MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — The passing attack for Minnesota has largely been fueled this season by Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs, who have flourished into one of the NFL’s most productive and versatile wide receiver tandems.
Kyle Rudolph has again been in mostly a supporting role, often asked to assist a vulnerable offensive line with blocking and rarely the first option while running a route from his tight end spot with more than half of the throws made by Kirk Cousins sent to either Thielen or Diggs.
When the Vikings badly needed a spark for their sputtering offense on Sunday in Detroit, Rudolph took full advantage of his rare opportunity as the focal point, a little like a holiday-appropriate red-nosed reindeer tasked with pulling the sleigh through a snowstorm for Santa Claus.
“Just my time,” Rudolph said after the Vikings beat the Lions 27-9 to stay in control of the second wild-card spot in the NFC . “You just prepare each and every week as best you can. We’ve got two really, really good receivers on the outside, and today when the ball came my way I just tried to catch it. I can’t tell you why or give you a reason that happened today, other than it’s almost Christmas. Christmas is usually good to me.”
The leaping catch he made in the end zone on the final play of the first half wasn’t close to his only contribution, either, as critical as that desperation catch turned out to be. Rudolph was targeted a season-high nine times, and he snagged all of those passes for a career-high 122 yards and just the third two-touchdown game out of the 115, including the playoffs, he’s suited up for.
“I take a lot of pride in preparing myself each and every week when these opportunities do come,” Rudolph said. “I don’t always know when they’re going to come in the passing game. I have a lot of other roles that I have to do that I take advantage of them.”
The Vikings (8-6-1) still need one more win to secure a second straight year in the playoffs, a feat they last accomplished in the 2008 and 2009 seasons. Otherwise their fate will be in Washington’s hands, with a loss by Philadelphia in that case the only way in. NFC North champion Chicago will visit U.S. Bank Stadium on Sunday, with the Bears still playing for a better seed.
“We’ve got to empty the bucket, and that’s the way we’ve got to play next week at home,” Rudolph said. “I’m really looking forward to that environment.”
Rudolph had seven receptions for 63 yards in the game against Green Bay on Nov. 25 after voicing to the coaching staff a team-success-driven concern about the lack of impact he’d been able to make as a pass-catcher to that point. He had only eight catches for 68 yards combined over the three games that followed, though.
With Thielen and Diggs frequently drawing double teams during the second half of the season, and undoubtedly in the playoffs as long as the Vikings continue on, Rudolph’s production is vital for an offense that has been up and down in Cousins’ first year in purple.
Since Kevin Stefanski replaced John DeFilippo as offensive coordinator, the Vikings have employed more play-action passes and bootleg rollouts for Cousins, concepts that can only help Rudolph thrive up and down the field.
“It just adds another weapon,” coach Mike Zimmer said, adding: “The more guys we can use, the better it is.”
Despite such quiet stretches during this season, Rudolph has 60 receptions for 615 yards, both the second highest of his career behind 2016. The longest-tenured player on the offense, Rudolph also has a 77.9 percent catch rate on the throws he’s been targeted on to surge past his previous best of 70.6 in 2014.
“He’s a tremendous talent,” Cousins said.
If the Vikings beat the Bears (11-4), the probable scenario is the No. 6 seed and an instant rematch in the wild-card round in Chicago.
That would change if Seattle (9-6), which opened as 11½-point favorites against Arizona (3-12), loses at home to the Cardinals. Then the Vikings would jump the Seahawks for the No. 5 seed and travel to NFC East champion Dallas (9-6).
If the Vikings lose but the Eagles also lose to send them back to the tournament, they will face the Bears unless San Francisco (4-11), which began as a nine-point underdog, wins at Los Angeles (12-3).
In that case, the Vikings would play the Rams next weekend with the Bears taking the No. 2 seed and the first-round bye.
The NFL set the schedule up to maximize the drama, bumping the Bears-Vikings game to the late-afternoon timeslot so it will be played simultaneously with the Eagles-Redskins, Cardinals-Seahawks and 49ers-Rams games. There will be four other AFC games with postseason impact taking place at the same time, too.
“I don’t think I want to get in 8-7-1,” Cousins said. “I think 9-6-1 is a better way to earn your way in, and hopefully we can get the job done.”
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