Last term, Newcastle finished fifth, qualifying for Europe, while Sunderland were 13th.
O'Neill said: "Have they set the template? Absolutely. I think we should take our lead from them. It was an exceptional season.
"This time last year I wasn't working, and when Newcastle were going strong I probably felt like a lot of people that they would do well to keep it going. But they did. So they deserve all the accolades.
"It's not to defuse any situation, that's how I view it and it was terrific."