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Panthers run deep at many key positions

Every team inevitably is going to face some form of adversity -- injuries, controversy, a losing streak, tragedy -- during the marathon that is a 20- to 24-week NFL season (including preseason and playoffs). So, which teams are equipped best to deal with it?

Based on conversations with various league personnel, the following teams are hereby deemed "most likely to succeed in spite of …" These rankings are based on (in no particular order) front-office continuity, the head coach, coaching staff, depth (especially at quarterback, at running back and along both lines), chemistry and track record.

Is it a coincidence that the list includes the franchises that year in and year out seem to be competing for the Super Bowl?

1. Carolina
A lot of experts believe Carolina is the best team in the league. John Fox hasn't won a Super Bowl, but he's widely considered to be among the best coaches in the game. He and general manager Marty Hurney have built arguably the deepest and most talented team around. Fox has by his side a terrific tandem of coordinators, Dan Henning (offense) and Mike Trgovac (defense). Fox and his staff have kept the Panthers going and kept them competitive through numerous injuries the past two seasons.

Jake Delhomme is a really good quarterback. The Panthers have Chris Weinke behind him, so it's in their best interest to keep Delhomme healthy. The receivers were a one-man gang last year, that man being Steve Smith, so the Panthers went out and added a No. 1b receiver in Keyshawn Johnson. With the selection of DeAngelo Williams in the first round, they shouldn't find themselves shorthanded at running back again this year. Brad Hoover, Jamal Robertson and Nick Goings all have performed well subbing for starter DeShaun Foster.

Carolina again should have an elite defense. The Panthers are so good along the defensive line that they're probably going to release a guy who'll wind up playing significant time with another club. Damione Lewis, a first-round pick in 2001, is listed as third on the depth chart at left defensive tackle. The front line of Julius Peppers, Mike Rucker, Kris Jenkins and Maake Kemoeatu might be the best in the business. Should the Panthers get hit with injuries up front again, they'll be all right with the depth they have.

The linebackers are good, and the secondary is great. It's as simple as that. Carolina has Reggie Howard and stud rookie Richard Marshall coming off the bench at corner.

Led by Fox and locker room leaders such as Delhomme, Peppers and Mike Minter, the Panthers are as resilient a group as you'll find. So long as they keep Delhomme and Peppers healthy, the Panthers aren't going anywhere. Fox will see to it.

2. Pittsburgh
The Steelers are synonymous with stability. The franchise has had only two head coaches -- Chuck Noll and Bill Cowher -- since 1969. It's moves such as signing director of football operations Kevin Colbert to an extension in the offseason that keep the Steelers' ship rolling. Colbert and his staff draft the players (the Steelers are never major players in free agency) to fit Cowher's smashmouth style, and business operations coordinator Omar Khan, an up-and-coming executive himself, does a good job locking players up with long-term deals.

Pittsburgh also has had the benefit of continuity on the coaching staff. Despite a 31-7 record the past two seasons, the Steelers' staff has remained intact. Dick Lebeau is as creative a defensive mind as there is in football, and offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt appears next in the line of Pittsburgh offensive coordinators to get head coaching gigs, perhaps as Cowher's replacement. Assistant head coach/offensive line coach Russ Grimm also should land a head coaching job in the near future.

Ben Roethlisberger quickly has attained status as one of the best quarterbacks, young or old, in the league. If Big Ben gets hurt -- and he missed four games last year -- the Steelers' offense, although it certainly drops off, at least can turn to veteran Charlie Batch. The running back group doesn't look as good without Jerome Bettis, but featured back Willie Parker is driven to prove he isn't a one-hit wonder. Verron Haynes is an effective if underrated third-down back. Rookie Cedric Humes or Duce Staley needs to step up and be the big back.

The Steelers have depth at receiver but also a lot of youth behind starters Hines Ward and Cedrick Wilson. Heath Miller is a good, young tight end, but Pittsburgh doesn't have much behind him in the pass-catching department. The Steelers need Ward and Miller to stay healthy for Roethlisberger to be his most effective. The offensive line is one of the best in the business.

Pittsburgh has depth at defensive line. The Steelers grow linebackers on trees. They're talented in the secondary. There are backups on this defense at each level who could start on other teams. Nine of 11 starters return on this side of the ball, and should any of them go down, Pittsburgh has capable replacements.

With Roethlisberger, Ward, Alan Faneca, James Farrior, Joey Porter, Troy Polamalu and, of course, Cowher, the Steelers have the leadership to weather any storm. Remember, this team won its last four regular-season games to get into the playoffs last season, then won three road games to get to the Super Bowl.

3. Denver
Bill Belichick has won one more Super Bowl and Cowher is the most recent to hoist the Lombardi Trophy, but Mike Shanahan arguably still is the game's best head coach. The Broncos have endured just one losing season in Shanahan's 11 seasons. Since 1995, no coach has won more games than Shanahan's 122. Denver has remained one of the league's model franchises through changes at quarterback, running back, wherever. Without question, the Broncos are the most consistent team.

Shanahan has great coordinators by his side, Mike Heimerdinger (offense) and Larry Coyer (defense). General manager Ted Sundquist lives in Shanahan's shadow, but he's a top-notch front-office executive.

Jake Plummer proved last year that he could lead a team deep into the playoffs, and behind him now is one of the preseason's most impressive rookies, Jay Cutler. No need to even get into the running game, right? We know the Broncos are going to do that. Plus, for the first time since Ed McCaffrey, really, Rod Smith has a sidekick. Javon Walker was one of the offseason's biggest acquisitions, a former No. 1 receiver in Green Bay who will, for now, take a backseat to Smith.

The Broncos' first-team defense hasn't allowed a touchdown to its first-team counterparts in 10 series this preseason. The Broncos have really good depth along the defensive line. Their linebacking trio of Al Wilson, D.J. Williams and Ian Gold is the fastest, if not the best, in the league. The Broncos have a shutdown corner in Champ Bailey and an enforcer at safety in John Lynch.

Once again, all the pieces are in place for the Broncos to make a run at that elusive third Super Bowl title. They were a win short of the Super Bowl last year and might have gotten better in the offseason. They should contend again. They have strong leaders in Smith, Plummer, Lynch, Bailey, Wilson and Tom Nalen. And it doesn't get any better than Shanahan at head coach.

4. Tampa Bay
The Buccaneers rallied around Chris Simms when Brian Griese went down last season, ultimately earning a wild-card berth. With the likes of Derrick Brooks, Ronde Barber, Anthony McFarland, Simeon Rice, Shelton Quarles and Brian Kelly -- holdovers from the 2002 Super Bowl team -- Tampa Bay has as much character in its locker room as anyone. With the strong personalities the Bucs have, it's hard to imagine them losing their focus should they hit a bump in the road or suffer a losing streak.

People thought Jon Gruden might have come down to earth a bit in the years after the Super Bowl, but he showed last year that he still deserves mention among the game's elite coaches.

Every year, the Bucs' defense under longtime coordinator Monte Kiffin is a virtual lock to finish in the top 10.

Offensively, the Bucs are set at running back with Cadillac Williams and Michael Pittman and even fullback Mike Alstott. Joey Galloway and Michael Clayton form a nice tandem at receiver, and behind them, the Bucs have Ike Hilliard and a slimmed-down David Boston.

The tight end depth chart, topped by Anthony Becht and Alex Smith, looks good. And behind Simms, the Bucs might have found something in rookie Bruce Gradkowski, who has lit it up this preseason. Gruden brought Bruce Allen with him from Oakland to be the Bucs' GM, and together they've orchestrated a couple of strong drafts.

Without Brooks, Barber, Rice and the gang, the Bucs are done. The defense still leads the way, and Tampa needs its stars to remain healthy. This club's strength is its collective heart.

5. Philadelphia
Give the Eagles a pass for last season. No team could have survived that many injuries coupled with a T.O. infection.

Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie has assembled one of the finest front-office teams in football: President/COO Joe Banner manages the salary cap and general manager Tom Heckert and vice president of player personnel Jason Licht pick the players for head coach Andy Reid. Reid is unflappable, and last season's meltdown aside, his team usually follows his lead when it comes to dealing with adversity on and off the field. Reid's relationship with Heckert and Licht is the NFC's version of the Patriots' Belichick and Scott Pioli partnership.

With one maneuver, the front office changed the perception of the Eagles' offense. By acquiring speedster Donte' Stallworth from New Orleans on Monday, Philly upgrades its wide receiver corps from pedestrian to impressive. Stallworth joins Reggie Brown, Jabar Gaffney, Greg Lewis, Todd Pinkston and rookie Hank Baskett, along with tight ends L.J. Smith and Matt Schobel, to give Donovan McNabb maybe the best group of receivers he has had in Philly.

The Eagles are better prepared this time around should something happen to McNabb, having picked up West Coast offense master Jeff Garcia in the offseason. The only question is whether the Eagles' running backs, led by Brian Westbrook, can stay healthy.

Philly might have the most talent in the league along the offensive and defensive lines. It would take a lot of injuries up front to deplete the Eagles' depth.

Without Terrell Owens, the veterans who led the team to four consecutive NFC title games return to the forefront. Guys such as McNabb, Brian Dawkins and Jeremiah Trotter, especially, are motivated to put the nightmare that was last year behind them.

6. Jacksonville
Vice president of player personnel James Harris, director of pro personnel Charles Bailey, assistant director of pro personnel Louis Clark and director of college scouting Gene Smith form a fantastic team of talent evaluators, one that works in concert with coach Jack Del Rio and his all-star staff, one that improved this offseason with the addition of former Vikings head coach Mike Tice. The Jaguars have it together at the top, a major reason they appear ready to challenge Indianapolis for AFC South supremacy.

Jacksonville is one of the few teams in the league that could lose its starting quarterback, in this case Byron Leftwich, and not miss a beat. David Garrard went 4-1 as a starter subbing for Leftwich last year, and there continues to be internal discussion among the coaches and personnel department as to whether Leftwich, great leader that he is, is in fact the guy to take the Jags to the next level. Leftwich is immobile and doesn't have the command of the offense the team would like. On the other hand, the staff loves Garrard's mobility. Oh yes, the quarterback controversy is alive and well inside the Jags' facility. Whatever happens, Jacksonville has what most teams do not -- a backup quarterback with whom it can not only compete but also win.

The Jags suffered a major loss when running back/fullback Greg Jones went out for the season with a knee injury. But they still are stacked at running back with a rejuvenated Fred Taylor, LaBrandon Toefield and rookie Maurice Jones-Drew. They're looking for a go-to receiver after Jimmy Smith's retirement. Matt Jones looks as though he could be the guy for that role; the team loves Ernest Wilford; and 2004 first-rounder Reggie Williams, although improved, needs to live up to his draft status. The Jags presumably got better at tight end with the selection of Marcedes Lewis; veteran Kyle Brady is essentially a third tackle. The team is strong up front.

The defense is spearheaded by the tackle tandem of John Henderson and Marcus Stroud, making life easier for the linebackers behind them. The starting quartet in the secondary, led by Donovin Darius, is a quality one, and there are good young reserves behind them.

The Jags have been one of the most physical teams in the league under Del Rio. That toughness isn't just limited to blocking and tackling. In guys such as Leftwich, guard Chris Naeole, linebacker Mike Peterson and Darius, the Jags have solid locker room leadership that won't allow the team to give in to excuses.

7. New England
Free agency picked at the Patriots' championship core in the offseason, and the Deion Branch situation isn't resolved. However, given their track record, we first have to see personnel losses, staff changes or off-field issues stop New England to believe anything -- that is, anything short of an injury to Tom Brady or the sudden dismissal/resignation of Belichick -- can. Belichick and vice president of player personnel Pioli aren't merely on the same page. The way Pioli and the scouting staff assemble talent according to Belichick's specifications, you might say they're reading aloud together. New England's reserves always seem prepared to step in when called upon because Pioli finds the right players to fit in with what Belichick and the coaches are trying to do. Theirs is the model coach-personnel guy partnership.

Brady makes everybody -- the linemen, the receivers -- better. The Patriots don't have much at receiver besides veteran Troy Brown, but receivers coach Brian Daboll always gets the most out of his guys and there are capable pass catchers at tight end and out of the backfield. The team also has maybe the best group of running backs it has had under Belichick, with Corey Dillon, stud rookie Laurence Maroney and Kevin Faulk.

The offensive line doesn't wow anybody, but line coach Dante Scarnecchia always has the starters and reserves prepared. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels is a future head coach. File his name away. Daboll is a coordinator in the making. Not only do the Pats do a good job of building depth on the field but they also prepare for inevitable coaching losses by building depth on the sideline and in the box.

The New England defense has its third coordinator in as many seasons, but Dean Pees isn't new to the system; he coached linebackers in 2004 and 2005. The front line of the 3-4, ends Richard Seymour and Ty Warren and nose tackle Vince Wilfork, is second to none. Aside from Jarvis Green, though, the rest of the linemen are unproven. Linebacker is a bit of concern, although the group will look better when Tedy Bruschi returns. The secondary is deep and experienced and should receive a boost with the return of Rodney Harrison.

How's rookie kicker Stephen Gostkowski going to hold up? That's a big question, although the Patriots don't seem too concerned, given that they've already awarded Gostkowski the gig over veteran Martin Gramatica.

Again, about the only thing this team couldn't handle is an injury to Brady. With guys such as Brady, Seymour, Bruschi, Vrabel and Harrison -- in other words, the key guys this franchise has won with the past five years -- and now presumed future Hall of Famer Junior Seau leading the way, this team can handle just about any bump in the road, on or off the field. Somehow, the Pats always find a way to be around in the end.

Michael Smith is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Contact him here.