EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — For the first time in Kyle Rudolph’s seven-year career, the Minnesota Vikings tight end is willing to concede there’s more riding on Sunday’s game than just one victory.
Minnesota (12-3) can earn a first-round bye with a win against the Chicago Bears.
Rudolph has been to the playoffs twice in his career and is still waiting for his first postseason victory. A win Sunday would be meaningful to one of the longest-tenured Vikings.
“Every week we stand up here and say, ‘It’s one week. It’s one win. It’s one loss,'” Rudolph said Wednesday. “This week counts as two wins, essentially. If we can go out and get a win, it guarantees us that we get next week off.”
Rudolph could use the rest.
He was limited again in Wednesday’s practice with an ankle injury that’s bothered him the past three weeks. After a career-high stretch of six straight games with at least five catches earlier this season, Rudolph has just three receptions the past three weeks.
With so much riding on the season’s final weeks, Rudolph has kept playing with the injury.
“I’ve pushed through the last couple weeks and I’ll continue to push through,” Rudolph said. “And then, essentially, I can kick my feet up after we win … for a week.”
Rudolph has been a key contributor to an offense that’s surprisingly ranked in the top 10 in yardage and scoring with backup Case Keenum at quarterback.
Rudolph is third on the team with 56 catches for 529 yards, the second-highest totals of his career in both categories behind last season’s 83 catches for 840 yards. Rudolph’s team-leading eight touchdowns are one behind his career best, set in 2012 when he earned his only Pro Bowl invitation.
He didn’t hide his displeasure about missing out on Pro Bowl recognition the past two years as he’s put together his best seasons as a receiver.
“Absolutely,” Rudolph said of being disappointed. “That’s how it goes. It’s two years in a row for me, so I’m getting used to it.”
His teammates understand what he means to the playoff-bound Vikings.
“I think he’s a Pro Bowl-caliber player,” said receiver Adam Thielen, who earned his first Pro Bowl nod. “I think he’s had a Pro Bowl-caliber year, and I’m disappointed for him because he’s a hard worker. He’s a guy who fights through injuries and he performs. He’s been a big part of our offense’s success. Sometimes that’s just how it works out, but you move on and you keep trying to get better.”
Rudolph is more interested in his team moving on.
It’s one reason he played in Week 15 against Cincinnati after being listed as doubtful. The ankle injury kept Rudolph out of practice during the week, and coach Mike Zimmer said he wouldn’t play.
Rudolph kept up his work in the training room. He was upgraded to questionable a day before and then caught a touchdown in the game as Minnesota clinched the NFC North.
Just three of Rudolph’s current teammates — defensive ends Brian Robison and Everson Griffen and returner Marcus Sherels — were with the Vikings when Rudolph was a second-round draft pick in 2011. Minnesota has lost in the wild-card round in each of Rudolph’s two playoff appearances.
There’s a different feeling this time around.
“I think the biggest thing is the confidence that this team is playing with,” Rudolph said. “We feel like if we take care of our business and we play the style of football that we’re accustomed to, it doesn’t matter who we play, when we play, where we play. It’s just how we play and we feel like we’ll like the result if we go out and play well.”