First came the deafening noise. Then the stark silence.
The Vikings upended the Saints in the Wild Card round of the NFC Playoffs in January.
An official attendance of 73,038 (mostly Saints fans) helped New Orleans rally to score all 10 points of the fourth quarter and force overtime. The balloon popped when Kirk Cousins connected with Kyle Rudolph on a 4-yard touchdown pass in overtime.
Cousins said this week that he thinks that game is the loudest one of his career.
Dane Mizutani of the Pioneer Press was one of several this week to compare the atmosphere of that game to what is expected Friday when attendance will be capped at 3,000 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. He wrote:
The deafening volume inside the Superdome is unlike any home-field advantage in the NFL, making it nearly impossible for opposing players to think, let alone call plays in the huddle and hear snap counts at the line of scrimmage.
It's also what made Cousins' walk-off touchdown pass to tight end Kyle Rudolph in last year's 26-20 overtime victory that much sweeter, hearing the crowd going from thunderous noise to almost dead silent in seconds. There's nothing like silencing an opposing fan base.
"It probably will be something I'm not used to making that dramatic switch," Cousins said this week. "At the same time, I remember at Soldier Field, they still played their 'Bear Raid' at kickoff and it was really loud, even in an empty stadium. Those speakers and the music can get pretty loud. You still know that in an away game."
Nonetheless, it will be an extreme change for the Vikings (6-8), who can empathize with a lack of home-field advantage. They weren't allowed to have fans inside U.S. Bank Stadium this season, and perhaps not so coincidentally, they had a losing record — 3-5 — at home for the first time since the new stadium opened in 2016.
Asked if there was any advantage to playing at home this season, running back Dalvin Cook smiled and responded, "Nothing."
Cook said the team has appreciated seeing Vikings fans at some of the road venues this season.
"They want to see Vikings football," Cook said. "We felt the love, and we heard it. Hopefully, we'll be back to normal soon. We miss them. You don't realize how much the fans are important until they're gone."
Jefferson Lands on Carr's All-Rookie Team
The NFL has learned that Justin Jefferson is a star.
The Vikings wide receiver is in the midst of one of the best rookie seasons ever for a player at his position, and is also excited to play Friday in his home state of Louisiana.
And with two games remaining in the regular season, Jefferson recently landed on NFL.com’s All-Rookie Team for offensive players.
The list was compiled by analyst David Carr. The former NFL quarterback wrote:
Jefferson has been everything the Vikings hoped he would be (and needed him to be) when they drafted him 22nd overall last April. He filled the void left by Stefon Diggs as a field-stretcher and all-around playmaker opposite Adam Thielen and is setting records in the process.
Having already broken several of Hall of Famer Randy Moss' franchise rookie marks, Jefferson, who has 1,182 receiving yards so far, needs 196 more over his final two games (vs. the Saints on Christmas Day and vs. the Lions in Week 17) to surpass Anquan Boldin for most by a rookie in the Super Bowl era.
Jefferson leads the Vikings with 73 catches (a franchise rookie record), and has 1,182 receiving yards. He needs 132 yards to break Moss' Vikings rookie record of 1,313 yards.
The former LSU standout is in line to bring home some hardware this offseason, with the 21-year-old as one of the top candidates for Offensive Rookie of the Year. He recently participated in a surprise video chat with Moss and other Vikings who have garnered that award.
NFL.com's Tom Pelissero recently polled 22 executives around the league to get their thoughts on that award.
Look back on photos from past games between the Vikings and the Saints.
There was an even split of 10.5 votes each for Jefferson and Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert. (The other vote went to Buccaneers right tackle Tristan Wirfs).
Quarterbacks usually have an edge for these awards, but Justin Jefferson needs 196 yards over the next two games to break Anquan Boldin's single-season rookie record — a remarkable pace that helped Jefferson match Justin Herbert's 10.5 votes.
"I don't feel like they miss (Stefon) Diggs," an executive for an NFC team said. "That's a big role to fill." The Vikings traded Diggs in March to Buffalo, where he leads the NFL with 111 catches. But Jefferson — the 22nd overall pick in April's draft — became the first rookie receiver in five years to make the Pro Bowl with huge numbers of his own: 73 catches for 1,182 yards and seven touchdowns, despite playing in a run-first offense that revolves around Dalvin Cook.
The Offensive Rookie of the Year Award will be announced at the NFL Honors award show, which will take place on the eve of Super Bowl LV.
Graff: Vikings defense offers plenty of optimism in 2021
The Vikings are still mathematically in the race for the postseason, even if those odds are in the single digits.
But there's been a little bit of focus shifted to the 2021 season for Chad Graff of The Athletic, who was recently asked about reasons for optimism for next season.
Graff noted that while the Vikings defense had its ups and downs in 2020, he expects a much more consistent unit in 2021.
If that's what you're looking for, I think the defense should provide it. This is the first year in [Vikings Head Coach Mike] Zimmer's tenure that he (probably) won't finish with a top-10 defense. When you consider that happened without [Danielle] Hunter, [Michael] Pierce, or Anthony Barr after losing six other starters, that's not all that surprising.
Now if you add back at least two of those three, plus expect growth from the cornerbacks, there's no reason this defense can't improve. Plus, Zimmer had to change his scheme quite a bit to make it simpler for the cornerbacks, who didn't have spring practices to learn the intricacies of his preferred defense. With a full offseason, I think it's reasonable to expect him to return to that scheme.
As such, I think a top-10 defense next season should be expected.
Entering Week 16, the Vikings rank 23rd in the league with 378.0 yards allowed per game, and are 25th with 27.7 points allowed per game.
From 2014-2019, the Vikings defense ranked no worse than 11th in points allowed per game. Zimmer's unit also finished in the top nine in points allowed per game in the past five seasons.