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NOTEBOOK: Vikings Clinch Division, Turn Eyes Toward Other Prizes

MINNEAPOLIS — There’s throwing a hat in the ring, and there’s also a hat that comes with a ring.

Tight end Kyle Rudolph said the Vikings were subtly reminded of the latter this week in the days leading up to their second opportunity to win the NFC North in as many weeks.

Minnesota returned home for the first time since Nov. 19 and took care of business with a 34-7 win over the Cincinnati Bengals (5-9).

Players received NFC North Champions hats and T-shirts for the second time in three seasons after a complete performance by the defense, offense and special teams to improve to 11-3 with two games remaining in the regular season.

Some donned the hats and shirts during postgame interviews, and position players posed for group photos in the locker room and on the field that will host at least one Vikings postseason game next month.

The joy of reaching one team goal, however, was balanced by the presence of other goals still within reach, like a first-round bye or home-field advantage in multiple rounds.

“My tight ends coach [Clancy Barone] had a great line this week, and you know there are hat games, [with teams] going to play for a hat. This is an awesome hat, but you don’t get any jewelry with this hat. There’s bigger hats to come, and we want the hats that you get the jewelry with. So, it’s awesome, we’re glad to be NFC North champs, but we still have things to work for.” 

Rudolph worked incredibly hard in the training room after suffering an ankle injury at Carolina last week.

He made an impact even though he didn’t play as many snaps as normal. Rudolph helped block for Latavius Murray’s 1-yard touchdown in the first quarter and scored his eighth touchdown of the season on a 1-yard pass from Case Keenum.

“It’s important to me. I know we had an opportunity to win the NFC North today, and I just asked [Vikings Director of Sports Medicine Eric Sugarman] to give me a chance,” Rudolph said. “Wasn’t a great chance, but the guys here on our training staff, our doctors, they did a great job.”

Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer, who opted for a black Vikings hat for his podium session instead of the celebratory head gear, said Rudolph told Sugarman, “Don’t count me out,” before the tight end ran some routes on Sunday and was upgraded to questionable.

Rudolph had one particular route in mind, a shallow cross on a goal-to-go situation.

“We were monitoring him, how much he got in. Then we got up,” Zimmer said. “On the touchdown, he sprinted out there because he knew the play.”

Rudolph, a Cincinnati native who has been one of the creatives behind the Vikings memorable touchdown celebrations this season, busted out the “Ickey Shuffle” made famous by former Bengals running back Ickey Woods.

“I felt bad doing it at that point in the game, but as a kid that grew up in Cincinnati, I had to do it,” Rudolph said.

No. 7 for No. 7

Keenum, who proudly donned a division champions hat for the first time in his six-year NFL career, made sure to find receivers on the field for the post-game photo op.

Keenum connected with seven different players and did considerable damage when targeting players out of the backfield.

Jerick McKinnon caught seven passes for a career-high 114 yards that included a 41-yard gain. Murray gained 28 on a screen play to erase the damage of a 9-yard loss on a sack to start the game, and fullback C.J. Ham added a reception for a gain of 6.

“We had some good schemes,” Keenum said. “[Offensive Coordinator Pat Shurmur] did a great job putting in some plays [that put defenders] in tough situations to guard him, and he was able to get really open and make some guys miss.”

Keenum collected his ninth win as a starter in Purple and posted his seventh game with a passer rating of more than 100.

Keenum compiled a passer rating of 138.4 after completing 20 of 23 passes for 236 yards and two touchdowns. His completion percentage of 87.0 is the second-best mark in franchise history behind Brett Favre’s 88.0 rate against Seattle on Nov. 22, 2009.

Keenum was able to make an emotional handoff* *to Teddy Bridgewater in the fourth quarter for Bridgewater’s first action in a regular-season game since Week 17 of the 2015 season.

Robison Reels ’Em In

The day held special significance for Brian Robison, who suited up for his 171st regular-season game. The impressive run in Purple by the 2007 fourth-round pick placed him in a tie for sixth among Vikings defenders with Paul Krause and Kevin Williams.

In addition to adding to his games played, Robison also recorded two sacks, pushing his total to 59, which ranks ninth in Vikings history.

The longest-tenured Viking is also the only one that’s been part of three division-winning teams.

“I don’t know how you can compare it to the other ones,” Robison said. “Each team is different. I love this team. I love the guys on our defense. I love the way this team works. It’s just fun to be a part of.”

In addition to Robison’s two sacks, Danielle Hunter also tackled Andy Dalton for a loss. It was Hunter’s seventh sack of the season, and he has 25.5 in his three-season career.

Picking and grinning

The Vikings pestered Dalton from the get-go, forcing a quick three-and-punt on the Bengals first possession and following with an interception by Eric Kendricks.

Kendricks returned the pick 31 yards for Minnesota’s second score of the game. It was the second interception of Kendricks’ career and the second time he’s found the end zone.

The pressure didn’t stop after halftime. The Vikings forced sacks on Cincinnati’s first two third downs of the second half, and Terence Newman recorded the 42nd interception of his career against his former team.

Newman secured the ball between his legs. The grab impressed many, but Zimmer was more impressed by all the work that Newman put in before making the play.

“That was pretty good, that was pretty good catching it between his legs,” Zimmer said. “You know, he’s so smart. He had seen that play previously in a couple of games, and for him to be able to jump it and then make the interception was really good.

“I was happy, knowing he was there too, so I was happy for him, not only for that but I think it shows some of these other players that if you study hard, you do your due diligence, and you continue to work hard good things happen for you,” Zimmer added.

What it means The victory gave Minnesota its 20th division title and guarantee’s the franchise’s 29th playoff appearance.

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