The Minnesota Vikings are 5-5 and right in the thick of the NFC's wild-card race. There's no time to waste being timid.
That's the message Mike Zimmer had for his quarterback after the Vikings emerged from a shootout victorious over the Green Bay Packers. Don't worry about making mistakes, Kirk Cousins -- just let it rip.
"I want (Cousins) to keep doing it like he's doing it,'' Zimmer said Monday, via the St. Paul Pioneer Press. "He can't second-guess himself. If he throws an interception, that's life. But you keep going for the jugular. It's going to open up a lot of other areas in the running game. It's going to open up other players."
It certainly did Sunday, when Cousins completed 24 of 35 passes for 341 yards, three touchdowns and a sparkling 128.4 passer rating. It wasn't quite as good as Aaron Rodgers' 23-for-33, 385-yard, four-touchdown outing, but it was enough to help the Vikings win, 34-31.
Cousins' performance was also the first time an opposing quarterback had found any legitimate success against Green Bay's defense in the last month, and the difference is rather stark. In Weeks 8-10, opposing starting quarterbacks completed 56.4 percent of passes for 200.3 yards per game, a 1-4 TD-INT ratio and a passer rating of 59.7 against the Packers.
Now, before you go excusing those numbers as if they were posted by a band of signal-calling flunkies, prepare yourself for a bitter dose of reality. Those numbers were posted by Kyler Murray, Patrick Mahomes and Russell Wilson. And Cousins shattered all of them in one game.
The shine has worn off the Packers' defense, at least for a week, but what's perhaps more important to learn from Week 11 is the potential of Minnesota's offense. It's a unit that has posted at least 30 points in half of its games and includes Justin Jefferson -- the No. 4 receiver in the NFL in yards (944), and our own Dan Hanzus' choice for best wideout in the league -- Adam Thielen, under-the-radar pass-catcher K.J. Osborn and sneaky-good tight end Tyler Conklin. Dalvin Cook attracts the most attention as a constant threat out of the backfield as a runner and receiver and might most benefit from Cousins' increased aggression.
Cousins just needs to embrace letting it fly. Those "half-dozen throws there that were too aggressive," as Zimmer put it Monday, should become Cousins' comfort zone if the Vikings want to reach the postseason.
Even if his reputation doesn't match -- sure, he's not the flashiest quarterback, we'll give you that -- Cousins has been a Next Gen Stats stud for multiple seasons, and 2021 seems to be setting up as the first season when it becomes unavoidable. Cousins owns a 21-2 TD-INT ratio, the best among qualified quarterbacks and the best in Vikings franchise history in a season. He's done it in a variety of fashions, spending almost an entire game throwing within 10 air yards (Week 3 vs. Seattle), and airing it out in others. On Sunday, it was all about hitting his targets on intermediate passes, completing 7 of 7 such attempts for 165 yards and a touchdown, the most such completions without an incompletion in a game in the Next Gen era.
He's efficient and accurate. It's been crucial to the Vikings' success, as Minnesota has only played in one game not decided by one score this season (Week 3), and the Vikings have seen five of their games decided on the final play. Kicker Greg Joseph was the star of Sunday's final play, nailing a 29-yard field goal to send Minnesota's fans home happy.
After starting 1-3, the Vikings have won four of their last six. They'll meet another challenge in Week 12 from a team that is also hoping to reverse its early doubts with a strong finish that could include a playoff berth when Minnesota faces San Francisco.
"I mean, 6-5 isn't our goal,'' Zimmer said. "We don't want to be 6-5, we want to be 12-5 if we can. It's important that if we get another win, then we can hopefully stack a few together.''