DETROIT – The curse of being Kirk Cousins is that incremental improvements and midseason victories only raise the stakes for the next round of big games, the ones that define a quarterbacking career.
When Cousins plays as well as he did Sunday, in the Vikings’ 42-30 victory over the Detroit Lions at Ford Field, his performance can be dismissed with a shrug, because he’s done this before.
But has he?
Sunday, Cousins completed 24 of 34 passes for 337 yards, four touchdowns, no interceptions and no sacks, despite losing top receiver Adam Thielen to a hamstring strain in the first half, and having a long touchdown dropped by Stefon Diggs in the second.
“He’s played very well,’’ Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said. “Probably the best I’ve seen him play since he’s been here, obviously.’’
Cousins was accurate, aggressive, mistake-free and sometimes spectacular. He was also clutch, which is a word he doesn’t hear often.
Same ol’ Kirk, beating up on a bad defense?
Maybe, but Cousins has been in the NFL since 2012 and he had never before put together a season like this, or a three-game stretch like the one he just finished.
Cousins has passed for 300 or more yards in three straight games, becoming the first NFL quarterback to do so while compiling a passer rating of 130 or better in each game. He has amassed a passer rating of 130 or better four times in seven games.
Brett Favre never passed for 300 yards in three straight games as a Viking. Cousins has done it only once before — at the end of the 2015 season — and he wasn’t quite as efficient then.
During that 2015 stretch, Cousins completed 73% of his passes for 984 yards, nine touchdowns and one interception. In his current streak, which began after the tumult of the loss at Chicago, Cousins has completed 76% of his passes for 976 yards, 10 touchdowns and one interception.
Considering the pressure on him because of the size of his contract and the expectations of his team, he has never played better. That is why, for the first time in his career, he is 5-2 as a starting quarterback.
That is a credit to him, and an indication of what is happening around him.
The exceptional Dalvin Cook, who rushed for 142 yards and two touchdowns, is proving to be one of the best players in the league.
The offensive line, the source for so many of the Vikings’ woes in recent years, was dominant in the pass and run games.
The coaching staff, including offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski, has blended the running game, play-action passes and rollouts in a way that diminished opposing pass rushes and given Cousins time to read defenses.
“That’s what we talked about four weeks ago when we were frustrated, was you have to have a balanced attack,’’ Thielen said. “You have to do both, because it opens up everything.’’
Having his life made easier does not mean that his job is easy. He still has to read defenses, make correct decisions and throw with accuracy, and on Sunday it looked like Cousins could throw a football through a watchband.
“I think we’re still a work in progress in that you’re going to get more comfortable the more you play together,’’ Cousins said. “That’s the second half of the season, next year, years on from there.’’
Cousins offered that answer to a question asked by Dan D’Addona, the sports editor of the Holland Sentinel. By the time Cousins and the Vikings were in the air on Sunday afternoon, a headline in the Sentinel read, “Kirk Cousins plays best game of career in win over Lions.’’
Cousins grew up in Holland and played at Michigan State. He had a contingent of “about 30’’ friends and family members at the game.
This week Cousins will transition from his successful homecoming to a lesser nostalgia, when his former team visits U.S. Bank Stadium.
Cousins thanked D’Addona for covering the game on Sunday but didn’t have much to say about Washington, which is about to see him at his best.
Jim Souhan’s podcast can be heard at TalkNorth.com. On Twitter: @SouhanStrib. • firstname.lastname@example.org