There may not be a more fitting penultimate game to an abnormal 2020 season than the Vikings' return to New Orleans on Friday, when the raucous Superdome will be muted and the 73,000 fans who ignited the atmosphere during Minnesota's overtime playoff win in January will be largely gone.
Few home-field advantages are as tangible as the Superdome, which should be deafening for a nationally televised Christmas Day game. But only 3,000 fans are expected to attend when quarterback Kirk Cousins throws his first pass there since his game-winning touchdown to tight end Kyle Rudolph.
Cousins said this week that playoff game was the "loudest game I've ever played in," and that Friday "probably will be something I'm not used to," calling it a dramatic switch.
"But at the same time," he added, "I remember at Soldier Field, they still played their 'Bear Raid' [siren] at kickoff and it was really loud, even in an empty stadium."
Playing for a fifth time in the last four years, the Vikings and Saints are a featured matchup by NFL schedule makers, with three prime-time regular-season games orchestrated around two dramatic playoff finishes since 2017.
"It's tough to top the Minneapolis Miracle and what that meant," receiver Adam Thielen said. "I'm sure that will be shown for years and years to come."
Few NFL head coaches know each other as well as Mike Zimmer and Sean Payton, whose families have been close since they worked together on the Cowboys staff from 2003 to 2005. But the conversations don't stray into Vikings-Saints history very often.
"Sean and I have always been good friends. My daughters babysat his kids when we were in Dallas together," Zimmer said. "We talk a little bit in the offseason about [past games]. I know he texted me after one game and said, 'That'll be one for us to remember.' But you know, Sean and I have such great respect for one another that I don't think, even as cocky as he is, I don't think we ever want to affect our friendship any."
But the stakes on Friday, at least for the Vikings, will be as dim as the atmosphere.
At 6-8, the Vikings are all but mathematically eliminated from playoff contention, and would be with a loss in New Orleans. Conversely, a fourth straight NFC South title is on the line for the Saints, as is stopping a two-game losing streak.
It's a matter of pride for the Vikings' 23rd-ranked defense, according to safety Harrison Smith, who said losses like the one to the Bears on Sunday should be taken "personally" after allowing a season-worst 199 rushing yards. Past performances against the Saints mean little when only four defensive starters — Smith, safety Anthony Harris, linebacker Eric Wilson and defensive tackle Shamar Stephen — remain from that January playoff win.
"A lot of guys weren't here," Smith said.
Getting back on track is challenging against the Saints in any environment, even if 41-year-old quarterback Drew Brees is not fully recovered from 11 broken ribs and a collapsed lung suffered last month.
Despite recent losses to the Eagles and Chiefs — and losing top receiver Michael Thomas on injured reserve — the Saints maintain a top-10 scoring offense and defense as one of the most well-rounded teams of Payton's tenure.
New Orleans went 3-1 with gadget quarterback Taysom Hill while Brees was out. Hill, with 398 rushing yards and six rushing touchdowns this season, is one of a few concerns, including running back Alvin Kamara, for a Vikings defense trying to hold itself together.
"As a guy who's been on a lot of very good defenses, it's not the Vikings standard to not be top five, top 10, in pretty much every category," Smith said. "But that's how the NFL seasons go sometimes. You get some injuries, things like that, but it doesn't matter — that stuff. Whoever is up next has to step up and learn the system, learn the game. We're continually trying to do that."