In the depths of the pandemic, the arrival of the 2020 NFL season was a healing balm, if for no other reason than it gave us something to talk about other than the weather and the coronavirus.

But maybe even better, the NFL product was stripped to its essentials. No preseason games on which people could waste their money watching men who'd be wearing UPS uniforms in two weeks. No breathless reading of tea leaves at organized team activities on the meaning of whether an unpadded April practice gave someone the inside track on starting at outside linebacker for the Jaguars.

The 2021 season marks a return to near-normal service. If anything, 2020 has further laid bare the uselessness of those other preliminaries. Teams like the Rams and Packers haven't even attempted to project a veneer of competitiveness in the preseason. Eight of the 16 teams in the NFC failed to win a single August game.

The NFL industrial complex continues to grow, including the addition of a 17th game that serves no purpose other than to provide inventory to the TV networks. It can probably not be defeated but it can be held at arm's length.

Local View Column: It's OK to let football earn its place in our lives this season

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I don't hate football. In fact, I rather enjoy the sport. It's just the football-adjacent stuff I can do without. It is OK, perhaps even advisable, that you don't know who the starting strong safety on the Indianapolis Colts is. This NFL preview is for you. I did my research, just a reasonable amount of it.

NFC North

After slipping to 7-9 in 2020, the Vikings appear to be scrambling to get back on the good side of .500.

The good news is that Mike Zimmer's teams have made the playoffs in each of the last three "odd" seasons (2015, 2017, 2019), so the trend certainly looks positive.

Dalvin Cook and Justin Jefferson are the kind of weapons several teams in the NFC wish they had. However, the once-vaunted Vikings defense has some serious issues, and the amount of excitement shown over the reacquisition of Eversen Griffen, who is 34 and average; and other guys into their 30s (Patrick Peterson, Harrison Smith) or coming off major injuries (Anthony Barr) betrays a unit longing for the good old days but unable to create good new days.

This is not a bad football team. But in a second half of the schedule in which Minnesota plays the Packers and Bears twice and the Rams and 49ers, this team is not good enough, which is why I'm picking them for 7-10.

The Aaron Rodgers saga was both exhausting and exactly why I enjoy strictly observing the off part of the NFL offseason. Had it not been for the details of the peripatetic quarterback's Ayurvedic cleanses and (surprisingly watchable) "Jeopardy!" hosting outings, there might not have been any news out of Green Bay at all this summer.

The Packers are what they are, which will probably be just good enough to make the NFC Championship Game and lose. It's happened four times in the last seven seasons and yet Vikings fans still haven't made any good jokes about it.

A major realignment, if not an outright cliff dive, in the Packers' fortunes is readily apparent, but it's probably best to not overanalyze and enjoy the ride. 12-5 is my prediction.

Every four or five years, the Bears put a season together in which they get three turnovers a game and just enough consistent offense to win 12 games and the division. The planets seem to be aligning for that again — in 2022. Until then, 9-8, and not just because they insist on starting maybe the third-best quarterback on their roster.

I honestly don't even know what the Lions are doing right now. But Jared Goff is a better quarterback than most bad teams possess and spinning their wheels under new coach Dan Campbell is preferable to actively reversing under Matt Patricia. 3-14.

Rest of the NFC

With a Super Bowl title in their back pocket and returning nearly everybody, many folks seem to be comfortable picking Tampa Bay for a repeat. I see more of a Brett Favre-in-2010 scenario from Tom Brady. Problem is the rest of the NFC South leaders are declining as fast as Brady might.

The NFC East remains a regularly televised gong show. With better health, the Cowboys should be good enough to end up on top of the pile if Washington can't accumulate 12 wins by 17-13 scores.

The NFC West is the class of the conference by a fairly wide margin. The 49ers can't possibly be as banged up as they were in 2020 and Seattle remains the toughest road trip in the league, but the mother lode of karma Matthew Stafford has built up in Detroit is going to be enough to put the LA Rams over the top and beyond.

AFC

Fixing the Chiefs offensive line feels like it might be the NFL equivalent of shoring up the thermal exhaust ports on the Death Star.

The Titans added Julio Jones, which means they might not have to give Derrick Henry 40 carries a game.

The season-ending injury J.K. Dobbins suffered in preseason might be enough to put the Browns over the Ravens in the AFC North.

As much as their locker room's vaccine denying, their ownership's attempts to escape New York state and good old fashioned league adjustment make me reticent to bet big on the Bills, who else is there in the AFC East?

The payoff

Last year, the Buccaneers busted a 54-year-pattern of host teams never making the Super Bowl. This year, the Rams will make it two in a row. Like last season, the Rams will play for the title in front of limited fans, but not because of COVID-19 restrictions, just because it's Los Angeles.

Chiefs coach Andy Reid grew up in the LA area, as evidenced by a regularly aired hilarious video clip of his participation in a halftime Punt, Pass and Kick competition from 1971. With a Super Bowl title in his back pocket, Reid will drive off into the sunset, which might be retirement or just the nearest In 'n Out Burger.

My predictions

NFC

North: 1. Packers (12-5), 2. Bears (9-8), 3. Vikings (7-10), 4. Lions (3-14)

East: 1. Cowboys, 2. Washington (WC), 3. Eagles, 4. Giants

South: 1. Buccaneers, 2. Panthers, 3. Saints, 4. Falcons

West: 1. Rams (bye), 2. 49ers (WC), 3. Seahawks (WC), 4. Cardinals

AFC

North: 1. Browns, 2. Ravens (WC), 3. Steelers, 4. Bengals

East: 1. Bills, 2. Dolphins, 3. Patriots, 4. Jets

South: 1. Titans, 2. Colts (WC), 3. Jaguars, 4. Texans

West: 1. Chiefs (bye), 2. Chargers (WC), 3. Raiders, 4. Broncos

Playoffs:

Wild Card: 49ers over Cowboys, Washington over Buccaneers, Packers over Seahawks, Ravens over Bills, Titans over Chargers, Browns over Colts.

Divisional: Rams over Washington, Packers over 49ers, Chiefs over Ravens, Browns over Titans.

Championships: Rams over Packers, Chiefs over Browns.

Super Bowl LVI: Chiefs 38, Rams 21.

Brandon Veale is sports editor of the News Tribune. He can be reached at bveale@duluthnews.com.