Kirk Cousins had been here before three times this season and on each occasion the results had been disappointing.
One-minute, 44 seconds left and trailing by one against Tennessee in Week 3. Fifteen seconds left and trailing by one against Seattle in Week 5. One-minute, 37 seconds left and trailing by three against Dallas last Sunday. Each time the Vikings had taken the ball on their own side of the field — the game in Cousins’ hands — and each time they had gone nowhere.
So why would Sunday be any different? The Vikings trailed the Carolina Panthers by six points with 1:51 remaining in the fourth quarter and the ball on their own 25-yard line. Cousins had no timeouts with which to work and his favorite target, wide receiver Adam Thielen, was sitting at home stuck on the COVID-19 reserve list.
How long were the odds against Cousins succeeding? Consider these numbers dating to the 2018 season, Cousins’ first in Minnesota.
An amazing Kirk Cousins stat, per @Stathead:
** When Vikings are BEHIND by one score or TIED (chance to win) **
EARLY in 4th qtr/OT (prior to 4-minute mark), Kirk's passer rating is 117.2 (8th in NFL).
LATE in 4th qtr/OT (UNDER 4 minutes), Kirk's passer rating is 53.5 (43rd)
— Phil Mackey (@PhilMackey) November 29, 2020
But with the threat of the Vikings’ falling to 4-7 on the season, and unofficially having their postseason hopes squashed, Cousins decided to do his best Tom Brady (in his prime) impression. A 15-yard pass to Justin Jefferson, was followed by a 6-yarder to Chad Beebe, who looked like he had cost the game for the Vikings minutes earlier by muffing a punt and giving the ball back to Carolina deep in Minnesota territory. The Panthers, however, had to settle for a field goal.
Kyle Rudolph caught a 7-yard pass in bounds and the Vikings went no-huddle with Cousins in shotgun. Cousins hit Beebe on a 12-yard pass and then Rudolph on a 25-yarder to the Carolina 10. An incompletion toward Jefferson on first down was followed by a 10-yard touchdown strike to Beebe. Kicker Dan Bailey’s extra-point attempt to give the Vikings the lead was blocked, but the Panthers were offside. Bailey made the kick and the Vikings had a 28-27 lead that they would hang onto when Carolina kicker Joey Slye missed a 54-yard field-goal attempt with 6 seconds remaining.
Cousins had been surgical in leading the Vikings, despite the fact he didn’t have Thielen and running back Dalvin Cook wasn’t part of a drive that needed to rely on the pass. “I thought Kirk [Cousins] played well all day today,” Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said. “He was under duress. They were giving us a lot of different blitz looks and blitz things and getting people in his face. He scrambled a couple times today, which helped, because they gave them some open areas. Obviously, on the last drive, he was terrific.”
Postgame Judd: Breaking down Kirk Cousins’ winning drive and what made it work. pic.twitter.com/BLvIVUDy8H
— SKOR North (@SKORNorth) November 29, 2020
Cousins completed 6-of-7 passes for 75 yards and a touchdown, capping a fourth quarter in which he went 12-of-15 for 136 yards with a sack and two touchdowns. Cousins finished the game 34-of-45 (both season highs) for 307 yards with two sacks and three touchdowns. This was far from a perfect game for the Vikings — Minnesota committed two fumbles early in the third quarter (one by Cousins and one by Cook) which the Panthers returned for touchdowns — but a quarterback can make up for many of his team’s shortcomings and that’s what Cousins was able to do on Sunday.
Cousins has received criticism not because he’s a bad quarterback, but because he rarely plays like a guy who is worth the $96 million that the Vikings have invested in him. Cousins eats up a large portion of the Vikings’ salary cap and fair or not that means his team often needs him to play at a star level. That’s what he did on Sunday, when it mattered the most.
Cousins said his success on the final drive came in part because the Panthers decided to rush three on several plays, giving him time to work through his progressions. As good of wide receiver as Thielen is, you also have to wonder if his absence forced Cousins to become more creative, thus, keeping the defense off balance.
“A couple of those plays (I) probably took longer than I should have, but I just didn’t feel the rush collapsing on me,” Cousins said. “I think the first play of the drive, (on the pass) to Justin, I two-or-three hitched that, just taking a while, but I had time. I threw one to Beebe later where I kind of took some time. … Even the throw to Kyle, over the middle, that got us down in the low red zone was one where normally you just don’t have that kind of time. It was great protection and guys got to their spots. It’s a little easier to be efficient like that when you know where everyone is going to be and they’re showing up for you on time.”
Said Zimmer: “(Cousins) was good. He’s been in those situations. We practice those things all the time. I know he was fired up after the game. It felt good for him to be able to go out and do that and win the football game.”
The Vikings are now one-game behind seventh-seeded Arizona (6-5) in the NFC playoff race. The Cardinals hold the final spot, while the Vikings are the eighth seed. Minnesota holds tie-breakers over the Bears and 49ers (also both 5-6). Considering the Vikings lost last week to the woeful Cowboys, there is no sure thing in the NFL, but Minnesota’s next opponent will be the one-win Jacksonville Jaguars. Jacksonville fired GM Dave Caldwell on Sunday after losing its 10th consecutive game.
Zimmer will be looking for a far better performance from his team against the Jaguars, although there were no (or very few) postgame complaints this time about the Vikings’ starting quarterback.
“Each week is week-to-week,” Zimmer said. “We’ve still got a lot of football left to play. Still got a lot of good teams. We just have to worry about ourselves and how we approach each week, how we do the things we have to do in order to (win), and eliminate the mistakes that we made today. We made way too many mistakes and were very fortunate to win.”
The Vikings also were fortunate to have Cousins working his magic late in the game. That’s something Zimmer and Co., would like to see more often.