Kirk Cousins led the Vikings 46 yards in the final 42 seconds of regulation on Sunday, evading Brian Burns' strip sack attempt for a 16-yard scramble and completing four passes for 30 yards that set up Greg Joseph's fourth field-goal attempt to tie or win a game in six weeks.
Joseph's kick drifted wide right, but Cousins put together a game-winning touchdown drive to beat Carolina 34-28 in overtime. Afterward, coach Mike Zimmer gave a simple reason for Cousins' improvement: He's had plenty of practice.
"I think it's really come a long way," Zimmer said. "I don't know — you guys know all the stats on second-half comebacks or fourth-quarter comebacks and all that stuff, but I know that he's done an awful lot."
All told, 35 of Cousins' 239 pass attempts this season have come in the final two minutes of a game where the Vikings could tie or win, with another 11 coming in overtime. Since the beginning of last season, he's completed 36 of 62 passes (counting four spikes) in the final two minutes with the Vikings needing a score to tie or win; no other NFL QB has attempted more than 40.
He's thrown 74 times — or nearly 31% of his passes — in the fourth quarter of games where the Vikings were tied or losing by one score. Before Sunday, that rate was 36%. Only Jared Goff and Zach Wilson had thrown a higher percentage of their passes in those situations.
"Even since that New Orleans game down in the playoffs [in 2019], he's done this continually now," Zimmer said. "I think that breeds a lot of confidence in him in some of the two-minute drills. We talked about going some two-minute during the game today, too. We weren't on the ball a couple times, and we didn't really go two-minute. But he's been really successful at it."
That's a far cry from how Zimmer talked about it at the beginning of last season, when Cousins threw an interception four plays into a comeback attempt against Tennessee and the coach called the final drive "chaos" after a 27-26 loss. Dating to the Vikings' victory over the Panthers at U.S. Bank Stadium last November, though, Cousins has had eight opportunities to lead drives that could tie or win the game; he threw a touchdown pass last year against Carolina, and has put the Vikings in position for a field goal five other times.
"We would walk through our two-minute [drill] in such detail all August, and I think some of that detailed work is really paying off," Cousins said. "Putting in the time, putting in the preparation, I think, can oftentimes show itself in those moments."
The Vikings, of course, would prefer not to have games coming down to the final minutes, and with double-digit leads over the Lions and Panthers the past two weeks, neither game should have required them to assemble a late drive.
Players talked after Sunday's game about needing a killer instinct. The Panthers had driven into Vikings territory just twice on Sunday before Sam Darnold directed fourth-quarter scoring drives of 55 and 96 yards, beating Eric Kendricks and Cameron Dantzler for fourth-down completions on the game-tying march.
With Cousins throwing such a high percentage of his passes in the final minutes, it's also worth wondering if the Vikings would be able to put more of these games away by turning him loose a little earlier. NFL Fast R's data, which excludes garbage time and pass attempts in the final two minutes of halves, shows the Vikings throw on first and second down just 49.6% of the time. That's the 23rd-highest rate in the league, even though the Vikings add the seventh-most expected points per play when throwing early. What's more, just seven quarterbacks throw shorter on average than Cousins, who's averaged 6.9 air yards per attempt this season.
Zimmer's feelings on a strong running game have been established through four years with four different coordinators, and the coach likely isn't basing them on metrics like per-play efficiency. He'd point to things like a run game's cumulative effect on a defense, its effectiveness in controlling the clock and the fact his linemen prefer going forward on run plays to stepping back in pass sets. The Vikings, as currently constituted, aren't likely to start throwing 60% of the time on early downs, but they might see enough of an uptick in production to put a few more games away if they opened things up earlier.
In any case, the Vikings have found themselves in plenty of back-and-forth games during a time of transition for their defense. They have needed their quarterback to make plays in many of those moments, and recently, Cousins has held up his end of the bargain.
TWO PLAYERS WHO STOOD OUT
C.J. Ham: After Zimmer talked this week about teams catching on to Minnesota's tendencies when Ham is in the game, the Vikings used him in a number of different roles that maximized his value. He turned a fullback dive into a 30-yard gain by taking his ankle away from a Panthers defender, and made an impressive block on Cousins' completion to Tyler Conklin one play later. The Vikings seemed intent on keeping the Panthers in base personnel and spreading them out from there; they lined Ham up in the slot a play after putting him at tight end on their first touchdown drive.
Armon Watts: In 36 snaps on Sunday, he had four total pressures (according to Pro Football Focus), including a strip sack of Darnold in the fourth quarter. He also blew up a Chuba Hubbard run in the second quarter, spilling the play outside for Patrick Peterson to make a stop. With the Vikings still thin at defensive tackle because of Michael Pierce's elbow injury, Watts played a key role Sunday, and has provided a solid interior pass rushing presence while starting the past two games.
TWO AREAS OF CONCERN
Special teams: The Vikings had issues in just about every phase of special teams on Sunday: the Panthers' blocked punt return TD and Greg Joseph's two missed field goals (on a windy afternoon) were the obvious ones, but the Vikings committed holding penalties on back-to-back punt returns, and Dede Westbrook mishandled three punts, fumbling once and nearly dropping two others. Ameer Abdullah's 45-yard kickoff return was the Vikings' longest in three years, but other than that, not much went right on special teams.
Offensive line penalties: The two linemen playing near their hometowns (Oli Udoh and Garrett Bradbury) were the two biggest culprits here: Udoh committed two holding penalties and had a third one declined, while also committing a false start penalty and stepping on Cousins' foot in the first quarter. Bradbury had a holding penalty that ended the Vikings' chances to turn a last-minute drive into points at the end of the first half.
ONE BIG QUESTION
How worrisome is the Vikings' post-bye schedule? After the Vikings surrendered leads against Jared Goff and Darnold, they'll return from their bye week to a tougher slate of QBs: Dak Prescott is first, followed by Lamar Jackson, Justin Herbert and Aaron Rodgers. The receivers the Vikings will face — Amari Cooper, CeeDee Lamb, Keenan Allen, Mike Williams and Davante Adams among them — are also more skilled than the group of Panthers receivers that dropped at least six of Darnold's passes. The Vikings will begin the stretch against two of the league's four best running games, as they wait to see if they'll get Pierce back.
There's no way to sugarcoat how difficult the next four games appear to be, but the mood around the Vikings would be much different if they were heading into the bye at 1-5 or 2-4 instead of 3-3. As tough a task as they'll have against Prescott and Rodgers, both of those games are at home, and they might be able to lean on the noise at U.S. Bank Stadium to make things difficult for the two passing games. If the Vikings can come out of the next four with a pair of wins — and handle themselves in San Francisco in the following game — they'll have a slightly easier stretch against the Steelers and Lions before another difficult closing run against the Bears, Rams, Packers and Bears.
This much is clear: If the Vikings can keep themselves in playoff contention through the end of November, they will have done much to validate Zimmer's belief they are better than their record suggests.