The first snap Kirk Cousins took in the second half against the Patriots on Thursday night came with 6:43 to go in the third quarter, after New England had taken the lead for the fourth time on a Nick Folk field goal.
To that point, a national audience had watched Patriots second-year quarterback Mac Jones put together perhaps the best game of his career, going 20 of 26 for 278 yards and two scores against a Vikings defense that couldn't pressure him consistently or keep him from finding space in the middle of the field. On offense, the Vikings had made an effort to run the ball, with Dalvin Cook and Alexander Mattison carrying 15 times in the first half, but those plays had produced only 40 yards against a defense ranked ninth in the league against the run.
The game, which the Vikings eventually won 33-26, had become the kind of stage on which teams expect highly paid quarterbacks to shine, and the kind on which the narrative of Cousins' prime-time struggles had grown.
The oft-repeated talking point cites Cousins' record in night games (10-18 before Thursday night), and especially his 2-10 record as a starter on Monday nights, to suggest nerves get the best of him in big moments. In the Vikings' first prime-time game this year — a Monday night loss in Week 2 against the Eagles — Cousins played dreadfully, completing 27 of his 46 passes and throwing three interceptions.
But in the final 21 minutes of football on Thursday night, with the Vikings trailing, the country watching and Bill Belichick on the other sideline, Cousins delivered the kind of performance the fine print of his lucrative contract almost seems to command.
He completed 13 of his 16 passes for 118 yards and a touchdown, leading drives of 65 and 71 yards to produce the 10 points the Vikings needed to win the game. On the first one, Cousins connected with Cook and Jalen Reagor on third downs to set up Greg Joseph's game-tying field goal in the fourth quarter. After a running-into-the-kicker penalty gave the Vikings a new set of downs on their next drive, Cousins fit a 36-yard pass to Justin Jefferson over Jonathan Jones, dropping the ball into the receiver's arms just before Devin McCourty arrived to level the receiver. He worked back to Adam Thielen on the Vikings' next play, hitting the receiver in the back corner of the end zone for a 15-yard score that put the Vikings ahead for good.
"You don't play like he did tonight without really starting to develop some ownership of our offense," coach Kevin O'Connell said. "I think the way he played at Buffalo to kind of will us to a victory, then we all had to learn some lessons coming out of [a 40-3 loss to the Cowboys] Sunday, me included. Maybe me more so than anybody. But I can tell you that Kirk played really, really well tonight."
O'Connell blamed himself for trying to be too aggressive with the play call on Cousins' first-half interception on a pass targeted for K.J. Osborn. Afterward, Cousins pointed to several passes (like a 6-yard completion in the flat to Osborn and an early throw behind Jefferson that Jones could have intercepted) where he needed to be more precise. And though Ed Ingram's holding penalty negated Jefferson's impressive catch in traffic near the goal line in the first half, the Vikings could still be grateful the receiver made it; had Jefferson not taken it away from Jones, the cornerback might have intercepted it, allowing the Patriots to take the ball instead of the penalty.
"if you look at the pass to K.J. in the flat that I left a little short, I threw too quickly," Cousins said. "I tried to put touch on it. I just need to stick my back foot in the ground and rifle that thing to him. Way too close for comfort. The third down with Justin in the first quarter, it all runs together. The one I left inside, could have been intercepted. This is the way I am, man. I'm kind of hard on myself. I go back there and think of all the plays I need to be better."
Cousins carries a bit of a perfectionist streak as a quarterback, and he admitted afterward "I probably drive myself crazy, drive my family crazy" with what he called his obsession with improvement. Different coaches have tried different approaches to channel that obsession; Jay Gruden used to tease Cousins for the time he'd spend thinking through worst-case scenarios on plays, while Mike Zimmer prodded him last season to be more aggressive with the ball.
O'Connell, who'd been Cousins' quarterbacks coach his final year in Washington, has taken a different approach. He's praised Cousins frequently in locker room victory speeches and in news conferences, emphasizing the quarterback's status as the Vikings' leader. And where previous coaches talked to Cousins about behaviors he could change, O'Connell has emphasized the times where Cousins has demonstrated behaviors the coach wants him to repeat, even if the results don't work out (like when he praised Cousins for throwing a jump ball to Jefferson at the end of the first half in Washington, even though the pass was tipped and intercepted).
It's a subtle shift, from coaching through correction to coaching through positive reinforcement, that's had Cousins more willing to throw into tight windows this season. Knowing Jefferson is on the other end of those passes also doesn't hurt; the receiver ran through an east-west double team from Jones and McCourty for his first 36-yard reception, and hung on when McCourty decked him in the fourth quarter.
But Cousins said something after the game that suggests the way he's played has plenty to do with how O'Connell has handled him.
"Kevin has empowered me so much; this team has empowered me so much," Cousins said. "The guys have just been tremendous. I can' t say enough about the way that they have had my back after these interceptions, support me all week long, support me pregame in the locker room. Adam [Thielen] came over to me before we kicked off in the locker room and pulled me aside and shared an encouraging word. At times it almost brings me to tears the way these guys support me and have my back. It really adds to the fun of playing and working together."
On Thursday night, Cousins helped make the difference at a moment where the Vikings badly needed to lean on their quarterback. He finished with a 116.1 passer rating, the seventh-best of his career in a prime-time game. With Jefferson's completion to Thielen added to Cousins' 30-for-37 night, the Vikings' .816 completion percentage was the second-best ever against a Belichick-led Patriots team, trailing only the Dolphins' .857 percentage in the 2008 blowout win where Tony Sparano unveiled the Wildcat offense.
O'Connell took the final snaps of the game as a rookie quarterback for the Patriots that day in New England. On Thursday night, he beat one of his biggest influences with the help of a quarterback who delivered a blow to one of the most prominent narratives about him.
Two players who stood out
Brian O'Neill: The right tackle has gone through a stretch of tough matchups, but handled himself well on Thursday night, allowing only two pressures against a team that leads the league in quarterback pressures. For the season, O'Neill has allowed only three sacks and 18 pressures, according to Pro Football Focus.
Ryan Wright: He averaged 49 net yards per punt, put all three of his punts inside the Patriots' 20-yard line, and delivered one of the key special teams moments of the night in a game that was full of them. When Pierre Strong's helmet hit Wright's foot as he followed through on a punt in the fourth quarter, Wright fell to the ground; it's possible officials would have called Strong for running into the kicker regardless, but the way Wright spun to the ground helped emphasize the foul.
One area of concern
The Vikings' pass rush: The team came through with two sacks at the end of the game, and technically finished with three (counting Jordan Hicks' stop of Mac Jones on a scramble after Danielle Hunter's pressure). But a game after the Vikings didn't sack Dak Prescott, they gave Jones plenty of time to throw for much of the game. According to PFF, Jones was pressured on only 12 of his 42 drop-backs, including just nine of the 35 where the Vikings sent four or fewer pass rushers. Za'Darius Smith played 85 percent of the Vikings' defensive snaps while dealing with a knee bruise, and the Vikings will likely get Dalvin Tomlinson back from a four-game absence next Sunday against the Jets. But especially as their secondary deals with injuries, the Vikings could use a reinvigorated pass rush to help make things easier for the rest of the group.