[size=14px]Players feel OK in underdog role
Vikings may 'catch a lot of people by surprise'[/size]
[size=9px]BY SEAN JENSEN
Pioneer Press[/size]

MANKATO, Minn. — Receiver Koren Robinson enjoys hearing his friends tell him where assorted NFL experts have the Vikings projected to finish this season.

"It ain't a big thing because most of the time the people they pick don't end up in the Super Bowl," Robinson said. "But you just want to know, to see what people think of you and where you're slated at."

The early predictions are not as lofty as last season, when the Vikings were picked by many to win the NFC North and even pegged as the Super Bowl champion by Sports Illustrated scribe Peter King. This year, most analysts picked the Vikings to finish second or third in the division and miss the playoffs.

The Vikings are confident they have a playoff contender, and they relish the disregard for their potential.

"That's kind of how you want it," fullback Tony Richardson said. "If everyone puts you up front, you've got a big bull's-eye on your chest. For us, a lot of people aren't giving us a lot of credit with having a new coaching staff and a lot of new players. But that's kind of good."

Said safety Darren Sharper: "Flying under the radar, I think that's a lot better for a team."

Sharper said lofty expectations can affect a team's focus, although he insisted that didn't happen last season.

Cornerback Fred Smoot said the Vikings are a mystery team.

"I think we're going to catch a lot of people by surprise," he said. "They really don't know what to expect from us, offensively or defensively.

"I knew we had talent, but I think we've got somebody here who knows how to play chess with the other coaches and put the talent in the right spot to make plays."

Robinson said wresting the NFC North title from the Chicago Bears is a realistic goal. Beyond that, anything is possible, he said.

"I definitely feel we can win the North, and that'll buy our ticket to the playoffs and the Super Bowl," he said. "If we stay healthy, we can be right in the hunt for everything. I think we have all the pieces."

Cornerback Antoine Winfield said the team should learn one lesson from the 2005 squad: start fast.

The Vikings finished 9-7 but started 1-4.

"We're capable of winning it all," Winfield said. "But we have to come out of the gates winning."

Many other key Vikings said it's either too early to make projections or that they're futile anyway.

Coach Brad Childress has shrugged off questions about playoffs or final records. Even newly acquired guard Steve Hutchinson, who played in last season's Super Bowl with the Seattle Seahawks, dismissed a question about predictions.

"Do you remember where they picked Seattle last year?" Hutchinson was asked Sunday.

"You know what?" he responded, "I never really pay attention to that stuff, so I couldn't tell you."

Tight end Jermaine Wiggins has played in two Super Bowls, winning a championship ring with the New England Patriots, and he ignores the early chatter about teams.

"I try not to pay attention to those guys. If I do, it'll be a long season," he said. "But I know what we're capable of. I know what type of players and coaching staff we have. My goal is this: I feel like we can win the Super Bowl. And that's the way I approach every season.

"The bottom line is, there's only one Super Bowl champion, and last year was the Pittsburgh Steelers. And if I'm a pro football expert, I'm going to be picking Pittsburgh, because they won it."

But Wiggins and Childress, who coached in a Super Bowl with the Philadelphia Eagles, said avoiding off-the-field drama is critical to a team's success.

"You want to come into camp, and you don't want to have those distractions," Wiggins said. "Obviously, we've had a great offseason, and we've done away with a lot of the nonsense. Coming into camp now, everybody's focused on football, and that's the most important thing."

In training camp last year, Childress endured the Terrell Owens saga, which played out on television nightly.

Asked about that incident, Childress said, "I would just say it couldn't help.

"At best, it's hard to play football at the NFL level. It's almost impossible if you're distracted."

Winfield also said the NFL season is so long and includes so many other variables, most notably one in particular.

"One injury and your season could be done," he said of teams.

Besides, Winfield said, "Who would have predicted the Pittsburgh Steelers would win it all?"

Which gives the Vikings and every other NFL team hope, regardless of predictions.

Sean Jensen can be reached at [email protected]