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Cardinals, Other NFC Contenders Not Going Away

The best teams within the conference seem primed for more success next year


Cardinals safety Tony Jefferson tackles Panthers RB Jonathan Stewart in the NFC Championship game. Both teams have the talent to get back there next season.

Some playoff runs signal the end of an era.

That seems likely for Peyton Manning, the Broncos quarterback who may choose to retire after claiming his second career Super Bowl title on Sunday. It's happened plenty of times in the past, when championship-caliber teams were broken up as the salary cap forced a general manager's hand.

It doesn't seem to be the case for any of the NFC's best teams from 2015. The Cardinals bring back the core group which led them to a 13-win regular season and a conference title game appearance, and the teams they battled against late in the year figure to be in the mix once again.

The Panthers were upset in the Super Bowl, but have quarterback Cam Newton entering his prime after winning this year's league Most Valuable Player. Their most important free agent piece is cornerback Josh Norman, whose loss would be significant. However, a long-term deal seems likely, and if not, Carolina can always use the franchise tag on him.

One year ago, the retirement of running back Marshawn Lynch would have been a scary proposition for the Seahawks, but they found a fine replacement in Thomas Rawls at a fraction of the cost. Seattle may have the biggest offseason ahead of the perceived contenders, with left tackle Russell Okung and linebacker Bruce Irvin among their free agents. However, the presence of quarterback Russell Wilson and elite defenders like cornerback Richard Sherman, safety Earl Thomas, defensive end Michael Bennett and linebacker Bobby Wagner keeps this team in the upper echelon.

The Packers fought through myriad problems with their offense in 2015, but still pushed the Cardinals to overtime in the NFC Divisional round. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers hides a lot of deficiencies, and the return to health of top wideout Jordy Nelson will be a big help as Green Bay could be improved next season.

The Vikings won the NFC North and seem like a team on the rise, provided running back Adrian Peterson can continue to perform like a star. The defense is young and talented, and Minnesota has the financial flexibility to add more key pieces through free agency if it desires.

The Cardinals fared well against top-tier competition until the NFC championship game, and there's little reason to believe they will suffer an appreciable drop in 2016. The same can be said for the rest of the five main contenders from this season.

But there's also this caveat: many NFL teams on paper in February look drastically different by the time the season hits full steam. The Cowboys made some controversial moves in the offseason, but there was no doubt they had one of the conference's most talented rosters following 2014's 12-4 regular season and NFC Divisional Round appearance. It unraveled quickly, though, as injuries to quarterback Tony Romo and wide receiver Dez Bryant torpedoed the season.

The 49ers didn't even make it to the season before their path changed drastically, as a rash of retirements and free agency defections pushed them from possible playoff contender to NFC West cellar dwellers.

Offseason moves, key injuries, chemistry issues, suspensions and the like can throw a wrench into a team's grand plans.

As it stands, the NFC's best teams from 2015 are primed to head into 2016 right where they left off. Only hindsight will tell us if next season's results match our current expectations.

Images of the Cardinals' tackle leaders in 2015

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