Asked to assess the significance of a victory over the Chicago Bears on Sunday — which would secure a first-round bye for the Vikings — tight end Kyle Rudolph paused, took a breath and proceeded to topple one of the NFL’s most banal clichés.
“I think this is the first time in my career where you can officially say a game counts as more than one,” Rudolph said. “Every week, we stand up here and say, ‘It’s one week. It’s one win. It’s one loss.’ 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.”
There were enough Vikings players repeating some variation of the this-one-counts-double line Wednesday that it’s safe to assume they received it as a mantra from coach Mike Zimmer. And as the Vikings head into their regular-season finale against a 5-10 Bears team, it’s clear they will leave nothing to chance.
The Vikings (12-3) already have secured the NFC North title, and have a strong chance of clinching the conference’s No. 2 seed even if they lose to the Bears on Sunday. They’d secure a first-round bye with a Panthers loss, a Saints victory or Rams win in Week 17.
All three games that could provide help to the Vikings, though, are scheduled for late-afternoon starts Sunday, meaning Minnesota cannot watch the scoreboard to see if help is on the way during its game.
For the Vikings, it’s simple: Beat the Bears and get the bye.
“When you get in the playoffs, you have a chance,” Zimmer said. “Whatever it is, whether it’s sixth seed or second seed, you have a chance. I think our guys feel good about that. This game is important and we need to win this game. If you go back through the history of the league, there’s been some [No.] 6 seeds that made it. But most of the time, these teams that only have to play a couple games to get to the big one, there’s a lot more of those.”
Since 2012, teams with first-round byes are 16-4 in the division round of the playoffs, and only one team in that time (the 2012 Ravens) has reached the Super Bowl without a first-round bye.
Put in those terms, the trade is relatively simple; Instead of resting starters this week, the Vikings can work hard in a regular-season game and swap a hard-fought playoff game for a week of rest.
“It’s important to finish the season well, first of all,” guard Joe Berger said. “You don’t want to back your way into the playoffs. That’s a terrible way to go into the postseason. And second, [it’s] to have that week of recovery, health-wise.”
Vikings players aren’t expecting Zimmer would send them home for the entire wild-card week — “No, no chance,” Rudolph said — but they aren’t necessarily looking for that, either.
“Honestly, I think if you want an entire week off, when we have a chance to win two games and get to the Super Bowl, why would you really be here?” Rudolph said. “I have a feeling this bye week would be different than a bye week in the middle of the year, where guys can’t wait to get away.
‘‘Yeah, you do have to rest your body and rest your mind. But I think there will be an eagerness and a sense of urgency like, ‘Hey, let’s get back to work. We’ve got two games, and we could be playing in a Super Bowl in our own stadium.”
The Vikings won their first four games after their bye week in November, and it would seem likely they’d follow a similar schedule to what they did after returning from a victory over the Browns in London, spending at least a couple days of a playoff bye week with practice sessions focused on cleaning up their own flaws, before giving players a few days off and beginning preparation for a division round opponent.
They also have done strong work the past two weeks against teams with nothing at stake, beating the Bengals and Packers by a combined score of 50-7. With such a big payoff available to them Sunday against the Bears, the Vikings’ focus figures to be sharp.
“We have a lot of competitive guys that love to play football,” wide receiver Adam Thielen said. “We have a lot of guys that don’t care what the situation is — if we’re in the playoffs, out of the playoffs. We just want to go out there and play football, and I think that shows on the field, for sure.”