Peterson led the NFL in rushing despite working behind a so-so line, and I think he's got a great chance to do it again next year.
The Vikings are by no means perfect -- they need to add some speed at receiver (Mike Wallace is fast, but he's not the answer), and Bridgewater has room to grow. But it looks like the Packers are a bit of a descending team, making the NFC North more of an open division than it's been in some time. Plus, playing in a brand-new stadium should provide a boost. Minnesota is simply trending in the right direction for long-term success.
6) New England Patriots
This is a quarterback-and-coach-driven league, and as long as Tom Brady is their quarterback and Bill Belichick is their coach, the Patriots will be a factor. Don't overreact to the way New England's season ended. The bottom line is, Brady showed no signs of slowing down at 38. In fact, when you look at his numbers from 2015 -- 4,770 passing yards, 36 TDs against seven picks, a passer rating of 102.2 -- and consider what he had to work with, you'd almost think he was getting better. He's still able to put plenty of mustard on that ball, and he's still a competitive force -- after all, he nearly pulled out a win at the end of the AFC title game in Denver.
Offensive-line play, a lack of run-pass balance and injuries to key players like Dion Lewis and Nate Solder were an issue. But very few people will dispute that Belichick is the best coach in the NFL; consider that New England won 12 games in 2015 with the 30th-ranked running attack. He's just so well-prepared. Brady's age -- and the fact that he'll have to stop playing at some point -- cannot be completely ignored, of course, which is why New England is at the bottom of this list. But while there are no guarantees the Pats will continue to win in the post-Brady era, whenever that might begin, there's no reason to think they won't, either, given that Belichick won 11 games with Matt Cassel replacing an injured Brady in 2008.