Brandon Veale column: Flying in with an NFL preview
Even with a new coach, the Vikings have a way to go.
As much as I enjoyed retracing some of my ancestral roots, touring London landmarks and experiencing the Premier League live, I admit that one of the best things about my August trip to Great Britain was the total lack of preseason NFL football.
The Minnesota Vikings picked Kevin O'Connell from the Sean McVay coaching tree last spring, and one of the fruits of that vine is a near-total disregard for using starters in August, something the Packers have been doing since they hired Matt LaFleur in 2019.
I've never much cared for the preseason as a predictive tool, which means whether you've been crunching the numbers for months or, like me, have gone out of your way to enjoy your summer, we're both working from the same amount of useful data: none.
So, let's take a look at the 2022 NFL season set to begin Thursday with the understanding that your guess is as good as mine.
The Vikings cleaned house after a second consecutive losing season and ended up with O'Connell, who appears to have been hired not only for his three seasons as an offensive coordinator with Washington and the Super Bowl champion Rams, but also for being a much nicer person than the perennially cantankerous Mike Zimmer.
O'Connell is expected to loosen some of the shackles Zimmer put on the offense but that's not what was broken about the 2021 Vikings. Not only were they infamously bad late in halves, they were 24th in points against and 30th in yards against. The solution from O'Connell and general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah? Hiring defensive coordinator Ed Donatell (who Green Bay Packers fans immediately recognize as being on duty during the infamous "4th-and-26" play) and passrusher Za'Darius Smith, who missed almost the entire 2021 regular season due to back surgery.
No one in last year's rookie coaching class posted a record better than 9-8 (Nick Sirianni in Philadelphia and Brandon Staley with the LA Chargers), with the Eagles making a wild-card playoff exit. And while I'm not suggesting that O'Connell is the second coming of Urban Meyer, I do think the offense will need some time to bed in and the defense is still a significant problem. Green Bay and Philadelphia make for a tough opening two weeks of the season, and as last year proved, even the Week 3 game vs. Detroit is no gimme.
O'Connell might be another McVay or his protege Zac Taylor, but Taylor's Bengals were 6-25-1 in their first two seasons before winning the AFC Championship in year three. The Vikings may not have that much rebuilding to do but this is a 7-10 team right now.
NFC North: Packers (13-4), Lions (8-9), Vikings (7-10), Bears (6-11)
NFC South: Buccaneers, Saints, Panthers, Falcons
NFC East: Eagles, Cowboys (WC), Commanders, Giants
NFC West: 49ers, Rams (WC), Cardinals (WC), Seahawks
AFC North: Ravens, Bengals (WC), Browns, Steelers
AFC South: Titans, Colts, Jaguars, Texans
AFC East: Bills, Dolphins, Patriots, Jets
AFC West: Chiefs, Broncos (WC), Chargers (WC), Raiders
Wild Card: Eagles over Cardinals, Packers over Cowboys, Rams over Buccaneers; Chargers over Titans, Broncos over Ravens, Chiefs over Bengals
Divisional: Packers over Eagles, 49ers over Rams; Bills over Chargers, Broncos over Chiefs
Championships: 49ers over Packers; Bills over Broncos
Super Bowl LVII in Glendale, Ariz.: 49ers 28, Bills 20.
In Green Bay, Aaron Rodgers came back to the fold for a lot of money and with relatively few complaints for once, but his dalliances with ayahuasca, a hallucinogenic sacrament of certain South American Indigenous peoples, made sure the offseason was at least a little bit weird.
Davante Adams, Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Equanimeous St. Brown were all lost in free agency, leaving the Packers wide receiving corps nearly perfectly anonymous.
While their replacements are groomed, Green Bay may actually rely on its defense, which is stout, led by the likes of De'Vondre Campbell and Kenny Clark, with two first-round picks (Quay Walker and Devonte Wyatt) plugged in.
The special teams situation that killed their 2021 season does not appear to be resolved, so you can safely bet that this or some other thing we can't predict will derail them in the middle of the playoffs as it seems to be every year, rendering a 13-4 record moot but delighting a majority of this column's readers.
I'm surprisingly high on the Detroit Lions. I don't have premium cable to watch Hard Knocks, but the Lions have a very good offensive line and enough skill (DeAndre Swift, Amon-Ra St. Brown) sprinkled throughout the roster to at least make a dent in an easy schedule. Plus, they seem to be playing hard for head coach Dan Campbell. Many 8-9 teams have been built on less.
I'm pretty low on the Chicago Bears. Not only are they on a new head coach (Matt Eberflus) and GM (Ryan Poles), this was an under-talented team last year that is firmly in the "throw good players overboard" phase of a rebuild, as evidenced by trading Khalil Mack to the Chargers. The Bears have a bizarre ability to suddenly blast into contention at a rate of about one good year out of five, but this is not that year. They'll be lucky to go 6-11.
Rest of the NFC
Is this the year it all flies apart for Tom Brady like it did at the end for Brett Favre in 2010? That's what I thought last year and that's what I think could happen this year, but the Saints are very suspect and the other two teams in the NFC South are outright terrible.
The Eagles might be really good, and the Cowboys will probably be really dysfunctional. This is the NFC East, so you can expect all four teams to be on national TV 10 times this year even though the Washington Commanders are OK at best and the Giants are still abysmal.
Seattle is way, way out of contention, but the defending Super Bowl champion Rams have enough coming back to at least earn a playoff spot. San Francisco is loaded throughout the skill positions but is starting a debutant quarterback in Trey Lance. Will the North Dakota State product be a catalyst or a catastrophe?
Considering the depth and quality of the conference, I should probably write more but this column is already too long.
Now that the Chiefs have replaced Tyreek Hill with MVS and Juju Smith-Schuster, they're not exactly an automatic pick to make the Super Bowl, especially since the Broncos have amassed a talented squad and plugged in Super Bowl winner Russell Wilson at QB, and the Chargers are on the rise behind Justin Herbert.
The Bills are so elite the NFL put them in Thursday's prime-time kickoff game, which would have sounded daft four years ago. The rest of the East ranges from vanilla (the Patriots) to rancid (the Jets).
Cincinnati feels like a one-year wonder but many of the AFC North's titans have taken a big step back, either competitively (Pittsburgh) or morally (Cleveland). Meanwhile, most of you will only pay attention to the AFC South for fantasy football reasons.
The Super Bowl pick
Almost every contender appears to have an apparent Achilles' heel, but I'm going to make a bet that will make Chris Berman and our Fargo friends happy: 49ers 28, Bills 20.
Brandon Veale is the sports editor of the News Tribune. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.