NEW ORLEANS — Following one of the wildest days of their careers, the entire Minnesota Vikings offense was jammed into the tiny road locker room at the Superdome. They surrounded their quarterback Kirk Cousins, who had the game ball in his hands. With whatever voice he had left, he shouted his signature, “You like that?” and the group went crazy.
Cousins had his moment on Sunday — the one he was signed to have. Overtime in the playoffs, everything resting on his arm and he came through with three brilliant throws to bring home the first postseason victory of his career 26-20 over the Saints.
Third down to Diggs
After winning the coin toss, the Vikings opened up with back-to-back plays to Dalvin Cook, as you might expect. On third-and-1, Cousins threw a laser into the hands of Stefon Diggs for a first down that got the offense rolling and gave the quarterback — who had struggled in the second half — some confidence to make the next two passes that would win the game.
“Everybody keeps forgetting the third down throw to Diggs,” said Kyle Rudolph, who caught the game winner. “It was just play after play after play to get us down there. We didn’t want Drew to have the ball in overtime. It’s a scary sight when a hall of famer is taking the ball with a chance to win the game. We kept him on the sidelines and won it with a walkoff.’’
Diggs explained that the Saints gave him an opening when they were forced to be aggressive on third-and-short. With the ball at the Vikings’ 34-yard line they needed to be ready for Cook to slam up the middle, which left Diggs one-on-one. Cousins drifted back, stopped and drove the ball perfectly into Diggs’ hands. The timing was perfect, the route was pristine, the throw was as accurate as if they were playing 7-on-7 in training camp.
“That was just me doing my job,” Diggs said. “It’s overtime, they’re not going to sit back and play Cover-2 all day, finally we get an opportunity, I just made a play when it came to me. I felt like, if an opportunity came to me, I’ll make it, that’s my job.”
The Saints aimed to take away Diggs, playing two high safeties for the majority of the game, limiting the number of times Cousins could go down field. At one point the star receiver threw his helmet in frustrating with a similar third down wasn’t converted and Cousins targeted rookie Bisi Johnson. Diggs was seen talking with offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski on the sideline after that play.
While it was Adam Thielen who would put up the superstar numbers for the first time since Week 7, Diggs’s route and grab set up the opportunity to do something special.
Bomb to Thielen
After the conversion, Cook broke out for an 11-yard gain and slammed into cornerback Marshon Lattimore, who came out of the game for the following play.
Throughout the day the two deep safeties made it challenging for the Vikings to use their play-action and bootleg game in the same way we saw way back in October when they were putting up 400-plus yards of offense week after week. But the door opened up a crack.
On a play that was designed for Diggs, the safety went in Diggs’s direction, leaving Thielen man-to-man. As the ball flew threw the air, Thielen somehow looked up just as the ball dropped into his hands — a catch that we’ve seen dozens of times but is still awe inspiring.
“You just never know where that ball is going to go because depending on how the safety goes,” Thielen said. “It ended up being one on one with me and another guy and Kirk just threw a great ball. It was a perfect ball that really just dropped right in the bucket.”
One of Cousins’s biggest strength is that he goes where his reads take him and — if given time — finds the right man and can make highly accurate throws downfield. In this case, with the crowd hitting max noise level, he patiently got to the right read and made the throw that the Saints had worked so hard all day to prevent.
“He has a lot of trust in his ability and when he sees the right coverage and they give you the opportunity to take a shot, which they really didn’t the whole game because of the type of coverages they were playing,” Thielen said. “He’s a guy that we know because of all the reps we’ve had in the last two years that when he does have an opportunity to throw it deep, he’s going to give you a chance. When I lined up I knew I was getting the ball and I’m thankful he threw it to me.”
Thielen atoned for a miserable first half. He fumbled the ball on the first drive and then dropped another pass that he usually grabs. Surrounded by reporters in a hallway outside the locker room, the Pro Bowl receiver said he “flushed it down the toilet.”
“It’s a motto that I learned in college that it doesn’t matter what I learned in college, I’m going to go flush it down the toilet and I’m going to go to the next play,” he said. “I even made a motion (pushing down the toilet flush valve) like hey – flush that – because for me it doesn’t what happened in the past, it doesn’t matter what happened in the season or what happened the last play.”
The play doesn’t happen without terrific pass blocking.
Second-year tackle Brian O’Neill was forced to match up with one of the NFL’s elite rushers in Cameron Jordan and did a miraculous job against him on Sunday. The blocking gave Cousins as much time and space as he needed to drop the dime to Thielen.
“I was just trying to hold on for dear life because I knew I had a one-on-one there, so once the ball was thrown, I was like, ‘Oh, s—. Did he score? Is this over?'” O’Neill said.
The moment they walked out of the huddle on third-and-goal, there was only one direction to go with the football: To Kyle Rudolph.
On the previous two plays, a QB sneak and pitch outside had been stuffed by the Saints’ defense, giving the Vikings only the option to pass for the win. They lined up with three receivers to Cousins’s right and only Rudolph to the left.
As soon as he was covered by a cornerback, it was clear that it was going to be the pass that Rudolph was genetically designed to catch.
Cousins, who has been repeatedly urged to throw to Rudolph in the end zone, flung it up into the back corner, where Rudolph reached up his giant mitts over PJ Williams and hung onto the ball for the game winner.
“I played a lot of basketball in my life,” Rudolph said. “And they brought all-out pressure and Kirk gave me a chance and I just go up and get the rebound. Go up and get it and make a play to help our team win.’’
The grab was not without controversy. Upon seeing the replay on the big board, fans threw things onto the field, believing that Rudolph had pushed off Williams and that the play should have been overturned for pass interference.
All at once, the world’s TV Ref population went to work saying that the play should have been flagged or overturned.
ESPN’s John Parry tweeted:
“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.”
But president of officiating Al Riveron agreed to disagree.
— NFL Officiating (@NFLOfficiating) January 5, 2020
Rudolph said that he didn’t think there was any chance of a flag being thrown.
Kirk’s new narrative
The questions about him winning a big game were answered with the overtime drive.
“It says to the people that don’t know him, it says what kind of fighter he is, how he prepares, how he goes about his business and he doesn’t care about the outside noise,” Thielen said. “That’s what we see every week. We see it week in, week out, we see the same guy whether it was a miraculous victory or a bad loss. We see the same guy, the way he prepares, the way he treats his teammates and ultimately what kind of person he is.”
““He got the game ball in the locker room. He deserves it. All we’ve heard this is Kirk Cousins this, Kirk Cousins that. Playoff games, big games on the road, so much nonsense. It takes 10 other guys on offense and I said that all year long, and today 10 other guys stepped huge to allow Kirk to go out there and play well.’’