NEW ORLEANS -- These were the kinds of moments Kirk Cousins wasn't supposed to have in him. Those situations when the urgency heightened, the pressure mounted and the possibility of winning hung delicately in the balance. The Minnesota Vikings bet on this quarterback despite all the talk that he simply wasn't built to handle such a job description. On Sunday afternoon -- in a place where it's always hard to win, and against a team that was a trendy Super Bowl pick -- Cousins delivered when his team needed it most.
There are several reasons that explain Minnesota's 26-20 overtime win over the New Orleans Saints in the NFC Wild Card Round, including great defense, a physical running game and the type of unyielding determination that comes with being an underdog. The most significant was Cousins. That's not because he plays the most important position on a football team. It's because he produced his most significant plays when his reputation suggested a far different result than the one the Vikings secured.
This is a man who's heard plenty about how he can't win when his team is trailing in the fourth quarter or playing on Monday nights and certainly not in the postseason. The only question Cousins has to worry about now is one that he'll enjoy pondering -- how he can help the Vikings win a divisional round game against the San Francisco 49ers this coming Saturday.
"It's fun to be able to win and feel like you're moving forward," Cousins said. "But to quote The Dream Giver, when you climb a mountain, you sit there and look around and you only realize there are more mountains to climb. So to be a fourth-round pick and work your way up in the league, now that you win a playoff game, guess what? You look around and there are more mountains to climb."
We'll never know exactly how much this win means to Cousins personally. What is apparent is that he has the proper mindset to deal with such an intoxicating moment. The Vikings gave him a fully guaranteed $84 million free agent contract during the 2018 offseason because they believed he could turn them into a Super Bowl champion. As important as it was for Cousins to win a big game -- and in his defense, his only other postseason start came with the Washington Redskins in the 2015 season -- the eighth-year pro wasn't signed solely to help this team advance past the Wild Card Round.
The Vikings reached the NFC Championship Game the year before Cousins arrived. They also have a roster that is blessed with a stifling defense, an array of talented skill players on offense and an offensive line that easily played one of its best games of the year against New Orleans. The only way Cousins can be deemed a success in Minnesota is if his time up north leads to a Lombardi Trophy. After failing to make the postseason in Year 1 with this franchise, he knows there's ample pressure to deliver this time around.
Cousins might have produced modest numbers on Sunday -- he was 19 for 31 for 242 yards and one touchdown -- but statistics don't tell the story of what he did in New Orleans. For one, he outplayed Saints quarterback Drew Brees, a first-ballot Hall-of-Famer. Cousins also kept his offense focused and efficient inside the raucous Superdome, which meant the Saints' infamous home crowd never became a factor in this contest. Cousins also made the throws he had to make when the game was on the line.
After the Vikings won the coin toss to start overtime, they watched Cousins win the contest with his arm. He hit wide receiver Stefon Diggs with a 10-yard dart on a third-and-1 play from the Vikings' 34-yard line. Three plays later, he launched a perfectly thrown pass to Adam Thielen for a 43-yard gain that put the ball on the Saints' 2-yard line. Finally, with the Vikings facing a third-and-goal from the New Orleans' 4, Cousins beat an all-out blitz and lofted the game-winning touchdown pass to tight end Kyle Rudolph in the corner of the end zone.
When asked about that last possession and the final score, Rudolph said, "There were so many throws on that drive that were huge to move the ball down the field to get the win. [Cousins] has done it all year. So I'm not surprised he came down here in this big environment and got the win." Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer added that the deep pass to Thielen was evidence of how much faith this team had in Cousins and its willingness to play aggressively with him. "We talked about how we didn't want to leave anything in the bag," Zimmer said of the completion to Thielen. "We had a chance to go down and score and win and that's what we tried to do. You have to take your shots when you have a chance to win a playoff game."
Cousins was the best person to lead this team in this particular game given all the doubts that he's faced in his career. The consensus coming into this contest was that Minnesota didn't have much of a chance of advancing past the Saints. New Orleans had won six of its last seven games, while averaging 36.3 points per during that stretch. The Saints, who went 13-3 in the regular season, also had many people believing they were destined to reach the Super Bowl after heartbreaking losses in each of the last two postseasons.
The Vikings played up the notion that nobody believed they could win all week during practice. Then they came in with a game plan that guaranteed them a great shot at victory. A major reason why Cousins played so efficiently was that he didn't have to press to make things happen. Minnesota's defense contained the Saints' offensive stars (most notably absent was running back Alvin Kamara, who finished with 55 total yards) and forced two turnovers (including a strip-sack of Brees in the fourth quarter) while Vikings running back Dalvin Cook dominated in the first half (when he gained 84 of his game-high 94 rushing yards).
All Cousins had to do was take care of the football and make timely plays.
"I'm just thrilled we won a playoff game and I got to do my part," Cousins said. "We won the game today because we played great defense. We got a turnover. We had good special teams. We had great play-calling. We had a great plan. We protected. We ran the football. There's a whole lot of reasons why we won the game. Does the quarterback play a role in that? Yes. But it was a team win."
That ultimately is the best feeling Cousins can take away from this game. Aside from the confidence that comes from advancing in the postseason in a hostile environment, the Vikings left knowing that they won because of a team effort. We often make too much of the notion that great quarterbacks win championships. The reality is that great teams are the ones that eventually get to claim titles.
Cousins came to Minnesota with the expectation that he would be a savior. He's now playing with the sense that the Vikings clearly didn't need him to be that. They needed a leader under center, a competitor they could rely on in the clutch and somebody who was more than capable of doing his part. The Vikings got all that and more on Sunday, along with a quarterback who appears more than ready to handle his next mountain.