Jaguars vs. Vikings sounds like an early-October London game with a 9:30 a.m. ET kickoff (6:30 a.m. on the West Coast!) that you didn't even know was on the schedule until noon, when you realize you forgot to add Kyle Rudolph to your fantasy lineup.
Blake Bortles vs. Case Keenum sounds like a Thursday Night Football quarterback showdown scheduled against baseball's ALCS, a snoozer that ends in a 22-13 final score thanks to seven field goals. Who won? Who cares!
When you walk into a bar with the satellite package and 100 televisions on Sunday afternoon, Jaguars-Vikings should be the game that's on in the back corner of the dining area, watched only by a dude in a faded Maurice Jones-Drew jersey whose girlfriend never looks up from her smartphone.
But it could also be the matchup in Super Bowl XLII in two weeks.
How, oh how, did we fall so far from grace?
Now, before anyone panics, a couple of fellows named Tom Brady and Bill Belichick still stand between us and the End of Days, not to mention the pesky Philadelphia Eagles and their fanbase, which has somehow managed to grow even more unhinged over the last five days.
Football Outsiders projects just a 14.6 percent chance of a Vikings-Jaguars Super Bowl, a figure that jibes with the Vegas moneylines (Vikings a slight favorite, Jaguars a heavy-but-not-prohibitive underdog) but, on a subconscious level, feels too high. Our brains shriek at us that the likelihood of a Vikings-Jaguars Super Bowl should be roughly 0.0000000000003 percent, roughly the same as being struck by lightning twice after cashing our fifth straight winning Powerball ticket.
That's because our primitive brains evolved to predict migration patterns on the African plains millennia ago, making them short-circuit when coping with the pace of modern life. Just as social media and the 24-7 news cycle cause severe anxiety, the possibility of a Jaguars-Vikings Super Bowl causes dislocation and dissonance: Human minds just aren't evolutionarily equipped for both of these teams to be good at the same time.
The NFL itself might not be equipped for a showdown between the 15th-ranked (Minneapolis-St. Paul) and 42nd-ranked (Jacksonville) television markets in the nation, as determined by Nielsen. The Vikings and Jaguars home markets combined (2,431,320 TV homes) are smaller than the Eagles home market (2,869,580). Unlike smaller-market teams like the Steelers or Packers, the Vikings and Jaguars have tiny national fan footprints.
You may have heard somewhere that NFL ratings are down: Last weekend's divisional round playoff games, for example, drew the smallest television audience since 2009, despite three dramatic games and a traditional Patriots beating. Some will insist the cause is political—some want very, very badly for it to be political—but besides an overall change in national viewing habits, the NFL's biggest problem this season has been disappointing years by popular teams and injuries to Aaron Rodgers-level must-watch superstars.
So here's what we have left to work with, from a sizzle standpoint:
- The Patriots, the most polarizing team in American professional sports. That makes them great for box office, though they have been in the spotlight for so long that we've resorted to investigative docudramas that make Tom Brady sound like Lego Batman just to keep the narrative fresh.
- The Eagles, who lost fresh-faced superstar Carson Wentz weeks ago, but bring a huge media market and a legendarily rabid fanbase to the table. The Eagles are also the NFL's most overtly political team, which might hurt ratings among the demographic that falls asleep watching MeTV but could also give the Super Bowl both broader attention and a countercultural cache. With Eagles fans currently purchasing the entire global supply of dog masks, they could turn the Super Bowl into Woodstock for furries.
- The Vikings, an excellent football team populated by guys you can't imagine starring in an auto insurance commercial.
- The Jaguars. The Jaguars.
The hardcore pigskin junkies in the audience are probably shouting objections by now. What about Defensive Player of the Year candidates Harrison Smith and Calais Campbell? What about potential matchups between Adam Thielen and Jalen Ramsey as well as Stefon Diggs and A.J. Bouye? Finally, a Super Bowl about tactics, defensive fronts, blocking schemes and zzzzzzzz...
The Super Bowl isn't for the fanatics who study internet GIFs of off-tackle runs on Wednesday mornings. It's for casual fans to host parties and cheer for touchdowns, local rock jocks to dare listeners to eat live crickets in exchange for tickets and the corner supermarket to offer buy-one-get-one-free jars of salsa. An entire cottage industry has grown around the Super Bowl as a holiday. Vikings-Jaguars would make this the NFL's year without a Santa Claus.
Attempts to find a narrative angle for Jaguars-Vikings would result in endless retellings of Thielen's come-from-nowhere tale, straight-faced attempts at a Bortles redemption arc and ill-fitting efforts to cast Keenum as the next Kurt Warner, milking the Vikings' home-field advantage for all it's worth (plenty from a football standpoint, little from a storytelling standpoint), and an effort to recast the "Sacksonville" defense as the new Legion of Boom or 1985 Bears that leaves you feeling the same way about "Sacksonville" as you do about "Dilly Dilly!" When all else fails, we'll just replay the Diggs touchdown over and over until kickoff.
A Vikings-Jaguars Super Bowl sounds like karmic punishment upon the NFL for its many sins, from farcical officiating, blithe franchise relocations and the endless recycling of boring coaches to turning Deflategate into an impeachment trial and playing both sides toward the middle when it comes to player protests.
The NFL doesn't deserve a transcendent Brady versus the charismatically woke Eagles after treating both Brady and player protests with grudging ambivalence. After sliding the Rams and Chargers around the map like Risk pieces and dangling the Jaguars in front of London fans for years, the league deserves two weeks of trying to build interest around Yannick Ngakoue.
And yes, this may be our culture's punishment for allowing Bon Jovi to reach the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, letting the Star Wars franchise lapse into a deconstructionist self-critique, blending politics with reality television and kvetching for years about how boring Thursday Night Football games are.
But a Jaguars-Vikings Super Bowl may also be the reboot the Super Bowl needs.
The Jaguars would stand testament to the fact that a team could go 3-13 for years, do everything just right and compete immediately for a championship. The Vikings would offer proof that a third-choice quarterback can reach the Super Bowl on a well-run team. Every last-place finisher and quarterback-starved franchise would have renewed hope. With defense and perseverance, anything is indeed possible.
That hope won't dazzle the casual audience this year. But the NFL's current model—building everything around quarterbacks who either get injured or get labeled as disappointments after their second interceptions—isn't doing much for brand loyalty, either.
Maybe the NFL needs to market its product as it really is rather than reclaim a level of cultural dominance that no longer exists. Maybe, as fans, we will be happier if we learn to love the Jaguars-Vikings games we always get instead of the Brady-Manning matchups we used to wait for. Those Thursday night and Sunday morning games can feel like potential Super Bowl previews again.
Or perhaps the Patriots whup the Jaguars as expected Sunday, and we spend the Super Bowl dancing around Brady like he's the maypole for the eighth time while Belichick snaps at us for daring to show enthusiasm for the grim business of manufacturing football championships.
Come to think of it, some new faces in the Super Bowl might be refreshing.
Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. He is also a co-author of Football Outsiders Almanac and teaches a football analytics course for Sports Management Worldwide. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeTanier.