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Victories over Packers, Bears improve Vikings’ chances to win division

October 19, 2017 GMT

Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph has seen his fair share of quarterback injuries, and he said that even though he was disappointed to see the Packers Aaron Rodgers sidelined, the 23-10 victory over the Packers on Sunday was a big step in the Vikings goal of winning the NFC North title.

[Rodgers is] one of the best in our game right now, and you hate to see guys go down, but its part of the game, he said. Weve obviously dealt with that a lot around here. Weve battled through as many injuries as anyone. We know what theyre going through. With that being said, it was important for us to get a division win at home.

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He said that coming off a close road victory against the Bears, it was important to win their first meeting with Green Bay to improve to 4-2.

It helped us a lot, Rudolph said. It was our third division game in a row and any time you play the Packers, its going to have playoff implications. We had to hold court at home and win a division home game. We finished a stretch of three division games in a row 2-1. Thats big for us, but it doesnt mean anything for us if we dont come home this week and win again.

Does he think that division race is there for the taking?

Absolutely, our division will be a tight race, Rudolph said. Its going to come down to the end of the season but through six games, weve put ourselves in a position to take it week by week and you know, you cant worry about winning the division now. We just have to worry about beating the Ravens.

Weekly improvement

Rudolph has grabbed 21 receptions for 201 yards and two touchdowns, including five grabs for 47 yards last week, which isnt far off last years stats, when he had 26 receptions for 291 yards and three scores.

When asked if hed like to be targeted more, he said he always welcomes it but it isnt necessary.

I talk about how my role can change each and every week but Im getting more opportunities in the pass game, he said. I just have to take advantage of those.

How does he feel about the performance of backup quarterback Case Keenum so far this season?

Case has come in and provided a spark for us, the seven-year veteran said. Hes won three games now. Its big to have a guy who can come in off the bench and win football games for you. You see starting quarterbacks going down. If you dont have a guy that can come in and win games for you, your season can be done just like that.

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Rudolph also pointed out how important the offensive line has been to getting this season off to a great start.

Theyre doing great, he said. We ran for 100 yards again and gave up no sacks [against the Packers]. Those guys are protecting the quarterback and also providing running lanes for our backs.

Us bowl chances

Despite the fact the Gophers have lost three consecutive conference football games and several players because of injuries, theyre favored to beat Illinois by 13andfrac12; points at TCF Bank Stadium on Saturday. They could be favored to beat Nebraska at home on Nov. 11 and Northwestern in Evanston, Ill., on Nov. 18, so they could still win six games and make their fourth consecutive trip to a bowl game.

Were just going to focus on getting better right now, coach P.J. Fleck said. We cant focus on those other things right now. We have our own challenges and opportunities in front of us. We have to focus on getting better today than we were yesterday. Thats all we can keep focusing on. We have a team that has to grow and get better.

Fleck hasnt named a starting quarterback against Illinois, but you can be certain sophomore Demry Croft will get some playing time, even if senior Conor Rhoda starts.

Rhoda has more experience now, but the one thing Ill say is Demry does have a lot more athleticism and is able to create that second play and keep that second play alive, Fleck said. Hes got a big arm. But again, we have to be able to get him to run the offense within the offense. We have to continue to develop both quarterbacks.

It was no surprise that Croft, playing in his first game since being suspended for two games for a violation of team rules, had a pretty good day Saturday against Michigan State after replacing Rhoda in the second quarter and throwing three fourth-quarter touchdown passes in the 30-27 loss.

He was a high school standout at Boylan High School in Rockford, Ill. In his junior and senior seasons, Croft started 22 games and threw for 3,890 yards and 37 touchdowns and ran for 1,530 yards and 22 scores. Croft was being recruited by schools such as Iowa and Michigan State before he landed with the Gophers.

He can definitely run, Fleck said. But we dont want to run him too much where he gets hurt and we dont have a quarterback. We have to get them both better on a daily basis and continue to grow both of them.

Jottings

Former Gophers wide receiver Eric Decker is having a good start with the Tennessee Titans, after an injury-shortened 2016 season with the Jets. Decker has 23 receptions for 226 yards, and had a season-high seven receptions for 88 yards in the Titans 36-22 victory over the Colts on Monday Night Football. Another former Gopher, tight end Maxx Williams, will come to town with the Ravens on Sunday but might not play after injuring his ankle in their 27-24 overtime loss to Chicago last week. Williams has six receptions for 32 yards this season.

Packers coach Mike McCarthy, who blasted Vikings linebacker Anthony Barr for his on Rodgers that broke his collarbone Sunday, kept telling the press he has the right quarterbacks in his room and wouldnt sign a new one, but he added ex-Virginia Tech star Jerod Evans to the practice squad Tuesday. Packers linebacker Ahmad Brooks said this about the hit: A lot of the time we do want to hit the quarterback, but I think in this situation Aaron had already released the ball as [Barr] was engaging into him.

Vikings safety Harrison Smith is playing the best football of his six-year career and said its all about discipline with this defense. Discipline of what we are asked to do is big, he said. We love playing. We all love playing. We love playing together and we love the coaches. We love coming to the sideline and getting hyped with them. There is still a lot of football left to be played. We just have to continue getting better each week.

Rushford-Peterson graduate Steve Heiden is in his fifth season as an assistant special teams and tight ends coach for the Arizona Cardinals.

Sid Hartman can be heard on WCCO AM-830 at 8:40 a.m. Monday and Friday, 2 p.m. Friday and 10:30 a.m. Sunday. shartman@startribune.com

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