It takes many things for a franchise to open a window of opportunity. Among those things are good young players, solid veterans, the right general manager and coach, a scheme that plays to the strength of a team's personnel, salary-cap flexibility and … well, the list could go on. But the result -- a team on the verge of regularly making the playoffs for the next few years -- is unmistakable. Here are four teams whose windows of opportunity are opening.
This is an explosive, young team that places a lot of pressure on opposing defenses, especially with its passing game. Head coach Ken Whisenhunt is a dynamic, young coach who has done an excellent job of adding players who fit his system. The system might even be bigger than the quarterback, considering the Cardinals aren't certain who will be their long-term signal caller.
The Cardinals have two quality receivers in Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin (and, by the way, trading Boldin in the offseason would be a big mistake) and a very good No. 3 receiver in Steve Breaston. They have an intriguing young offensive line with an excellent coach, Russ Grimm, who will not let them underachieve. Although the Cardinals have offensive flaws (RB Edgerrin James has declining skills, but is still serviceable, and there's little involvement of the tight end in the passing game), the system hides them well.
Defensively, the Cardinals have a great coordinator in Clancy Pendergast and a scheme built around DT Darnell Dockett, SS Adrian Wilson and linebackers Karlos Dansby and Gerald Hayes. For the past few years, it had seemed as if Arizona was on the verge of breaking through. This is the year it will finally do it.
General manager Thomas Dimitroff has brought much hope and excitement to an organization in dire need of both. Dimitroff and head coach Mike Smith decided to build from scratch by releasing overvalued, high-priced players, then found franchise quarterback Matt Ryan to build this team around. Ryan has been very impressive and has shown consistent growth and development at the most critical position on the team. Led by offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey, this offense has two explosive playmakers at two critical positions -- running back Michael Turner and wide receiver Roddy White. The offensive line also has exceeded expectations with some good young players, including rookie LT Sam Baker, who was starting and playing well before a hip injury sidelined him indefinitely.
Defensively, the Falcons have some young building blocks in MLB Curtis Lofton, FS Eric Coleman and RCB Chris Houston. They also have an explosive edge rusher in John Abraham, who is having a Pro Bowl-caliber year. Few expected the Falcons to make such a quick turnaround, but their success this season isn't a fluke, and they will continue to improve under Dimitroff and Smith.
Head coach Dick Jauron and his coaching staff have done an outstanding job making the Bills a team that plays as hard as any in the league. The Bills were smart to lock up Jauron with a three-year extension.
Continuity is key when a team is closing in on being a perennial playoff team. Vice president of pro personnel John Guy has a done a great job of acquiring talent, and the Bills have franchise quarterback Trent Edwards. Edwards is a smart, instinctive player who is an extension of offensive coordinator Turk Schonert on the field. The Bills have a young, talented running back in Marshawn Lynch, who can pound the ball inside behind a big, physical offensive line. WR Lee Evans is an explosive playmaker who can attack all levels in the passing game.
On defense, the Bills have a big interior, led by Marcus Stroud and a very good pass-rusher on the edge in Aaron Schobel. MLB Paul Posluszny has enormous potential, while WLB Kawika Mitchell was a great offseason addition. The secondary is young and talented, led by SS Donte Whitner, and the Bills have one of the best special-teams units in the NFL. This isn't the flashiest team, but it isn't going away anytime soon.
The trade of Brett Favre signaled a rebuilding time to some, but not to those in the Packers' organization. GM Ted Thompson has solidly built one of the youngest teams in the NFL through the draft, and he found a franchise quarterback in Aaron Rodgers. Rodgers has been very impressive in Mike McCarthy's West Coast offense. The Packers have talent at wide receiver with a superstar on the rise in WR Greg Jennings. Donald Driver continues to play well, and Jordy Nelson is an intriguing young player. The interior of the offensive line is young, led by C Scott Wells, and although the tackles are aging and declining somewhat, they still play consistently. RB Ryan Grant is a solid running back whose vision and style fit this offense.
Defensively, the Packers have a relentless pass-rusher in Aaron Kampman and playmaking linebackers MLB Nick Barnett and WLB AJ Hawk. Aside from the aging duo of Charles Woodson and Al Harris, this secondary is young and talented. Favre may be gone, but the days of the Packers' being a playoff team are far from over.
Scouts Inc. watches games, breaks down film and studies football from all angles for ESPN.com.