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Kirk Cousins saved his best stuff for last to earn his first playoff win

Cousins went from average to stellar on the biggest stage of his career.

Wild Card Round - Minnesota Vikings v New Orleans Saints Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images

The Vikings were exactly as good as the Saints in regulation with Kirk Cousins playing as a league-average NFL quarterback. For them to beat New Orleans in overtime, they needed him to be better.

He answered that call.

Cousins was perfect on two of the biggest passes of his career Sunday to lead Minnesota to a game-winning touchdown drive and overcome a furious comeback effort by the Saints. After four quarters of perfectly fine quarterback play, he rediscovered the form that had made him one of this season’s top quarterbacks. It was just in time to ruin another New Orleans playoff run.

The postseason win was the first of his career in three tries (though his first playoff experience came in relief of an injured Robert Griffin III as a rookie). It was also only his eighth win in a nationally broadcast game (including an 0-9 record on Monday Night Football). More importantly, it was the kind of win that could rewrite his legacy.

Cousins had to overcome a lackluster 60 minutes before earning his stripes in overtime

For much of the fourth quarter, it looked as though the Vikings would crumble. New Orleans overcame a 20-10 deficit to tie the game late in the fourth quarter. While Taysom Hill’s do-it-all talent will get most of the press about the Saints’ effort, the real credit belongs to a defense that kept two of Minnesota’s biggest stars from shining.

2019 was the year Cousins and Stefon Diggs turned their connection into a deadly weapon. Diggs had 39 fewer receptions in 2019 than he did the year before, but racked up 109 more receiving yards while staking his claim as one of the league’s top deep threats. His 17.9 yards per catch were fourth-best among all NFL targets this fall.

But on Sunday, the Saints’ defense held Diggs to just two catches for 8 yards. Janoris Jenkins, a late addition to the Saints’ secondary following his release from the Giants, made Diggs a non-factor with hounding one-on-one coverage. Minnesota’s leading wideout didn’t record a target until there were just four minutes remaining in the third quarter.

This left Cousins’ passing game mostly punchless. He completed just one pass that traveled more than 13 yards downfield in regulation. Nine of his first 16 completions came within five yards of the line of scrimmage. He threw for 179 yards on 26 attempts before overtime, failing to find the end zone but not turning the ball over, either. Those numbers were, statistically, roughly as efficient as the quarterback he replaced in 2018, current Washington passer Case Keenum.

A quiet passing game put pressure on tailback Dalvin Cook to step up. He was a godsend early for the Vikings, but struggled as New Orleans grew confident in its coverage and began to stack the box in running situations. Stopping Cook felt like a death blow to the Minnesota offense. The Vikings went scoreless over the final 18 minutes of regulation and earned just two first downs. Cook, who’d run for 88 yards on 19 touches to start the game, had five carries for minus-6 yards in that stretch.

Cousins did have a few big moments in regulation. His deep ball connection to Adam Thielen on a third down set up a touchdown that gave the Vikings a 20-10 lead in the third quarter.

Still, those moments were fleeting in the first three quarters, and altogether absent in the fourth. The Vikings’ final three drives of regulation, not counting a last-second kneeldown to send the contest to overtime, gained 13 net yards.

Even that deep ball to Thielen, as important as it may have been, wouldn’t be the Thielen catch we remembered most from this game.

With two passes, Cousins rewrote his “big game” history

Minnesota won the overtime coin toss, guaranteeing that Cousins would have at least one possession to prove he wouldn’t wilt under bright lights. With his season on the line, he came up with the Vikings’ biggest play of the season.

Cousins trusted his All-Pro wideout in single coverage and placed the ball perfectly for a tougher-than-it-looked over-the-shoulder bomb to Thielen. That set up first-and-goal from the New Orleans 2-yard line, but the quarterback wasn’t done.

Two straight running plays set up third-and-goal from the 4. Another miss would likely force the Vikings to kick a field goal, thereby giving Drew Brees a chance to tie or win the game. Only a touchdown would shut the book on the Saints.

Minnesota turned to another trusted veteran, tight end Kyle Rudolph. While debate about whether he committed offensive pass interference with his push-off will rage throughout Louisiana for weeks to come, the officials called it clean. Touchdown. 26-20, Vikings win.

Those last six points? The most important points of the game? They were all Kirk Cousins. Here’s how he performed in the biggest overtime of his life compared to the 60 minutes that preceded it.

Kirk Cousins in regulation vs. Kirk Cousins in OT, 2020 Wild Card

Kirk Cousins Comp Att Yards Yards/Att TD INT Passer rating
Kirk Cousins Comp Att Yards Yards/Att TD INT Passer rating
Quarters 1-4 15 26 179 6.9 0 0 78.9
Overtime 4 5 63 12.6 1 0 158.3

That’s a perfect passer rating, by the way.

Cousins wasn’t the only factor in Minnesota’s win Sunday

Cousins found his extra gear when he needed it, but that doesn’t fully excuse the lackluster play that allowed the Saints to eventually come back and tie the game. Fortunately for head coach Mike Zimmer, his team is built to withstand Cousins’ passing droughts.

Minnesota led 20-10 on the road because his defense bullied Drew Brees into a 79-yard, 54.5-passer rating performance through three quarters. A New Orleans team that ranked third in the NFL in scoring this fall was held to just 3.8 yards per play before the fourth quarter when Taysom Hill wasn’t carrying or throwing the ball.

The Vikings’ defense didn’t shrink in Brees’ presence, instead harassing him in the pocket more than any team except the Falcons have this fall. Brees had only been sacked 12 times in 10-plus games in 2019. His 3.1 percent sack rate was the lowest among qualified starting quarterbacks thanks to the presence of blockers like Terron Armstead and Ryan Ramczyk.

That rate spiked to 8.3 percent Sunday against the Vikings’ powerful front line. Danielle Hunter, matched up against Ramczyk, dealt the All-Pro his first sack allowed this season on a vital third down near the goal line.

This is good news for Minnesota. Even if Cousins winds up stuck in the middle of a circa-2016 Monday Night Football Groundhog Day scenario, the Vikings have a potent enough pass rush to keep themselves afloat until their quarterback snaps out of his funk.

Next up, Cousins and the Vikings head west to face the No. 1 seeded 49ers. The question now is whether the Vikings can maintain the way they played in San Francisco against the league’s second-ranked scoring offense and a defense that finished second in the NFL in defensive efficiency. Cousins will have to step up against a fierce 49ers pass rush and a secondary led by resurgent Richard Sherman. Just like on Sunday, one or more of his weapons may be shut down.

But at least Cousins proved he can overcome a setback, even if it takes him a little while. With a dependable defense at his back, he can erase his reputation as a player who struggles on the brightest stages.