As the Vikings return to U.S. Bank Stadium for the first time since the “Minneapolis Miracle!” they are fully aware that anything less than a trip to Atlanta for Super Bowl LIII will fall short of just about every expectation placed on them.
“Nah,” All-Pro cornerback Xavier Rhodes said this week as the Vikings prepared to face Jacksonville in the second preseason game Saturday. “There isn’t any more pressure. You just can’t feed into the media or anything on the outside.”
Smart idea. Hard to execute. Especially with cellphones drowning each of us in everything from the outside.
“We ignore it and build chemistry, build confidence,” Rhodes said. “Build each other up, the sky is the limit.”
The upper stratosphere is the target for the Vikings, who went 13-3 and reached the NFC title game, and the Jaguars, who went 10-6 and came within a play of beating the Patriots in the AFC title game.
With young rosters, key offseason acquisitions and last year’s top two defenses returning almost fully intact, the Vikings and Jaguars are among the teams that could become perennial Super Bowl contenders. After all, 41-year-old Tom Brady and 66-year-old Bill Belichick have to break up eventually, right?
“People can try and predict the next dynasty or whatever, but you can’t predict that, so who knows?” Rhodes said. “In the NFL, you’d be surprised who comes to the top and who doesn’t.”
Actually, other than New England, the only time the NFL surprises is when it doesn’t surprise.
“Classic example is Jacksonville goes [3-13] and then makes it to the AFC Championship Game,” Rhodes said. “And nobody saw the Eagles winning the Super Bowl after they finished last [in the NFC East in 2016]. We know that.”
The Vikings and Jaguars each believe they have the quarterback to lead them to the Super Bowl. Kirk Cousins never won a playoff game in Washington but got a record $84 million guaranteed from the Vikings. Meanwhile, with only a small sample of winning football down the stretch last year, Jacksonville rewarded Blake Bortles with a three-year, $54 million extension to continue managing a run-oriented attack.
It’s the other side of the ball where neither team has question marks. Barring injuries, of course.
The Vikings finished first in fewest points allowed (15.8) and yards allowed (275.9). Jacksonville was second in both (16.8 and 286.1).
The Jaguars were first in pass defense (169.9). The Vikings were second (192.4).
Both teams have an Associated Press first-team All-Pro cornerback from Florida State. Rhodes is older (28) and quieter than Jalen Ramsey, the 23-year-old trash-talking machine who won’t play Saturday while serving a one-week suspension for berating reporters who filmed a fight in practice.
“We talk every now and then,” Rhodes said. “But we don’t rank each other. I think Jalen ranked himself No. 1 in the league. And, of course, I rank myself No. 1 as well.
“We’re both aggressive. We want to get in your face and jam you at the line. One thing that’s different, of course, is I’m not going to go out there and talk trash.”
Pro Football Focus gave Ramsey its top ranking among cornerbacks at 91.3. Rhodes, believe it or not, was 46th (72.4).
“Every corner you ask who’s a top-five corner is going to rank himself No. 1,” Rhodes said. “You’ll never say another guy is better than you. [PFF] has me 46th. That’s them. At the end of the day, my guys know where I rank. My coaches know where I rank. The league knows where I rank. I’ll just go out there and cover the best receiver and try to lock him down.”
If Rhodes can do that consistently, perhaps he and Ramsey — and their standout defenses — will get to share a field this year, after all. It wouldn’t come until the Super Bowl in Atlanta in February.
“That,” Rhodes said, “is what we’re trying to get to.”
That’s also the only place the Vikings can go without falling short of current expectations.
Mark Craig is an NFL and Vikings Insider. Twitter: @markcraigNFL. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org