NEW ORLEANS – The night before the 2012 NFL draft, as Kirk Cousins gathered with his family, his father read through the Old Testament story of David, making the point to his son that what outsiders thought of him, would not determine the course of his career.
On Saturday night, as Cousins gathered with wide receiver Adam Thielen and other teammates for a chapel service before the Vikings’ NFC wild-card game with the Saints, Don Cousins was there to speak to the team. Again, he went to the Old Testament, invoking the battle between David and Goliath before his son tried to win his first playoff game in a matchup the Vikings had been widely picked to lose.
Had the long-running narratives about Don Cousins’ son proved predictive again on Sunday, the Vikings would be heading into an offseason of uncertainty after a week of unrest. They entered Sunday’s game as 7½-point underdogs to the 13-3 Saints, with their quarterback’s record in big games frequently cited as the reason for their remote chances to win. National pundits postulated about what would happen to the organization after a loss to the Saints, to the point co-owner Mark Wilf released a Friday afternoon statement of support for coach Mike Zimmer and General Manager Rick Spielman that caught many by surprise.
But by slinging a pair of throws in overtime to drop the Saints 26-20 and leave the Superdome crowd of 73,038 in stunned silence, Kirk Cousins turned his first playoff victory into a message about how things are not always as they seem.
He dropped a 43-yard throw to Adam Thielen just beyond Patrick Robinson’s coverage on the seventh play of overtime, giving the Vikings the ball at the Saints 2. Then, after Dalvin Cook was stuffed on a pair of runs, Cousins stepped away from a six-man blitz, floating a fade to Kyle Rudolph in the back of the end zone.
“I’m just thrilled we won a playoff game, and I just do my part,” Cousins said. “We won the game today because we played great defense, got a turnover, had good special teams, great play-calling and a great plan. We protected and ran the football. We probably had 30-40 rushing attempts. There’s a whole lot of reasons we won the game. Does the quarterback play a role in that? Yes, but it was a team win.”
The victory — Cousins’ first in the postseason and coach Mike Zimmer’s second in four games with the Vikings — sends Minnesota to San Francisco for an NFC divisional playoff game with the top-seeded 49ers on Saturday afternoon. The coach presented Cousins with a game ball in the locker room after the win; he responded by screaming his famous “You like that?!” phrase as teammates roared their approval.
“You know, they say he cannot win a playoff game, but he has only been in two [as a starter], so he is 50 percent, which is better than a lot of people,” Zimmer said. “I thought he played really well today. He took good care of the ball. He made good decisions when they had some heat on us, so he had to make some great decisions. He has to go out and prove it again next week, like we all have to.”
At times, the Vikings seemed inclined not to lean on their $84 million quarterback to get them a victory, using eight run plays and only four pass plays in the fourth quarter after the Saints had cut a 10-point Minnesota lead to three. Cousins handed off on six consecutive plays before floating a deep pass that rookie Alexander Hollins nearly hauled in 40 yards downfield.
Then, after Danielle Hunter’s strip sack of Drew Brees halted a Saints drive with just over four minutes remaining that looked like it might win the game, the Vikings’ second run play nearly courted disaster.
Cousins’ pitch to Cook had initially resulted in a fumble Saints safety Vonn Bell recovered and returned 38 yards for a go-ahead touchdown that sent Superdome fans into a frenzy. Officials ruled Cook’s knee was down before he fumbled, but the play lost 7 yards, and the Vikings went to Cook again on second down for a run that lost 2 yards. Cameron Jordan sacked Cousins on third down, forcing a punt that allowed New Orleans to tie the score at 20-20 at the end of regulation on a 49-yard Wil Lutz field goal.
After the Vikings won the coin toss in overtime, they resolved not to give Brees another chance to beat them. Cousins hit Stefon Diggs for 10 yards on third-and-1. Two plays later, when Cousins saw man coverage against Thielen, he decided to take his shot.
“Plays get cycled in throughout the year and you never know where the ball is going to go,” Thielen said. “It might not be drawn up to get that ball, but when you get man coverage, it’s ‘mano a mano.’ When you have a quarterback that trusts you and gives you a chance, it’s obviously special to have a guy like that back there.”
Cousins finished with 242 yards and a touchdown, finding Thielen for 129 of those yards after the Saints decided to shadow him with Marshon Lattimore and put Janoris Jenkins on Diggs for the majority of the game. On defense, the Vikings’ frenetic pass rush kept Brees from having many opportunities to test a secondary depleted by injuries. They moved Everson Griffen and Danielle Hunter into defensive tackle positions on early passing downs, letting them pressure the quarterback up the middle with Stephen Weatherly and Ifeadi Odenigbo at defensive end.
“[Griffen and Hunter] are two of the best defensive ends in the league,” Brees said. “I think we understood that it was going to be a battle, and there are times where they’re going to get you.”
Brees threw for only 63 yards in the first half, throwing an interception on an ill-advised attempt to get the ball to Ted Ginn Jr. downfield. It took Taysom Hill, on a play similar to the one the Saints used for a big play against the Vikings in 2018, to set up their lone first-half touchdown.
They put Hill at quarterback, drawing the Vikings defense toward the line of scrimmage in anticipation of a run, before Hill threw deep for Deonte Harris. The wide receiver beat Xavier Rhodes with a double move, while Harrison Smith arrived a split-second too late from his shallow zone to break up the pass. It counted for 50 yards, and Hill threw a block on Alvin Kamara’s ensuing 4-yard touchdown run.
Hill caught the 20-yard TD pass from Brees that pulled the Saints within 20-17 in the fourth quarter, but the decisive strike from the future Hall of Famer never came.
The one Cousins delivered did not win him a Super Bowl, and Zimmer quickly reminded players that the Vikings’ last emotional playoff victory over the Saints — the one that ended on Diggs’ 61-yard “Minneapolis Miracle” touchdown catch and run in the 2017 playoffs — was followed by a 38-7 loss to the Eagles in the NFC Championship Game. Saturday will find the Vikings on the West Coast, against a talented defense and a head coach (Kyle Shanahan) whose time coaching Cousins should give him particular insight into how to rattle the quarterback.
On Sunday, though, Cousins could smile at long last after a playoff game. His teammates handled the clawbacks for him.
“We don’t listen to that noise,” Thielen said. “We know what type of guy he is. We know his talent. We know if you put guys around him, you can do big things, because he is that talented and he’s that hard of a worker. It doesn’t matter what someone says about him, and that’s who you want as your leader and your quarterback.”