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    On a Rerouted Road Trip, Aaron Rodgers Looked Disoriented

    The Packers quarterback was intercepted twice in a lackluster showing, while the Saints’ Jameis Winston threw five touchdown passes to take down the Packers.JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — The Saints’ home game that was scheduled to be held Sunday amid climate-controlled pandemonium in New Orleans was instead staged in dryer-vent conditions in north Florida before hordes of fans wearing foam blocks of cheese on their heads — and yet somehow all that seemed downright normal compared to what was transpiring on the field.A quarterback at TIAA Bank Field threw the ball to the other team, made reckless decisions and wilted under pressure, but it was not the player whose career has abounded with face-palming blunders. The culprit bore a striking resemblance to one Aaron Charles Rodgers, the N.F.L.’s reigning most valuable player and the protagonist of what will be its most captivating season-long saga.Rodgers said many months ago that his future was a “beautiful mystery,” a term shrouded in inscrutability. Whether he would retire, refuse to play again for Green Bay or host “Jeopardy!” — it all seemed feasible, or at least not unfeasible, as the extent of his dissatisfaction with the Packers front office emerged. He addressed his grievances with the Packers in stunning candor, vowed to compartmentalize and resumed preparing for what very well could be his final season with the team.Late in the third quarter of the Saints’ 38-3 demolition, Rodgers sat slouched on Green Bay’s sun-drenched sideline. The Saints had just converted his second interception in as many drives into a touchdown, and it would soon get worse. On the next drive, the Packers turned the ball over on downs and, given another opportunity to outclass Rodgers, Jameis Winston tossed his fourth touchdown pass. A few minutes later, Winston threw his fifth.If the Packers demonstrated a certain clumsiness in hatching their succession plan at quarterback, believing after the 2019 season that Rodgers had approached an irreversible decline and then trading up to draft Jordan Love without communicating those intentions to Rodgers, the Saints pursued a more conventional route to replacing Drew Brees: They bought low on Winston. He had been a remarkable talent who, if he can only improve his risk management after five turbulent seasons in Tampa Bay, might be molded into a better version of himself — strong-armed but disciplined.That is how Winston looked on Sunday, bypassing riskier throws he might have relished earlier in his career in favor of safer, shorter passes that extended drives. He threw for only 148 yards, with 55 coming on a majestic deep ball to Deonte Harris that revealed the facade of Winston’s training-camp competition with Taysom Hill.But even if Winston didn’t fling the ball downfield much, Saints Coach Sean Payton still showed his trust in him by going for two fourth-down conversions during a second-quarter drive. Winston converted both with throws to Juwan Johnson, including a 1-yard score that extended the Saints’ lead to 17-0.The Packers kicked a field goal as time expired in the first half, then drove 66 yards to the Saints’ 9-yard line before Rodgers morphed into Winston, circa 2019. Chased out of the pocket, Rodgers darted forward and tried whipping a pass to Davante Adams, who was cutting toward the near sideline. The ball zipped behind him and into the arms of the rookie cornerback Paulson Adebo. Rodgers lamented his bad decision — he should have thrown it, he said, to Aaron Jones in the flat.“Obviously,” Rodgers said, “the play of the game.”Rodgers is beyond aware of how the Packers’ last two seasons unfolded and concluded, of their going 13-3 before losing in the N.F.C. championship game, in back-to-back attempts. Their defeat in January at home against the Buccaneers, and how it ended — with Coach Matt LaFleur attempting a close field goal instead of trusting his quarterback to surmount an 8-point deficit — contributed to the urgency facing this team.Whether the Packers believe it or not, they are under pressure to reach the Super Bowl this season. They have a dire salary-cap situation, Adams appears eager to test free agency, and Rodgers, through concessions Green Bay made with his contract, has the power to determine where he plays next season. Rodgers said last week that he was “in a good head space.”“The feel that I get with the energy in the locker room is not pressure — it’s focus,” Rodgers said last week. “I think it’s the right perspective and the right type of focus.”After Sunday’s game, Rodgers suggested he thought the Packers were a bit complacent, believing that they would throttle a team displaced by Hurricane Ida. The Saints bypassed Florida’s other N.F.L. destinations — Tampa Bay and Miami — for Jacksonville because, in part, of its relative inaccessibility and the heat and humidity, which sapped the Packers’ energy.“We felt like the hotter, the better,” Payton said.But, according to The New Orleans Times-Picayune, it also didn’t escape the Saints that Rodgers was 3-4 with a 78.1 passer rating — which would have ranked 32nd in the league last season — in games played in Florida. Rodgers, pulled for Love with about 11 minutes left as the Packers faced a large deficit, is now 3-5 in the Sunshine State.“It’s just one game,” said Rodgers, who completed 15 of 28 passes for 133 yards. “We played bad. I played bad.”The Packers might find comfort from precedent: In Week 9 last season, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers lost by the same score to the Saints, then recovered to win the Super Bowl. There is danger in ascribing too much meaning to the first game, in presuming that Winston will continue playing with discipline and poise and that the Packers are plowing toward disappointment. What happens next with any and all of them is, as Rodgers might say, a beautiful mystery. More

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    NFL Week 1 Picks Against the Spread and Predictions

    Dak Prescott vs. the Bucs’ pass rush, dueling Alabama quarterbacks and a rematch of January’s Browns-Chiefs playoff game make for a compelling start to the regular season.It’s back.The N.F.L. regular season is upon us, with an additional, 17th game for every team, with some hard-earned certitudes. From now until February, the league will try its darnedest to again complete its schedule without interruption — from Covid-19, hurricanes, whatever — until Super Bowl LVI can be played at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, Calif.What happens between now and then, though, is up to variables on and off the field. It’s fair to assume that only a handful of contenders have a shot at a championship, but what about as a week-to-week chaos agent? Well, that role could be filled by nearly any team. This week’s matchups include playoff rematches, the debuts of rookie quarterbacks and the returns of star players from injuries.Here’s a look at Week 1, with all picks made against the spread by a new columnist who takes over the duty for the 2021 season.Here’s what you need to know:Thursday’s OpenerSunday’s Best GamesSunday’s Other GamesMonday’s MatchupHow Betting Lines WorkThursday’s OpenerDallas Cowboys at Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 8:20 p.m., NBCLine: Buccaneers -8| Total: 52Dak Prescott’s welcome back assignment from an ankle injury that ended his 2020 season will be to outperform Tom Brady while evading the pass rush of the Buccaneers, the defending Super Bowl champions. The Bucs retained all 22 starters from last season, including the defense that sacked Kansas City quarterback Patrick Mahomes twice and hit him nine times in last season’s title game.Protecting Prescott will be trickier without right guard Zack Martin, who tested positive for the coronavirus on Saturday and is unlikely to play. Dallas’s defense, which ranked 28th last season in points allowed, has a new coordinator in Dan Quinn and added linebacker Micah Parsons via the draft. But will that be enough to consistently stop Brady? Pfft. Pick: Buccaneers -8Sunday’s Best GamesJadeveon Clowney, right, joins a Cleveland Browns team looking to avenge a narrow loss to Kansas City in last season’s A.F.C. divisional round.Jason Getz/USA Today Sports, via ReutersCleveland Browns at Kansas City, 4:25 p.m., CBSLine: Chiefs -6 | Total: 53A rematch of last season’s A.F.C. divisional playoff gives new players on Cleveland and Kansas City the opportunity to show their value. Defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, a three-time Pro Bowl selection who is playing for his fourth team in four years, will attempt to pressure Patrick Mahomes. Kansas City’s upgraded offensive line — it has got five new projected starters, including tackle Orlando Brown and guard Joe Thuney — looks to prevent jarring hits like the one in last season’s playoff game that sent Mahomes into the concussion protocol.Odell Beckham Jr.’s return from a knee injury will give Kansas City’s defense another threat to account for. But if Mahomes is well protected, it will be risky to bet against him. Pick: Kansas City -6Green Bay Packers at New Orleans Saints (kinda), 4:25 p.m., FoxLine: Packers -4 | Total: 50Hurricane Ida’s devastation in New Orleans caused this game to be relocated to Jacksonville, Fla., adding another disruption to teams whose off-seasons were full of them. The Packers and a disgruntled Aaron Rodgers finally settled their differences for perhaps one final try at a Super Bowl. The Saints, who have operated in Texas since late August, begin the post-Drew Brees era with Jameis Winston at quarterback. His test will be finding targets to carry the load of Michael Thomas, the team’s top receiver who is out for six weeks after having foot surgery in the off-season.The Packers have had roster continuity and have not dealt with similar logistical hurdles. Pick: Packers -4Pittsburgh Steelers at Buffalo Bills, 1 p.m., CBSLine: Bills -6.5 | Total: 49The Steelers deteriorated toward the end of last season while the Bills improved. Pittsburgh drafted Najee Harris in the first round to boost an abysmal rushing attack that netted only 3.6 yards per attempt, ranking last in the league. But quarterback Josh Allen’s ascent into one of the league’s best players should continue with Buffalo’s addition of wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders to complement Stefon Diggs, who led the N.F.L. in receiving yards and catches last season. Bills fans should get their tables ready. Pick: Bills -6.5Quarterback Ryan Tannehill, center, and receivers A.J. Brown, left, and Julio Jones will try to relieve Derrick Henry from the burden of carrying the Titans’ entire offense.Mark Zaleski/Associated PressArizona Cardinals at Tennessee Titans, 1 p.m., CBSLine: Titans -2.5 | Total: 52Julio Jones. Derrick Henry. A.J. Brown. The Cardinals’ defense will be the first unit to try to contain Tennessee’s new-look offense. Will it focus on stopping Henry and creep defenders close to the line of scrimmage? Will it double-team Jones and leave Brown in man coverage? Vice versa? Regardless of the strategy, Arizona will do so with a young linebacker corps and questions at cornerback after Patrick Peterson departed in free agency and his replacement, Malcolm Butler, retired during training camp. Even with J.J. Watt now on the edge, countering the Titans’ attack will be more than the Cardinals can handle so early in the season. Pick: Titans -2.5Chicago Bears at Los Angeles Rams, 8:20 p.m., NBCLine: Rams -7.5 | Total: 45.5The Rams and the Bears added veteran quarterbacks in the off-season and received different receptions from their fans. Los Angeles fans embraced Matthew Stafford as their hope to reach the Super Bowl, while the Bears faithful called unsuccessfully for Andy Dalton to be benched for the rookie Justin Fields. Perhaps Coach Matt Nagy is showing Fields mercy as he starts Dalton against a Rams defense anchored by Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey. That unit led the N.F.L. in nearly every statistical category last season and, despite losing some free agents, there is enough talent to frustrate Dalton in prime time. Pick: Rams -7.5Seattle Seahawks at Indianapolis Colts, 1 p.m., FoxLine: Seahawks -2.5| Total: 49.5The Colts hoped new scenery would resurrect the 2017 version of Carson Wentz, who helped lead the Eagles in the regular season on a run to a title, but a foot injury and a stint on the Covid list robbed him of valuable training camp reps with his new teammates. He’ll face a Seahawks defense that surrendered the second-most passing yards in the league to opposing teams last season but that hopes linebacker Bobby Wagner and safety Jamal Adams can turn the unit into a more consistent threat. (Adams’s 9.5 sacks last season were the most ever by a defensive back.)Seattle will lure opponents into trying to keep up with the scoring pace of Russell Wilson, D.K. Metcalf and Tyler Lockett, as it did last year. Wentz will be the first to find out how much tougher that has become. Pick: Seahawks -2.5Sunday’s Other GamesLos Angeles Chargers at Washington Footballers, 1 p.m., CBSLine: Chargers -1| Total: 44.5Oddsmakers predict this will be a tossup because the Chargers enter this season as an unknown under their new coach, Brandon Staley. On paper, the team should improve with quarterback Justin Herbert, the reigning Offensive Rookie of the Year Award winner; a remodeled offensive line; and the return of safety Derwin James. But it may take time for the team to fully grasp Staley’s system and for the offensive line to jell. Blocking Washington’s pass rush, led by Chase Young, last season’s Defensive Rookie of the Year Award winner, is a tough first task. Pick: Washington +1Philadelphia Eagles at Atlanta Falcons, 1 p.m., FoxLine: Falcons -3.5 | Total: 48The Eagles placed their faith in Jalen Hurts when they traded Carson Wentz to the Colts, and selected his former Alabama teammate DeVonta Smith in the first round of the draft to boost a receiving corps often criticized for its lack of production. They’ll relish going up against a Falcons defense that allowed the most passing yards in the league last season.Atlanta focused on improving its offense in the draft, selecting tight end Kyle Pitts with the No. 4 overall pick, and it’s possible that could carry the Falcons in this game. But it is also possible that Philadelphia can upset a team that is somewhere between rebuilding and contending. Pick: Eagles +3.5The rookie receiver Ja’Marr Chase, center, was reunited with his L.S.U. teammate Joe Burrow when the Bengals drafted him fifth overall in April. Dylan Buell/Getty ImagesMinnesota Vikings at Cincinnati Bengals, 1 p.m., FoxLine: Vikings -3 | Total: 48The Bengals elected to reunite quarterback Joe Burrow with his Louisiana State teammate receiver Ja’Marr Chase in the draft rather than pick up an offensive lineman to protect their second-year quarterback as he returns from major knee surgery. Chase caught only one of five targets in the preseason; the rookie attributed the drops to a lack of concentration. That excuse makes sense with Chase adjusting to playing again after opting out of the 2020 college football season. But his acclimation to the N.F.L. intensifies against a secondary which now includes cornerback Patrick Peterson, an eight-time Pro Bowl selection. Pick: Vikings -3San Francisco 49ers at Detroit Lions, 1 p.m., FoxLine: 49ers -7 | Total: 45It’s full rebuilding mode in Detroit, where the team’s new coach, Dan Campbell, helms a defense that ranked last in yards allowed last season and will try to restore the confidence of Jared Goff, 26, a franchise quarterback the Rams sent packing in the off-season.That fledgling experiment will be fodder for the 49ers’ elite motion-based rush and a San Francisco defense sharpening its teeth after being wiped out by injuries last season. Coach Kyle Shanahan has elected to start Jimmy Garoppolo over the rookie Trey Lance, but either quarterback could win this one. Pick: 49ers -7Jets at Carolina Panthers, 1 p.m., CBSLine: Panthers -5.5 | Total: 45Sam Darnold gets an early opportunity to show his former team what he could have been with quality coaching and a consistent receiver. Rusher Christian McCaffrey is back after missing much of the 2020 season with various injuries, and Darnold has one of the league’s most underrated receiving duos in D.J. Moore and Robby Anderson, who both posted 1,000 yards last season.Zach Wilson, whom the Jets drafted with the No. 2 overall pick to replace Darnold, has his work cut out for him. Pick: Panthers -5.5Miami Dolphins at New England Patriots, 4:25 p.m., CBSLine: Patriots -3 | Total: 43.5The Dolphins added receiving threats in Will Fuller V and Jaylen Waddle to help the second-year quarterback Tua Tagovailoa’s development as a downfield passer. But that may not be evident in his first game this season against the Patriots, as Coach Bill Belichick will surely employ a plan to confuse the young passer.Tagovailoa faces his successor at Alabama, Mac Jones, who so impressed the New England coaching staff with his ability to process information before and after the snap that they released Cam Newton at the end of camp. Jones will need to draw on that savvy against Miami’s aggressive defense. Pick: Patriots -3Jacksonville Jaguars at Houston Texans, 1 p.m., CBSLine: -2.5 Jaguars | Total: 44.5The Texans officially named the veteran journeyman Tyrod Taylor as their starting quarterback, relegating Deshaun Watson to the bench. Their cloudy quarterback situation directly contrasts with Jacksonville’s. The Jaguars’ optimism over Trevor Lawrence, the No. 1 overall pick in the draft, is high. The buzz surrounding him and the first-year N.F.L. coach Urban Meyer should pick up even more after they face a Houston defense that ranked 30th in yards allowed last season and got worse after releasing J.J. Watt. Pick: Jaguars -2.5Denver Broncos at Giants, 4:25 p.m., FoxLine: Broncos -3 | Total: 42The Giants’ assessment of Daniel Jones as the franchise’s future gets real insight as he faces a Broncos defense rife with talent. Linebacker Von Miller returns from an ankle injury that sidelined him last season, and his presence could disrupt Jones from finding new teammates like receiver Kenny Golladay and tight end Kyle Rudolph. Those additions, along with the Pro Bowl running back Saquon Barkley’s returning to the lineup, should help the third-year starting quarterback as the season progresses. But against the Broncos’ defense, which should be on the field less because of the risk-averse play of Teddy Bridgewater, it may not be enough. Pick: Broncos -3Monday’s MatchupBaltimore Ravens at Las Vegas Raiders, 8:15 p.m., ESPN & ABCLine: -4.5 | Total: 51The Ravens lost depth at running back when the starter J.K. Dobbins and the reserve Justice Hill both sustained season-ending injuries in training camp. But quarterback Lamar Jackson still commands respect as a runner and passer, and Monday provides him and the team an opportunity to showcase the evolution of their scheme with the addition of the veteran receiver Sammy Watkins. Las Vegas gave up 389 yards per game last season, ranking 30th in the league. The unit hopes to have improved under the new defensive coordinator Gus Bradley and defensive lineman Yannick Ngakoue, but the Ravens’ experience should give them an edge. Pick: Ravens -4.5How Betting Lines WorkA quick primer for those who are not familiar with betting lines: Favorites are listed next to a negative number that represents how many points they must win by to cover the spread. Baltimore -4.5, for example, means that Baltimore must beat Las Vegas by at least 5 points for its backers to win their bet. Gamblers can also bet on the total score, or whether the teams’ combined score in the game is over or under a preselected number of points. More

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    Can Anyone in the N.F.C. Stop Tom Brady and the Bucs From Repeating?

    Tampa Bay returns much of its Super Bowl-winning roster, but Aaron Rodgers and Davante Adams have Jordan-and-Pippen-style title dreams for Green Bay.Amid the chaos and reshuffling of an N.F.L. season played during a pandemic, the 2020 season concluded with an all-too-familiar scene: Tom Brady hoisting the Lombardi Trophy.Even at the ripe age of 44, Brady could continue his title-winning ways at the helm of a Tampa Bay team that returns much of its roster. But the Buccaneers’ path to repeat as champion should be tougher, beginning with their Week 1 opponent. The Dallas Cowboys return Dak Prescott, who led all quarterbacks in passing yards through the first five games of last season before suffering a gruesome right ankle injury.Aaron Rodgers, the reigning league most valuable player, and the Packers renewed their vows after having narrowly missed taking down Brady and company in last season’s N.F.C. championship game, thanks to a, umm, notable play call. And the Los Angeles Rams traded with Detroit for the veteran quarterback Matthew Stafford in the off-season, adding fresh blood to the gauntlet that is the N.F.C. West.Will all the retooling around the conference stop another rerun?N.F.C. EastDallas Cowboys (6-10)Key additions: S Keanu Neal, DE Tarell Basham and DE Brent UrbanKey departures: DB Chidobe Awuzie, QB Andy DaltonAfter a disappointing 2020 season, the Cowboys completed their biggest off-season task by signing quarterback Dak Prescott to a four-year, $160 million contract extension. Though it’s risky to guarantee such hefty money, at $126 million, to a quarterback coming off a season-ending broken ankle, Prescott’s absence showed how mightily the Cowboys’ offense depends on him. Running back Ezekiel Elliott is back to his college weight, and Prescott will throw to one of the N.F.L.’s best receiver trifectas in Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup and CeeDee Lamb. But that won’t mean much if Dallas’s aging offensive line can’t buy Prescott time to find them. Dak Prescott, left, and Ezekiel Elliott have to like the Cowboys’ shot at winning the wide open N.F.C. East. Tom Pennington/Getty ImagesNew York Giants (6-10)Key additions: WR Kenny Golladay, WR Kadarius Toney, TE Kyle Rudolph, CB Adoree’ JacksonKey departures: DL Dalvin Tomlinson, RB Wayne Gallman, OT Cameron FlemingQuarterback Daniel Jones slid backward in his second year in the league, but, no pressure, team owner John Mara thinks his quarterback can win a Super Bowl. To back up that assertion, the Giants brought in a true No. 1 receiver in Golladay and took Toney with the 20th pick of this year’s draft, a move that stood out for its sagacity. Those additions, with the return of Pro Bowl running back Saquon Barkley, and the signing of the veteran tight end Kyle Rudolph should all aid Jones’s campaign — if not for a Super Bowl, at least for a contract extension — though they won’t help much if the offensive line continues to struggle. Leonard Williams, who the team signed a three-year, $63 million contract after he posted a career-high 11.5 sacks in 2020, should help generate a pass rush.Philadelphia Eagles (4-11-1)Key additions: WR DeVonta Smith, S Anthony HarrisKey departures: QB Carson Wentz, WR DeSean JacksonThe Eagles are reworking their roster on the run after overhauling the core personnel that had led the team to three straight playoff berths and a Super Bowl victory. Coach Nick Sirianni replaces Doug Pederson, and the team named the second-year quarterback Jalen Hurts, who was 1-3 in four starts last season, their starter. They added the former Jaguars quarterback Gardner Minshew in late August but the essential question for this young team is whether Sirianni — who spent the last three seasons as the Colts’ offensive coordinator — can develop Hurts.Washington Football Team (7-9)Key additions: QB Ryan Fitzpatrick, WR Curtis Samuel, CB William Jackson III, LB Jamin DavisKey departures: OT Morgan Moses, DE Ryan Kerrigan, QB Alex Smith, TE Jordan ReedCoach Ron Rivera has continued his revamp in Washington by adding the speedster Samuel on a three-year, $34.5 million deal (Rivera coached Samuel with the Carolina Panthers) and bolstering the defensive backfield, while parting ways with stalwarts on the offensive and defensive line. In signing Ryan Fitzpatrick, 38, to replace Alex Smith, Rivera also signaled that Washington is closer to finding a new team name than a franchise quarterback.Washington won the N.F.C. East with a losing record last season (and then gave the eventual Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers a scare in the playoffs) but a second consecutive division title should be tough with an improved Dallas in the running.— Ken BelsonN.F.C. NorthChicago Bears (8-8)Key additions: QB Justin Fields, QB Andy Dalton, RB Damien Williams, TE Jesse JamesKey departures: WR Cordarrelle Patterson, CB Kyle Fuller, QB Mitchell Trubisky, DT Roy Robertson-Harris, OT Charles LenoBears fans grew so loud in their anticipation of rookie Justin Fields, right, taking the starting quarterback spot that Fields asked fans not to boo its current occupant, Andy Dalton.Nam Y. Huh/Associated PressC’mon, Chicago. Let Fields throw a regular-season pass before you name a museum after him, OK? Bears fans are acclimating themselves to an alien phenomenon, hope at quarterback, after the team traded up to draft Fields, the former Ohio State star, with the No. 11 pick. Every decision now revolves around his development, but the people making those decisions are largely the same ones who dealt away draft picks, compromising the Bears’ depth at places like, for instance, offensive line.They should have a solid defense and an elite receiver in Allen Robinson, who will be catching passes from Dalton to begin the season — but, probably, for not much longer than that.Detroit Lions (5-11)Key additions: QB Jared Goff, RB Jamaal Williams, WR Tyrell Williams, DE Charles Harris, DT Michael Brockers, OT Penei SewellKey departures: QB Matthew Stafford, WR Kenny Golladay, WR Marvin Jones, DT Danny SheltonFirst-year coach Dan Campbell has said he begins each day by ordering at Starbucks two venti coffees, each with two espresso shots. All that caffeine might not be good for his heart, but then again, neither is watching the Lions. Brad Holmes, the first-year general manager, traded Stafford, the franchise’s career passing leader, to the Rams for Goff, and gutted the roster.But the Lions are building from the offensive and defensive lines out — a sound strategy — and though that might not help them much in 2021, it could a few years from now, when they have a new quarterback.Green Bay Packers (13-3)Key additions: WR Randall Cobb, WR Amari Rodgers, OT Dennis Kelly, LB De’Vondre CampbellKey departures: RB Jamaal Williams, C Corey Linsley, LB Christian KirkseyThe next 18 weeks (and beyond) are going to be captivating theater in Wisconsin, where Aaron Rodgers may or may not be playing his final games with teammates he loves, but for a front office he doesn’t. There’s no reason to doubt this could be, as Rodgers and Davante Adams suggested in dual Instagram posts before training camp started, a fruitful “Last Dance”-y kind of season for the Packers, who have more talent than any team in the conference that doesn’t have “Bay” in its name. Where Rodgers plays next season will be fascinating, clearly. But not as much as how he and his team handle this one.Minnesota Vikings (7-9)Key additions: DT Sheldon Richardson, DT Dalvin Tomlinson, CB Bashaud Breeland, S Xavier WoodsKey departures: RB Mike Boone, TE Kyle Rudolph, OT Riley Reiff, LB Eric WilsonEntering quarterback Kirk Cousins’s fourth season in Minnesota, the Vikings have yet to win the N.F.C. North. Unless the Packers’ team buses get detoured to Idaho every game day, that streak isn’t likely to end. Still, the Vikings have a raft of elite players — running back Dalvin Cook, receiver Justin Jefferson and defensive end Danielle Hunter — and their off-season additions improved a defense that Coach Mike Zimmer last season called the “worst one I’ve ever had.”At the least, Minnesota figures to be average. At best, it could win double-digit games, good enough to snag a wild-card berth.— Ben ShpigelN.F.C. SouthAtlanta Falcons (4-12)Key additions: WR Cordarrelle Patterson, TE Kyle Pitts, RB Mike Davis, S Duron HarmonKey departures: C Alex Mack, WR Julio Jones, S Ricardo Allen, S Keanu Neal, DE Charles Harris, CB Darqueze Dennard.No team imploded as spectacularly — or as often — as the Falcons, who lost nine (!) games that they led last season. In theory, that won’t happen again. Any expectations beyond that? ¯_(ツ)_/¯The Falcons, under new leadership at coach (Arthur Smith) and general manager (Terry Fontenot), are in transition. After trading Jones and bypassing a potential Matt Ryan successor in order to draft Pitts at No. 4 overall, Atlanta seems to be walking up a down escalator. The onus will be on the defensive coordinator, Dean Pees, who was lured out of retirement, to generate loads of pressure — and on Ryan to generate loads of points. With Ryan working in a play-action heavy offense that resembles the one from his 2016 M.V.P. season, it might be possible. In theory.Carolina Panthers (5-11)Key additions: QB Sam Darnold, LB Haason Reddick, OT Cameron Erving, CB Jaycee HornKey departures: WR Curtis Samuel, RB Mike Davis, QB Teddy Bridgewater, LG Chris ReedThe Panthers acquired Darnold from the Jets this spring in the hopes that extricating him from the Jets’ juju — and surrounding him with, you know, better players — might unlock his promise. Bold strategy. In season 2 under Coach Matt Rhule, Carolina’s prospect of contending is rooted in too many hypotheticals (if Darnold can rebound, if running back Christian McCaffrey can stay healthy, if its young defense can coalesce) to take seriously.New Orleans Saints (12-4)Jameis Winston will step into the quarterback spot owned for 15 seasons by Drew Brees when the New Orleans Saints open the season with a “home” game against the Packers in Jacksonville.Derick Hingle/Associated PressKey additions: TE Nick Vannett, DE Tanoh Kpassagnon, DE Payton TurnerKey departures: QB Drew Brees, DE Trey Hendrickson, DT Malcom Brown, CB Janoris Jenkins, CB Patrick RobinsonSweet mercy, the Saints lost a lot of talent in addition to Brees. The team’s viability hinges on whether Coach Sean Payton can coax efficient quarterback play — and respectable ball security — from Jameis Winston over a full season. Either way, Winston is their best internal option, and he should benefit from playing behind a talented offensive line. Payton relishes the chance to put Winston and Taysom Hill on the field together. Good thing, too.The defense powered the Saints last year, and with their overall playmaking cast diminished — the star receiver Michael Thomas is out indefinitely as he recovers from ankle surgery — that unit might need to offset their offensive volatility.Tampa Bay Buccaneers (11-5)Key additions: RB Giovani Bernard, DE Joe Tryon, OT Robert HainseyKey departures: C A.Q. Shipley, LB Deone BucannonMoving some beads around the ol’ abacus, Tampa Bay’s front office performed a modern miracle in this salary-cap era: The Buccaneers managed to retain all 22 starters from the team that dusted Kansas City in the Super Bowl. Their roster, the best in the N.F.L., is loaded with absurd amounts of star power — from receiver Chris Godwin to linebackers Shaquil Barrett and Lavonte David — but also depth at every position except, perhaps, quarterback.That isn’t necessarily a problem, since Tom Brady is fated to start there until the sun collapses. Brady quarterbacked the last team to repeat as champions — the 2004 New England Patriots — and anything less than another title for Tampa Bay, which would be his eighth, would be a disappointment.— Ben ShpigelN.F.C. WestArizona Cardinals (8-8)Key additions: DE J.J. Watt, WR A.J. Green, RB James Conner, LB Zaven CollinsKey departures: CB Patrick Peterson, RB Kenyan DrakeIn two seasons, Coach Kliff Kingsbury has yet to lead the Arizona Cardinals to the playoffs. Should his team fail to reach the postseason in 2021, Kingsbury may be seeking employment elsewhere. The Cardinals return a talented roster led by quarterback Kyler Murray and receiver DeAndre Hopkins. They added veteran contributors on both sides of the ball by signing Watt and Green. Despite strong opposition in the division, any finish less than playing a game on Wild-Card weekend will be a disappointment.For the second season in a row, the Texans’ loss has been the Cardinals’ gain as J.J. Watt joined his former teammate DeAndre Hopkins in Arizona.Rick Scuteri/Associated PressLos Angeles Rams (10-6)Key additions: QB Matthew Stafford, WR DeSean Jackson, RB Sony Michel, WR Tutu AtwellKey Departures: S John Johnson III, CB Troy Hill, TE Gerald Everett, QB Jared GoffStafford’s arrival in Los Angeles dramatically elevates the Rams’ expectations as the team welcomes fans to its $5.5 billion stadium, which will host this season’s Super Bowl. The team returns a stout defense led by Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey, but any hope of a championship run depends on Stafford, whose 45,109 career yards rank fifth among active passers, but who, at 33, has not won a playoff game in three tries.Coach Sean McVay will look to unleash the offense behind Stafford and with Sony Michel, whom the team traded for to shore up a running back rotation that lost starter Cam Akers to a torn Achilles’ tendon before training camp.San Francisco 49ers (6-10)Key additions: QB Trey Lance, C Alex Mack, LB Samson EbukamKey departures: WR Kendrick Bourne, RB Tevin Coleman, DE Kerry Hyder Jr., CB Ahkello WitherspoonThe 49ers traded three first-round picks to the Miami Dolphins to draft Lance third overall this spring. He’ll eventually replace Jimmy Garoppolo, but how soon that transition occurs depends on Garoppolo’s health and Lance’s learning curve. Since Garoppolo has played a 16-game season only once with San Francisco, and Lance showed steady improvement in the preseason, figure on his time coming sooner than later.The team returns key starters to a defense that was decimated by injuries and boasts a potent rushing attack based on motion before the snap and passes behind the line of scrimmage.Seattle Seahawks (12-4)Key additions: TE Gerald Everett, OG Gabe Jackson, DT Robert NkemdicheKey departures: CB Shaquill Griffin, RB Carlos Hyde, DT Jarran ReedRussell Wilson, tired of continually being sacked by Aaron Donald and other pass rushers in the N.F.C. West, caused a stir this off-season by asking for more of a say in roster decisions. Despite the fracas, and that the team did not dramatically improve its offensive line, Wilson is back and trying to make it work in Seattle, where his chemistry with DK Metcalf resulted in 1,303 yards receiving, good for sixth among wideouts last season.In August, Seattle made Jamal Adams the highest-paid safety in the league with a four-year extension reportedly worth $70 million, in an effort to improve the defense, which allowed the 11th-most yards in the league.— Emmanuel Morgan More