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Zulgad: Captain Clutch: Kirk Cousins silences critics (like me) by overcoming adversity

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Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins (8) works against the Carolina Panthers during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Oct. 17, 2021, in Charlotte, N.C. (AP Photo/Jacob Kupferman)

The play was one of 84 run by the Vikings’ offense in Sunday’s game at Carolina, so it was easy to gloss over in the excitement of Minnesota’s 34-28 overtime victory. But that play, officially the Vikings’ 70th of the afternoon, might have been the most important one in showing just how much progress Kirk Cousins has made when handling pressure situations.

It wasn’t a pretty pass to Justin Jefferson, or a ball that K.J. Osborn or Adam Thielen caught in a tight window — although those did happen — but rather a situation where the result likely would have been disastrous for Cousins’ and his teammates during his first three seasons in Minnesota.

The Panthers’ woeful offense had improbably marched down the field to tie the score at 28, when Cousins faced a second-and-6 with the ball at the Minnesota 29 and 38 seconds left in the fourth quarter. Cousins, working from shotgun, came under immediate pressure from Carolina defensive end Brian Burns.

Burns, aware of Cousins’ tendency to lose the football in these types of situations, went for the strip sack that could have given the Panthers a chance to kick a game-winning field goal. Cousins not only was able to protect the ball, but took advantage of Burns’ aggressiveness to escape and took off for a 16-yard scramble that gave the Vikings a first down. Four plays later, Greg Joseph missed a 47-yard field-goal attempt that would have given him the winning kick for the second consecutive week.

The Vikings won the overtime coin toss and Cousins took matters into his own hands, leading a nine-play, 75-yard drive that he completed by throwing a 27-yard touchdown pass to K.J. Osborn that lifted the Vikings and gave them a 3-3 record heading into their bye week. Cousins completed 5-of-6 passes for 50 yards on the OT drive, but his ability to escape from Burns stopped the Vikings from being in a third-and-long, or worse, from losing the game because of a turnover.

One of my main criticism of Cousins has been his inability to feel or escape pressure and do what guys like Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers are able to do consistently. That might have been the old Kirk. This version of Cousins has been the guy to save the day instead of help ruin it.

In Cousins’ first two seasons with the Vikings, he was credited with leading his team to one game-winning drive. That is a drive in the fourth quarter or overtime that puts the winning team ahead for the last time, according to Pro Football Reference. Cousins led three such drives in 2020 — including a seven-play, 75-yard drive in the fourth quarter to beat Carolina in Week 12 at U.S. Bank Stadium — and has now guided two this season.

The first came last Sunday after the Lions had taken a shocking one-point lead with 37 seconds left. Cousins remained cool, calm and collected and took the Vikings from their own 18 to the Lions 36 before Joseph kicked a 54-yard field goal to win it. Cousins could be entering the bye with four game-winning drives, but Dalvin Cook’s fumble in overtime in Week 1 in Cincinnati cost the Vikings a potential victory and Joseph’s 37-yard miss the following week in Arizona also resulted in defeat.

Cousins has had very good stretches during his previous three seasons in Minnesota, but this is the first time he has been this clutch when everything else seems to be falling apart around him. Mix that ability with a box score line that read 33-of-48 for 373 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions and you have a guy whose $31 million salary-cap hit for 2021 is much easier to accept.

“I think it’s really come a long way,” Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said of Cousins’ confidence. “You guys know all the stats on second-half comebacks, or fourth quarter comebacks and all that stuff, but I know he’s done an awful lot, even since that New Orleans game down in the playoffs (in 2019, when he hit Kyle Rudolph with the game-winner in overtime). He’s done this continually now. So I think that breeds a lot of confidence in him in some of the 2-minute drills. … He’s been really successful at it.”

Said Cousins: “I’m spent. It’s an absolute grind, it’s an absolute grind every Sunday and it takes everything I’ve got. I’ve been on the other side of those losses, too, in my career over 10 years. It’s rewarding when you know how the other side feels too, to really enjoy it when you do make the play and win.”

So what’s happened with Cousins? It’s too early to declare him a changed quarterback, but there’s also no dismissing the fact that after the Vikings have fallen apart late in the past two games that the quarterback has played a huge role in saving the day. The nice thing for Cousins and the offense on Sunday is they were allowed to do far more than they had been against the woeful Lions.

After Zimmer told coordinator Klint Kubiak and the offensive staff that he wanted them to do a self-scout last week, wide receivers Adam Thielen and K.J. Osborn again became part of the plan and Justin Jefferson wasn’t forgotten about after halftime. That’s three very good wide receivers and they looked the part for most of Sunday. Thielen had only two catches for 40 yards against the Lions — both coming on the final drive of the game — but this time he was targeted 13 times and caught 11 passes for 126 yards with a touchdown.

Jefferson had a game-high 14 targets, catching eight passes for 80 yards, and Osborn had six receptions on seven targets for 78 yards, including a great bit of work on his overtime score. Osborn, who has emerged as the best No. 3 receiver the Vikings have had in several years, caught only three passes for 14 yards against Detroit. The return of running back Dalvin Cook also helped open up things. Cook clearly is still bothered by the sprained ankle that sidelined him for two of the past three games but he rushed for 140 yards on 29 carries and a touchdown.

“There’s so much to be better than what today was,” Cousins said. “We’ve got to be hungry to learn and hungry to correct. Not be content with a win. In the sense that we feel we have to be better in practice and make adjustments with that sense of urgency.”

Cousins is correct.

The Vikings will find out just how good they are in the four games coming out of their off week. Included on the schedule are Dallas (5-1), Baltimore (5-1), the Chargers (4-2) and Green Bay (5-1). The Cowboys game will be on a Sunday night at home, while the Ravens and Chargers games will be on the road. The stretch closes with a meeting against the Packers and then will be followed with a trip to San Francisco. The 49ers (2-3) are off to a disappointing start but are still a tough opponent.

Where the Vikings can have confidence — and also must start to have more trust — is that their quarterback has become a top performer in the clutch and is overcoming the type of adversity that previously derailed him. He proved that several times Sunday with his throws, his decisions and his ability to avoid the type of miscues that resulted in fumbles and left many wondering if he was worth the money he was making.