This season, Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph won't match his 64 receptions and 634 receiving yards from 2018, but there is no doubt he has been as vital as anyone on the Vikings offense. His six touchdowns are tied with Adam Thielen for the team lead and tied for third among NFL tight ends.

On top of that, Rudolph, named the Vikings' nominee for the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award this past week, has moved into fifth place all-time on the Vikings' reception list with 421, trailing Cris Carter, Randy Moss, Steve Jordan and Anthony Carter.

"That just means I have been here for a long time," said Rudolph, in his ninth season with the Vikings. "It's cool to be up there with those names and there are a lot of Vikings legends on that list, but I just try to do what I can to help our team win games."

That has meant blocking more than he has in the past — helping the Vikings rush for 1,765 yards, their most through 13 games since 2012.

"That is something I have done a lot this year, a lot more than I have done in the past," said Rudolph, who has 35 catches for 312 yards. "It's something I have taken pride in this year, and it's something I have had to work on."

Rudolph still believes the Vikings can reach their goal of winning the NFC North. "That is our first goal at the beginning of every year, is winning a division title," he said. "When you win a division title you get a home playoff game, and we feel like we have put ourselves in a position to have meaningful games in December, and it starts this week with the Chargers in Los Angeles."

Return of Thielen?

All indications are that Thielen will be back Sunday after missing five games because of a hamstring injury, including the past four. He had never missed an NFL game before this injury.

Rudolph said he has been proud of how the offense has responded without Thielen, going 4-1 in those five games.

"We have had a lot of young receivers that have had to step up, we have had tight ends that have had to step up," Rudolph said. "Tyler Conklin is a guy that didn't have a catch until a couple of weeks ago and now he's making big plays for us in the pass game, as well."

Does he feel like the offense has changed?

"It doesn't really change the offense, but the thing is, guys have to step up," he said. "When you lose a player of the caliber of Adam's, you know we have to pick up the slack elsewhere on offense."

Yes, these Vikings are relying on a lot of rookies, such as tight end Irv Smith Jr., running back Alexander Mattison, receiver Bisi Johnson, center Garrett Bradbury and cornerback Kris Boyd.

Rudolph said a big part of his role as a veteran leader is helping those players understand how different December is in the NFL.

"I think the biggest thing in the young guys is they're used to being off or practicing for a bowl game," he said. "Once Thanksgiving hits, their season is normally done. After Thanksgiving we still have a quarter of our season left and the playoffs. Just trying to remind them that there is a lot of football left."

Cousins' trust

While Rudolph has had fewer receptions than years past, his ability to make extremely difficult catches has changed the offense.

He talked about how he makes one-handed grabs look so routine.

"Practice. You don't just make one-handed catches by accident, it is something you practice," he said. "Always catching balls, whether it's during practice, after practice, before practice, so when it comes in the game, it is something you have done a lot of times."

Does he feel like his relationship with quarterback Kirk Cousins has grown? "I think he is gaining a trust in me that even though there may be people around, traffic, that he can still throw the ball to me and I'll make a play," Rudolph said.

Along with that, Rudolph said there's no question Cousins has thrived in a leadership role this season.

"Kirk is a guy that came in here right away and led by example," Rudolph said. "He is a guy that other guys on this team will naturally follow. His play speaks for itself. He has played great football this year."

A historic record

Since the NFL moved to a 16-game season in 1978, the Vikings have won 12 or more games only three times — 1998 (15-1), 2009 (12-4) and 2017 (13-3). They went to the NFC Championship Game in each of those seasons.

They still have a shot at 12 victories this season, but to get there they have to go on the road to beat the Chargers, who were a playoff team last season.

"I expect a really good football team. The record is not indicative of the talent," Rudolph said of the Chargers (5-8). "They have a lot of talent on that football team and they have been stricken by injuries, but they have a lot of guys back healthy. They lost a lot of close games and so they're playing hard, and we expect a four-quarter game on Sunday."

The Vikings end with back-to-back division home games against vs. the Packers and Bears. Rudolph said that's a challenge players are really excited for.

"It's great. You have the opportunity to play two division games at home to end the year and that will allow us to control our destiny."


• The Chargers beat the Packers 26-11 and the Bears 17-16, and Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said there is no doubt they will present a big challenge, saying: "When they don't turn the ball over, they're pretty hard to beat. They've done a good job in those games, and they get some turnovers defensively."

• Pro Football Focus ranks the Vikings as the seventh-best team in the NFL, trailing the Patriots, Ravens, Saints, 49ers, Chiefs and Seahawks.

• The New York Times ran a big college bowl preview and here's what stood out: Auburn, the Gophers' opponent in the Outback Bowl, played the second-toughest schedule in the country behind only South Carolina. Of Auburn's 12 opponents this season, nine made a bowl game, and the Tigers went 6-3 in those games.

Kenechi Udeze, the former Vikings defensive end and 2004 first-round draft pick, is an analyst on the coaching staff of LSU coach Ed Orgeron. The Tigers are the top seed in the College Football Playoff.

• Speaking of the CFP, the Fiesta Bowl will feature one of the semifinals, between Ohio State and Clemson, and the game's executive director is former Wild executive Mike Nealy, a University of Minnesota graduate who grew up in Rose­ville. He has held that role since 2014.

• The Gophers football team has only three commitments from Minnesota players in the class of 2020 — Jonathan Mann of Rosemount, Danny Striggow of Orono and Cody Lindenberg of Anoka. The Gophers also have three recruits from Georgia.

• Twins President Dave St. Peter on the team targeting starting pitchers in free agency: "Clearly Madison Bumgarner is one of the guys on that board, but he's not the only one. There's a few additional guys that we think could make a difference for us, and then there's other individuals that maybe would come via trade that are certainly on our radar."

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. •