Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: the Green Bay Packers are odds-on favorites to win the NFC North title in 2022, and the Minnesota Vikings are favored to be their closest competitor.
If it sounds familiar, it’s because it has been that way almost every preseason for the past decade. That’ll happen when one team is blessed with an all-time great quarterback, the other team is cursed with being an all-time good-but-never-quite-good-enough Sisyphean franchise...and the other two teams are in the division are the Chicago Bears and Detroit Lions. The division practically has default settings at this point.
However, there have been numerous important changes on both sides of the St. Croix River this time around. For starters, there’s a new Head Coach in Eagan! He’s tall! He’s young! He’s handsome! He was on the same team as Tom Brady and worked with Sean McVay once, so he has to be good by osmosis! And if that wasn’t enough, there’s a new General Manager too! He’s also tall, young, and handsome! He likes this newfangled thing called “analytics” because he went to a smarty-pants college and worked on Wall Street! He worked with Kyle Shanahan once, so he has to be good by osmosis!
Jokes aside, it really does seem like there’s a new culture permeating from the top down throughout the Vikings this year. One of the biggest selling points for Kevin O’Connell and Kwesi Adofo-Mensah thus far has been that they are distinctly not Mike Zimmer and Rick Spielman. The previous regime certainly enjoyed a fair number of successes, but their inability to adapt and evolve ultimately did them in. I quickly lost count of how many times I saw a quote from Training Camp last month proclaiming how everything “felt different” and how players can just “be themselves” now. Hell, some of the quotes from Vikings veterans sounded like citizens of a country that just overthrew a dictator. KOC still has a ton to prove and Kwesi’s early moves haven’t all been met with universal adulation, but so far, simply moving in a different direction has felt like the right direction.
All the videos of players dancing at practice and quotes from leadership that sound like they were honed by the world’s greatest PR firm make for great social media posts. But good vibes don’t mean a damn thing until they manifest as tallies in the win column. The Week 1 outcome certainly won’t make or break the long-term futures of O’Connell and Adofo-Mensah, but beating your fiercest rivals right out of the gate is certainly better than the alternative. Can KOC really prove to be the attitude-shifting savior the underachieving Vikings so desperately needed? Or was everyone lining up to fire flaming arrows on Mike Zimmer’s Viking funeral pyre just because he was generally cranky and stuck in his ways?
If the Vikings do enjoy success both on Sunday and throughout the season, we assume that they will rely heavily on their offense, which has plenty of talent and much less roster churn than the defense. That said, there are still plenty of unanswered questions. Can O’Connell really help push Kirk Cousins to the mythical “next level”? Will more 11 personnel and borrowed-from-the-Rams concepts help Cousins shed the “good stats, but you can’t win with him” rep that Matthew Stafford shook last season? Can Justin Jefferson actually get close to the lofty 2,000 yard goal he set for himself, or will we end up chuckling at it like we used to do for Adrian Peterson’s annual unobtainable preseason goals? Can Dalvin Cook and Adam Thielen stay healthy for the majority of the season? Can Irv Smith Jr. stay healthy for any of the season? Can rookie Ed Ingram finally stop the assembly line of traffic cones that have previously occupied the right guard position? Can Garrett Bradbury stop getting steamrolled by every opposing player whose weight starts with the number 3?
If you thought that was a lot of open-ended questions about the Vikings, we haven’t even touched the defense, which is undoubtedly the more uncertain side of the ball to start the season. Danielle Hunter is now an outside linebacker (I’m still getting used to this) in Ed Donatell’s new 3-4 scheme, returning from his second straight injury-shortened season. He’s now bookended by Za’Darius Smith, who played even less than Hunter last year and is starting his Minnesota career with a good old-fashioned Revenge Game®, complete with pithy sound bites about his former team. It’s a little scary when you’re basically required to add an “if healthy” suffix to the names of two of the most important parts of your brand new defense. Dalvin Tomlinson returns in the middle of the line and is joined by newcomers Harrison Phillips and...probably Jonathan Bullard if he can go on Sunday. Phillips is an all-world human being and a force in the middle, but is he only good for two downs? Can Bullard be depended upon if he’s on his fifth team in as many seasons and has made all of 11 starts over the past four years? Eric Kendricks and Jordan Hicks bring an important veteran presence at inside linebacker, but if either of them miss any time, the options are more scarce than a bachelor’s refrigerator.
Meanwhile, the Vikings secondary is still riddled with more difficult questions than a Calc II final that you didn’t study for. Most Packers fans are talking about Za’Darius Smith instead of fellow former Packer Chandon Sullivan because quite frankly, they don’t miss him all that much with the loaded secondary they currently have in Green Bay. Is Sullivan really going to be the main nickel corner with so many NFL teams putting their most potent weapons in the slot these days? Will Cameron Dantzler take a step forward now that Zimmer isn’t playing with his snap count from week to week? Can rookie corners Andrew Booth Jr. and Akayleb Evans be depended upon if Patrick Peterson loses more ground to Father Time? Can Lewis Cine coexist with Cam Bynum and Harrison Smith?
The Vikings are getting a fair amount of playoff/dark horse buzz over the past couple weeks, and with good reason. There is a lot to like about this team. But most of the positives are only potential positives right now. Nearly every scenario that ends with success for Minnesota is currently qualified with a pretty big “if.” Hopefully the Vikings won’t discover how many “ifs” are too many in 2022.
Thankfully, the Packers have a decent amount of quandaries of their own heading into the season. Green Bay’s biggest change was the departure of Davante Adams, who averaged roughly 18 catches on 23 targets for 260 yards and 3 touchdowns every time the Packers and Vikings met over the past eight seasons. (OK so I exaggerated those numbers a bit, but that’s what it felt like.) Aaron Rodgers has proven over the years that he can get the most out of almost any wide receiver he throws to. But there is no amount of Nicolas Cage cosplay that can alleviate Adams’ absence, especially early in the season. Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Equanimeous St. Brown also departed, which means that a whopping 42% of Green Bay’s targets from last year are now elsewhere. Will Rodgers continue to dominate without the vaunted Davante, or is the NFL’s reigning Most Valuable Psychotropic going to melt into the background? With assumed heir to the WR1 throne Allen Lazard looking extremely iffy for Sunday, veteran signing Sammy Watkins could help, along with rookies Romeo Doubs and Christian Watson. Rodgers will likely rely heavily on Aaron Jones and AJ Dillon out of the backfield on Sunday, and there’s always his BFF Randall Cobb. But the sum of all those parts is still less than the hole left by Adams. The offensive line is no sure thing either: David Bakhtiari and Elgton Jenkins have been limited thus far this week.
If Green Bay had as many question marks on defense, Minnesota’s path to victory would be much smoother. Unfortunately—and it pains me a great deal to say this about a team I loathe so much—I think the Packers might have one of the better defensive units in the league this year. We already know how Kenny Clark and Dean Lowry have terrorized the Vikings offensive line in recent years. Rashan Gary absolutely took “the leap” in 2021. The Vikings were fortunate enough to miss Jaire Alexander for both meetings last season, but he’ll be there on Sunday to make Jefferson and Thielen earn every inch. Quite simply, there aren’t any glaring weaknesses to the Packers defense. But hey, their special teams were terrible last year—maybe that will come back to bite them again at inopportune times!
With so many new pieces, schemes, unknowns, and variables involved, it’s nearly impossible to predict how everything will unfold in the 124th Border Battle on Sunday afternoon. That’s the beauty of Week 1 in the NFL—absolutely everything is still on the table, and it’s all mixed into one giant bouillabaisse of uncertainty. Hope and despair both spring eternal with each drive, and just about every imaginable outcome is in play leading up to kickoff. I wouldn’t dare risk a dime on the money line, spread, or over/under for this one, but since I’m writing about the game and all, I should probably still go on record with my best guess.
I personally anticipate a back-and-forth slugfest where both offenses struggle to consistently find their footing out of the gate. As a Vikings fan, I’m far too familiar with history repeating itself. But this time, I’ll hand pick the history as the last time the Vikings had a home opener at US Bank Stadium as 1.5-point underdogs to the Packers.
Welcome back, football. No question about it, I am ready to get hurt again.
Vikings 20, Packers 17
And now for the rest of my Week 1 NFL picks (home teams in ALL CAPS):
RAMS over Bills
Starting the season off right with an opening night pick gone horribly wrong! So maybe there is something to all that preseason Buffalo Super Bowl hype. Going on the road and kicking the defending champ’s ass despite four turnovers was impressive. Josh Allen was ridiculous, and that was a classic on-the-Lions-in-the-red-zone-at-Minnesota performance from Matthew Stafford. Maybe Stafford misses someone?
September 9, 2022
Saints over FALCONS
Atlanta was 7-10 last year, but much worse than their record (-146 point differential), and they’re probably worse this year. I don’t really understand the New Orleans dark horse buzz, but they should be able to take care of their lowly division rivals.
49ers over BEARS
Speaking of lowly division rivals: I’m making this my first Survivor Pool pick of the year. How jealous do you think Justin Fields is of Trey Lance? Lance might not even be that good—I’m a fellow NDSU alum so I’m contractually obligated to vehemently disagree with this notion—and the Niners should still be light years better than Chicago.
BENGALS over Steelers
Pittsburgh’s abhorrent offensive line and Mitch Trubisky should be two giant Advil tablets for Cincinnati’s Super Bowl hangover.
Eagles over LIONS
Despite the unavoidable Hard Knocks hype and Dan Campbell becoming America’s Football Guy Sweetheart, I refuse to say, “You know who might be frisky this year? The Lions!” again until they actually prove to be...not the Lions.
DOLPHINS over Patriots
You know who might be frisky this year? The Dolphins! (See? That feels much better than saying the Lions.) Miami was a tough spot for the Patriots when they were perennial AFC Champions, so I feel especially good about this pick after a New England offseason that can best be described as ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.
Ravens over JETS
A Joe Flacco Revenge Game in the year of our Lord 2022. I love the NFL.
Jaguars over COMMANDERS
I know, I know. I’m willingly picking the Jacksonville Jaguars on the road. But jettisoning Urban Meyer might be one of the biggest additions by subtraction in recent memory. Plus I like the symmetry of Carson Wentz starting his Washington career the same way he ended his Indianapolis career: with an embarrassing home loss to the Jags.
PANTHERS over Browns
I made this pick for two reasons:
- I took Christian McCaffrey with the first overall pick in a fantasy league, so I want some big points before his inevitable season-ending injury.
Colts over TEXANS
The coverage maps at 506 Sports show us that almost nobody will watch this game. Common sense shows us that almost nobody will care about this game. Therefore, I’ll stop writing about this game.
TITANS over Giants
Has there ever been a less intimidating team that was the #1 seed in their conference the previous season than this year’s Titans? Good thing they’re opening at home against the Giants, who haven’t been intimidating for a decade.
Chiefs over CARDINALS
Drink every time you see or hear a Kyler Murray film study joke if things go south for Arizona in this one.
CHARGERS over Raiders
Drink every time you see or hear an announcer or pundit accidentally say San Diego or Oakland in this one. (Full disclosure: I still call each team by their former cities far more often than I care to admit.)
Buccaneers over COWBOYS
Last year’s opening night matchup is this year’s Sunday night matchup! There’s a good chance that Tom Brady is finally losing it with the bizarre preseason he had, but I’ll stick with the G.O.A.T. for now, especially since the Cowboys had a runup that may have been even worse.
Broncos over SEAHAWKS
Hey, did you know that Russell Wilson used to—never mind. You’ll hear about it roughly 8,000 times during the broadcast on Monday.
This week so far: 0-1
Last season: 180-91-1