There was no sign of Santa Claus, but a Rudolph — Kyle, that is — played a big role in delivering an early Christmas gift for Minnesota.
Rudolph took flight late in the second quarter, helping the Vikings swing momentum back their direction headed into the half in what became a 27-9 victory.
On third-and-2 from the Detroit 44, Kirk Cousins scrambled to buy his receivers a little time, stepped into it and let it fly. Amid the mass of players in the end zone, Rudolph timed his jump perfectly over Lions corner DeShawn Shead, clasped the ball between gold gloves and gave the Vikings the lead for the first time.
Rudolph said postgame that the play “couldn’t have worked out any better” and gave credit first and foremost to Cousins.
“Kirk threw an unbelievable pass. For me to run to the spot, turn, and the ball is 10 feet away, and I didn’t have to move one spot off of my spot. I was able to just jump up,” Rudolph said. “I joked earlier, I had a lot of rebounds in high school basketball, and at that point it just turns into another rebound. Maybe see if I can get that added to my career total in high school rebounds.”
The Lions only rushed three defenders, and Minnesota’s offensive line held off long enough for Cousins to move around.
“The play doesn’t work as well if [the receivers are] running [while] the ball [is in flight]; if they can get to the end zone and be waiting for the ball, it’s a much higher chance of it being caught,” Cousins explained. “Our offensive line did a nice job of holding on with those guys, and I moved around a little bit just to kind of kill time.
“The other key for me is to make sure the ball lands in the end zone, which when you’re that far away, is hard to do,” added Cousins, who said he wanted to get the ball more than 2 yards inside the end zone but no more than 8.
That left Cousins with a six-yard window to work with, and he dropped it in just right.
“You know, Kyle Rudolph showed why he’s an eighth-year NFL tight end who’s had a great career,” Cousins said. “That’s just an impressive play – very natural hands – and he’s a tremendous talent, a lot of that came through on that play. Certainly was a big way to gain some momentum going into the half after a slow start. They were calling it a ‘Hail Rudy’ after it happened, instead of a Hail Mary, so that was pretty good.”
After the play, the quarterback flew down the field with his arms outstretched to celebrate with Rudolph and his teammates.
Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer said that it’s nearly impossible to fully simulate a Hail Mary in practice, so it’s primarily the mechanics of the situation that get walked through.
“We don’t throw the ball; we just go through the mechanics and make sure you’re boxing out the right guy, make sure you’ve got a guy over the top, make sure you’ve got a guy behind, in front, find the tippers,” Zimmer said. “Kyle did a great job of getting position. He did a great job.”
Vikings running back Dalvin Cook wasn’t on the field but had a good view of the highlight-reel play.
“Once I saw Kirk throw the ball, a lot of the guys on the sideline knew it was a catch. They raised their hands up,” Cook said. “I had a good view of it. It was a good catch.”
Having trailed 9-0 shortly before, the Vikings orchestrated a comeback with back-to-back touchdowns that put them up 14-9 heading into the half.
Just prior to the Hail Mary play, Rudolph had hauled in his second catch of the game and moved the chains 17 yards. It initially appeared that time expired when Rudolph didn’t get out of bounds, but officials added :02 to the clock to correct for a timeout called by Minnesota.
Having entered Sunday’s game with just two touchdowns on the season, Rudolph matched the total with a pair of scores at Ford Field. His second touchdown came early in the fourth quarter, when he caught a 4-yard pass from Cousins on first-and-goal to extend Minnesota’s lead to 24-9.
Rudolph racked up a career-high 122 yards on nine catches for the afternoon. His previous high was 117 yards, which he tallied against Chicago to cap off the 2016 regular season. Including the 44-yard grab, six of his catches were double-digit gains.
Zimmer said a couple of factors accounted for Rudolph’s big day.
“It’s a little bit of, we thought we could get him open on some things, some of the coverages that they were running. And honestly, Kyle hasn’t run some of those routes for a long time this year, so I think some of that helped,” Zimmer said. “We thought we could hit some things on him, and it turned out good. It’s good to get Kyle involved.”
Rudolph said it felt like Sunday was “just my time” after preparing each week to be involved in whatever capacity possible. He acknowledged the talented receivers Minnesota has with Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs and understands it’s important to make the most of every ball that comes his way.
“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,” Rudolph said with a smile. “But it’s the thing that I take a lot of pride in when preparing myself each and every week, that when these opportunities do come – because I don’t always know when they’re going to come in the passing game, and I have a lot of other roles that I have to do – that I take advantage of them.”
Rudolph’s performance was a perfectly packaged gift for the Vikings, who improved to 8-6-1 on the season two days before Christmas.
The Vikings continue to control their own destiny as they look ahead to Week 17. A win over the Bears at U.S. Bank Stadium next week will secure a playoff berth for Minnesota without relying on anyone else.
“We’ve got to go get a win. Coach Zimmer says it all the time, ‘We’ve got to empty the bucket,’ and that’s the way we have to play next week, at home,” Rudolph said. “I’m really looking forward to that environment, being back at U.S. Bank Stadium, because it’s going to be like a playoff game.”
Rudolph will enjoy the road win over Detroit for just a bit before turning his attention to Chicago.
As the tight end walked off the field following a career outing, he gave a postgame message to fans:
“You know it’s that time of year – it’s Christmas, so Rudolph has to deliver,” he said with a smile.