In September, Kirk Cousins threw the Vikings’ season into chaos. In an embarrassing 16-6 loss to the Bears in Week 4, Cousins had his worst game in Minnesota. Despite Adam Thielen getting open multiple times, Cousins found him just twice for a combined 6 receiving yards. Worst of all, at one point Cousins had Thielen streaking down the middle of the field wide open for a touchdown, but Cousins overthrew the receiver. The loss opened the floodgates for Cousins criticism, both from inside and outside the fan base. Cousins was the You like that? guy; he was hard to love. His winless record on Monday Night Football, inability to improvise, and tendency to level off rather than rise in the fourth quarter did not help. The following week, Cousins apologized on his podcast, head coach Mike Zimmer told Cousins to stop podcasting, and receiver Stefon Diggs reportedly asked for a trade. But most cutting of all were Thielen’s comments.
“You have to be able to hit the deep balls,” Thielen said. “You have to do that.”
Kirk Cousins just BEARly overthrows Adam Thielen pic.twitter.com/djfIDJKh2l— Sean Borman (@SeanBormanNFL) September 29, 2019
Cousins finally delivered that deep ball, and with it a 26-20 overtime win against the heavily favored Saints. On the sixth play of overtime as eight-point underdogs in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, Cousins found Thielen for a 43-yard gain, 40 of which came in the air, to put the Vikings at the Saints’ 2-yard line. Thielen told reporters after the game it was the same play Cousins had overthrown him on against the Bears in Week 4.
Despite starting at the 2-yard line, the Vikings were nearly kept out of the end zone. Dalvin Cook gained 1 yard on first down, but the New Orleans defense stuffed the running back for a loss of 3 on his next carry, giving the Vikings a third-and-goal at the Saints’ 4-yard line. A touchdown would win the game. A field goal would give the Saints the ball and the chance to win. On third down, Cousins took the shotgun snap, turned left, and lofted a ball for tight end Kyle Rudolph, who was in one-on-one coverage with Saints cornerback P.J. Williams. Rudolph, who is 6 inches taller and 60 pounds heavier than Williams, came down with the catch for the walk-off win.
Two defenders got to Cousins immediately on the play, but he still threw the touchdown. During the regular season, Cousins threw 99 passes under duress and only one of them went for a touchdown, according to ESPN’s Courtney Cronin. Literally and figuratively, Cousins finally delivered under pressure.
Ironically, Rudolph extended his right arm and pushed off Williams just before leaping for the catch, which certainly looked like offensive pass interference.
Was this pass interference?pic.twitter.com/NjQIctDtdN— Dov Kleiman (@NFL_DovKleiman) January 5, 2020
After the Saints lost the NFC championship game in the Superdome last year following an uncalled defensive pass interference penalty, Sean Payton led efforts to make both defensive and offensive pass interference reviewable. While there was clearly contact, Rudolph’s push did not meet the high standard to add OPI calls via booth review this season. Former NFL referees and current TV analysts Terry McAulay and John Parry all tweeted that offensive pass interference should have been called.
It is illegal for an offensive player to extend his arm or arms and create clear separation from the defender. That was OPI. #MINvsNO— Terry McAulay (@SNFRules) January 5, 2020
The last play of @Vikings at @Saints is OPI. By written rule and on-field philosophy, Receiver clearly created an advantage. If called and reviewed, it stands. The consistent standard for creating an overturn remains a topic.— John Parry (@JohnParryESPN) January 5, 2020
(New Orleans star receiver Michael Thomas liked both tweets after the game, so it’s safe to say the team feels the same way.)
A loss could have been an inflection point for the Vikings franchise. General manager Rick Spielman’s and head coach Mike Zimmer’s futures with the organization were uncertain entering the game. Their fate would inevitably affect a third of Minnesota’s defensive starters, who are either free agents or cut and/or trade candidates this offseason. The win all but ensures Spielman and Zimmer will return. It also could be a big deal for Cousins. Next year is the final season of his three-year, $84 million guaranteed contract, but he may have just earned himself an extension.
The sixth-seeded Vikings now head to San Francisco to take on the no. 1 seed 49ers. The Vikings’ running success on Sunday—they had the most first-half rushing yards against the Saints in two years—was based on the same zone-running and play-action passing principles that the 49ers use under head coach Kyle Shanahan. Vikings offensive adviser Gary Kubiak worked under Kyle’s father, Mike Shanahan, and Kubiak’s and Kyle’s offenses share many similarities in their style. Cousins and 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo use play-action passing at almost identical rates (sixth and fourth highest in the league, respectively). Since the end of September, when the Vikings woke up, Cousins and Garoppolo have an identical 10.4 yards per attempt on play-action passing, according to Pro Football Focus. Both teams will likely use similar game plans against one another next week, but Cousins has not had a more important play-action pass than the one he hit to Thielen to set up the Rudolph touchdown.
It was the exact kind of throw Vikings detractors, fans, and players alike were all unsure Cousins could make. Those doubts lingered into the playoffs against the Saints, whom the Vikings beat with the Minneapolis Miracle in the divisional round two years ago.
“I don’t think anybody thinks we can win [against the Saints],” Zimmer told reporters last week. Later in the week, Saints defensive end Cam Jordan called Cousins a “proficient quarterback” sometimes, but when asked about how Cousins played other times, he laughed.
The Saints aren’t laughing now. They are the 10th team in NFL history to go 13-3 or better two seasons in a row, but the first one of those teams to not make the Super Bowl. Of 25 teams to win at least 11 games three years in a row, New Orleans is one of three to not make a Super Bowl appearance. Minnesota is responsible for ending two of those three Saints seasons, but the Vikings didn’t need a miracle to win in New Orleans on Sunday.
After the Vikings lost to the Bears in Week 4, there were apologies, trade requests, and requests to stop podcasting. After Sunday’s win over the Saints, Cousins was celebrating in the Vikings locker room as his teammates surrounded him.
“I got three words for you,” Cousins said. “You like that?!”
No, Kirk. Minnesota loves it. For now. As Zimmer said about Cousins in his postgame press conference, “He’s got to go out and prove it all over again next week like we all do.”