There’s a sentiment among Vikings players: They would like another shot at the Carolina Panthers, a month after the 31-24 loss in Charlotte. But there’s also a chance to play the Los Angeles Rams or New Orleans Saints, foes the Vikings already beat during the regular season.
Whichever opponent the Vikings face Jan. 14 at U.S. Bank Stadium, their preparation begins in earnest this weekend via the wild-card game television broadcasts, said cornerback Xavier Rhodes.
“We don’t know who we’re playing so we have to critique and watch those guys and watch how they run their offense,” Rhodes said. “Who their favorite target is? What plays they like to run?”
Vikings players will get some welcome recovery time away from the field later this week and this weekend before returning to Winter Park. Rhodes, who was voted to his second Pro Bowl this season, said he’ll already have a bead on the opponent, especially since the Vikings played each possible visiting team once already this season.
“Even though you’ve got a bye week, you’re still at work,” Rhodes said. “When I’m watching college ball, it could be like high school football, I’m always at work. I’m like, ‘Oh, it’s three-by-one [formation], it’s going to be that route.’ It never stops.”
Bradford returns to practice
Quarterback Sam Bradford returned to Vikings practice Tuesday for the first time since early October. Bradford, who underwent surgery Nov. 7 on his left knee, is officially in a three-week window before he would need to be activated or shut down.
Of course, the Vikings host a playoff game Jan. 14, but the possibility of Bradford being activated before then, even to be a backup, seems unlikely.
“We’ll just see how it goes and where it’s at,” coach Mike Zimmer said Monday. “I’m not committed to say he’s going to play, so we’ll just see how things go. Things could happen. We win a game, someone gets hurt — you never know what could happen.”
A handful of Vikings were held out during Tuesday’s practice, including Rhodes, tight end Kyle Rudolph (ankle), safety Anthony Harris, defensive tackle Shamar Stephen (ankle) and fullback C.J. Ham (neck).
Center Pat Elflein (shoulder) returned to practice after being held out of Sunday’s regular-season finale.
McKinnon ‘seems fresh’
Running back Jerick McKinnon played 16 games without the threat of being listed ‘questionable’ even once because of injury. McKinnon “seems fresh,” Zimmer said, and is in position to be a critical piece to the Vikings’ playoff hopes. He led the Vikings backfield with 991 yards from scrimmage including 51 catches, the most receptions by a Vikings back since Moe Williams (65) in 2003.
More outside runs and a split workload with Latavius Murray has helped his durability, Zimmer said.
“I think a little of both,” Zimmer said. “Some of the ones he ends up bouncing to the perimeter a little bit more. You’re able to see some of that. He seems fresh.”
Gedeon scaled rookie wall
Linebacker Ben Gedeon finished the regular season with 368 special-teams snaps, the most by a Vikings rookie since tight end Rhett Ellison played 352 snaps in 2012. Gedeon, a fourth-round pick out of Michigan, said there’s something real to the “rookie wall” felt by young players adjusting from the much shorter college football season to the NFL.
“It’s probably more mental [than physical],” Gedeon said. “College season is 12 weeks, no preseason. You just got to get used to it.”
Murray was a proud Central Florida alumnus after the No. 10 Knights defeated No. 7 Auburn 34-27 in the Peach Bowl on Monday to finish the season 13-0. However, they’ll be watching next week when Alabama and Georgia play for the national title after the undefeated Knights, of the American Athletic Conference, were not invited to the four-team playoff.
“Don’t be surprised,” Murray said about the Knights’ victory, before venting about their exclusion from the playoff.