2016 Ultimate Standings: Panthers, Packers lead NFL teams

Panthers named No. 1 NFL franchise in 2016 Ultimate Standings (0:55)

ESPN The Magazine's Peter Keating explains how the Carolina Panthers were able to jump to No. 1 and knock off the Seahawks as the top NFL franchise in the 2016 Ultimate Standings. The 49ers finished last in the league. (0:55)

The common threads among this year's top NFL squads? Coaching, title track and ownership. And that's not surprise, with the likes of Bill Belichick, Pete Carroll and Bruce Arians all lifting their squads to top-15 finishes. Arthur Black, Paul Allen, and, um, Green Bay fans all rank in sports' top 10. As for title track -- well, it's no coincidence that the past three NFL No. 1s have played in or won the previous Super Bowl. Of course, all that winning can come at the price -- just ask Pats fans, who could lead these rankings otherwise. Or, of course, the 49ers -- their combination of high prices and losing ways have dropped the team an astonishing 95 spots in two years. Now, they're 122nd in all of sports.

1. Carolina Panthers (3 overall)

It's amazing what a 15-1 regular-season record, a trip to the Super Bowl and having the league MVP will do for your franchise. The Panthers moved from an overall rating in the mid-20s the past two years to No. 3 overall, the highest ranking by an NFL team. The jump in players from No. 35 to No. 4 tells you the story. Carolina has two of the league's marquee stars in quarterback Cam Newton and middle linebacker Luke Kuechly. Good news: They're both signed long-term, so this rating shouldn't change much in the coming years. -- David Newton READ MORE

2. Green Bay Packers (4 overall)

The Packers are the model of consistency for NFL franchises. They're regular contenders (only the Packers and Patriots have been in the playoffs each of the past seven seasons), their finances are in order both off the field and in terms of player contracts, and they've had more than a decade of outstanding quarterback play with Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers. What team wouldn't want to emulate all of that? -- Rob Demovsky READ MORE

3. Arizona Cardinals (5 overall)

With victories comes not just the spoils, but also a fast rise up ESPN's Ultimate Standings. Cardinals fans' title hopes increased after a 13-3 season last year which ended with them in the NFC Championship Game, and a 27-point jump in these standings soon followed. But their 34 wins in three years had more to do with coach Bruce Arians than anything else.-- Josh Weinfuss READ MORE

4. Seattle Seahawks (6 overall)

The Seahawks are no strangers to the top of these standings, and this year is no different: Top-10 finishes in title track, ownership, coaching, players and bang for the buck mark some of the categories most important to fans. All those pieces have been put together to impressive effect on the field: The Seahawks have gone to at least the divisional round in four straight seasons, have made the Super Bowl twice and brought home the Lombardi trophy once.-- Sheil Kapadia READ MORE

5. New England Patriots (17 overall)

If quarterback Tom Brady serving a four-game suspension to open the NFL season was supposed to get Patriots fans down, it didn't work. In fact, optimism for the team might be at an all-time high as the Patriots improved eight spots in ESPN's Ultimate Standings, after making an 18-spot jump the year before. The only nitpick for fans is the rising cost to attend a game. -- Mike Reiss READ MORE

6. Denver Broncos (19 overall)

You'll have to excuse the Denver Broncos and their crowd for a little bit of the "duh" face with all of this. The team has sold every ticket since 1970, it has had more Super Bowl trips than losing seasons since Pat Bowlen became an owner in 1984. Last season was the franchise's eighth trip to the Super Bowl overall, seventh in Bowlen's time with the franchise and the Broncos won their third championship. -- Jeff Legwold READ MORE

7. Kansas City Chiefs (20 overall)

Their fans seem to have settled into a comfortable spot with regard to the Chiefs. While there's certainly frustration that the Chiefs haven't been to the Super Bowl since 1970, the fans seem to appreciate that their team is making the effort. -- Adam Teicher READ MORE

8. Pittsburgh Steelers (22 overall)

The Pittsburgh Steelers employed a balanced attack to jump eight spots in this year's Ultimate Standings, combining a successful on-field product with several improvements in the game-day experience. Heinz Field is one of the NFL's most unique venues, and the Steelers have championship aspirations every time they take it. The Steelers ranked in the top 40 in seven of nine categories gauging the health of professional sports franchises. Affordability and fan relations need slight improvements, but otherwise the Steelers get gold (and black) stars. -- Jeremy Fowler READ MORE

9. Baltimore Ravens (26 overall)

Not even a five-win season (the Ravens' worst record since 2007) can drop this team too far in our standings, thanks to affordable tickets and one of the NFL's best coaches and rosters. The Ravens ranked in the top quarter of all teams in all categories but one -- bang for the buck -- which could change quickly next year with a few more wins. -- Jamison Hensley READ MORE

10. Jacksonville Jaguars (32 overall)

The Jaguars are making progress much quicker in the Ultimate Standings than they are on the field. The team jumped up 32 spots to No. 32 -- a significant leap considering the Jaguars went 12-36 in 2013-15 (and 24 of those losses came by double digits). It's Year 4 of the rebuild under GM Dave Caldwell and coach Gus Bradley, and it's time for all that work to begin paying off. -- Michael DiRocco READ MORE

11. Houston Texans (39 overall)

The Texans are up 11 spots from last year's rankings, likely in part to the big offseason the team had after winning the AFC South last year. After a season of revolving quarterbacks that ended with a 30-0 blowout by the Chiefs in the wild-card game, Houston upgraded its offense in a big way, including signing quarterback Brock Osweiler to a four-year, $72 million contract. -- Sarah Barshop READ MORE

12. New Orleans Saints (40 overall)

Six years after ranking No. 1 on this list, the Saints have drifted into the middle of the pack -- much like what they've been doing on the football field. That's what happens after back-to-back 7-9 seasons, the first consecutive losing seasons in a decade under coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees. -- Mike Triplett READ MORE

13. Indianapolis Colts (42 overall)

Missing the playoffs for the first time since 2011, poor offensive line play and tension in the front office all played a part in the Colts' plummeting 31 spots in these rankings. This team spent the offseason before 2015 adding veteran players it felt were good enough to get the Colts to the Super Bowl -- only to end up way short of those goals. -- Mike Wells READ MORE

14. Minnesota Vikings (50 overall)

A 36-spot jump in these rankings is no small feat, but even more impressive: a 71-spot jump in stadium experience (the Vikings trailed only the Packers in the NFL in votes on "a great stadium." And thanks to an 11-5 2015 record and a playoff berth, the Vikes saw a 45-spot increase in bang for the buck. All things considered, the Vikings are on their way up -- in these standings and, perhaps, the NFC North. -- Ben Goessling READ MORE

15. Atlanta Falcons (54 overall)

The Falcons are in the middle of the pack, and understandably so. They were riding a high just a few years ago when they made it to the NFC Championship Game, losing to the San Francisco 49ers. But now, they've gone three consecutive seasons without making the playoffs, leaving the fan base scratching its head. There's still hope -- this team boasts one of the league's most dominant receivers in Julio Jones, talented running backs in Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, and a capable quarterback in Matt Ryan. But until the Falcons return to the playoffs, they'll be mired in mediocrity. -- Vaughn McClure READ MORE

16. Cincinnati Bengals (59 overall)

The Bengals have steadily gained more respect over the years as they continue to post winning seasons, as seen by a 28-point jump in these standings. These are not the losing Bengals of the '90s anymore; they win, and they win often. But until they can prove they can do it in the postseason too, they'll likely remain in the middle of the franchise rankings. . --Coley Harvey READ MORE

17. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (91 overall)

When you're a Bucs fan, even a six-win season is something to celebrate (it was only the team's third season since 2009 with at least six wins). So thanks to cheap seats, cheap eats and a somewhat promising outlook, Tampa Bay faithful jumped their squad up 18 spots this year, just outside the NFL's top half. -- Pat Yasinskas READ MORE

18. New York Giants (75 overall)

It has been a few years since the Giants made the playoffs, or even had a winning record. After four straight playoff-less years -- with quarterback Eli Manning on the roster! -- the Tom Coughlin era ended poorly. The hope is that a change at the top and $200-plus-million spent on the defense is the antidote to their struggles. -- Dan Graziano READ MORE

19. Buffalo Bills (76 overall)

The Bills have fallen from No. 49 overall last season, the result of drops in every category except bang for the buck. The bright side? They still rank 19th among NFL teams and are higher in the standings than some bigger-market teams (ahem, Cowboys) and several teams with newer stadiums. A cheap ticket does wonders. -- Mike Rodak READ MORE

20. Oakland Raiders (85 overall)

The Oakland Raiders' last trip to the playoffs -- let alone their last winning record -- came when quarterback Derek Carr was 11 years old, in sixth grade and watching his older brother David get sacked 76 times as the NFL's No. 1 overall draft pick. In other words, it was in 2002. Raiders fans are betting on the younger Carr having learned from the struggles of his older brother to get this proud franchise back up and running ... wherever its future home is, be it Oakland, Las Vegas, Los Angeles or parts unknown. -- Paul Gutierrez READ MORE

21. Philadelphia Eagles (86 overall)

When voting for the Ultimate Standings was completed in late August, the buzz surrounding the Philadelphia Eagles was near an all-time low. Jaded as a result of how things ended with Chip Kelly and uninspired by the QB pairing of Doug Pederson and Sam Bradford, fans were bracing for a boring year that was viewed as more of an obstacle between them and the start of the Carson Wentz era. That helps explain why the overall number fell 13 points, and why the Eagles failed to score well in just about every category. Since then? Well, Wentz has been thrust into the starting role, and a 3-0 start to the year might have people rethinking these numbers. -- Tim McManus READ MORE

22. Dallas Cowboys (89 overall)

The Cowboys are the most valued franchise in the world, according to Forbes -- but imagine how high the value would get if they would win. They have not won a Super Bowl since 1995, and after coming within a whisker of the conference championship game in 2014, they plummeted to a 4-12 mark in 2015. The Cowboys' success seems to be tied to Tony Romo's health. If Romo is healthy, they win. When he isn't, they lose. The arrival of Dak Prescott seems to have changed the narrative a little, but the rookie quarterback is still learning as he goes and it is impossible to know yet if he is truly the real deal. -- Todd Archer READ MORE

23. New York Jets (94 overall)

After four years of irrelevancy, the Jets won 10 games in 2015 and were back among the NFL's important teams -- in the league standings, if not these rankings. They have good leadership, a roster with high-profile names and a strong brand. Now all they need to do is figure out a way to sustain success -- and beat Tom Brady. -- Rich Cimini READ MORE

24. Chicago Bears (103 overall)

The NFL's charter franchise ranks 103rd overall after a nine-year span where the Bears reached the playoffs once. That's up 11 from last year, but this level of futility -- Chicago has qualified for the postseason just five times since Mike Ditka was fired in the early 1990s -- puts them on the level of Cleveland or Jacksonville. The Bears promised to usher in a new era of hope when they hired general manager Ryan Pace and head coach John Fox after the Marc Trestman debacle. So far though, both have failed to deliver anything tangible for Chicago sports fans to embrace. -- Jeff Dickerson READ MORE

25. Tennessee Titans (105 overall)

It's hard for a team that has won just six of its last 34 games to move up dramatically here, though a 12-point jump shows that fans are recognizing that a lot of positive things are happening. Ownership has stabilized, the team's facility underwent a major facelift and update, and the stadium is looking much better. None of that translates to wins, though. -- Paul Kuharsky READ MORE

26. Miami Dolphins (106 overall)

This year, the Dolphins fell in almost every category in these rankings, with slight increases only in stadium experience (thanks to a $500 million renovation) and coaching (excitement over new coach Adam Gase). But the Dolphins still have a long way to go to get to the top half of these standings, and none of it will come until the product on the field improves. -- James Walker READ MORE

27. Washington Redskins (108 overall)

This is the sort of ranking you get when you have made just five playoff appearances since the 1992 season and you have a team that can be quite expensive to watch. It's a tough combination for fans and will remain that way until the Redskins win more often. The silver lining for the Skins: They're up 12 spots this year, and no longer worst in the NFL. -- John Keim READ MORE

28. Detroit Lions (112 overall)

For years now, the Detroit Lions have been toward the bottom of these rankings. Most of it has to do with the years -- decades, really -- of losing. They have had two of the best players in NFL history, and both retired close to their prime with only one sniff of a chance at a Super Bowl between them. They are a franchise that has shown loyalty to their front-office employees, sometimes to a fault. While some of that is changing, with new leadership in owner Martha Ford, team president Rod Wood and GM Bob Quinn, it is way too soon to tell the long-term effects of their presence with the franchise. -- Michael Rothstein READ MORE

29. San Diego Chargers (117 overall)

Quarterback Philip Rivers and his bolo tie remain the best thing going for this franchise, which has reached the playoffs just once since 2010. Threats of the team moving have pushed fans away locally, while the product on the field has produced shoulder shrugs on a national scale. At least the Chargers still have those iconic, powder-blue uniforms! -- Eric Williams READ MORE

30. Cleveland Browns (119 overall)

It seems like it might take a front-end loader to get the Cleveland Browns out of the bottom of these rankings. A year ago the Browns were 109th; this year they are 119th. Going 3-13 in 2015 probably accounted for most of the drop (the Browns had the second-worst score in sports in "consistently wins more games than they lose"). The latest plan to fix things: Build with as many talented young players as possible, and let them all grow under coach Hue Jackson. It's a new approach, and it might work, but it will take time. And patience. -- Pat McManamon READ MORE

31. Los Angeles Rams (121 overall)

The Rams' move from St. Louis back to Los Angeles doubled their value, but it didn't necessarily make them more popular. At least, not yet. They return to the West Coast as the Ultimate Standing's second-worst franchise, down another 13 spots even after a poor showing last year. But they have greater revenue streams, a young roster and the prospects of a new stadium, so they are ever-hopeful of a better day. Things can only turn up ... right? -- Alden Gonzalez READ MORE

32. San Francisco 49ers (122 overall)

For a franchise with as much history and tradition as the 49ers, it's hard to believe they've sunk to this level -- dead last among 122 professional sports teams. It's the result of a lack of on-field success, the dysfunction that led to the departure of coach Jim Harbaugh (and the uninspired choice of Jim Tomsula as his replacement), and the overwhelming cost to watch it all unfold at Levi's Stadium. They dropped 76 spots in last year's rankings, and now, down 19 more, bottom out this year. At least now there's nowhere to go but up. -- Nick Wagoner READ MORE