The construction of the Vikings roster does not require them to win games by leaning on Kirk Cousins the way the Packers often have to do with Aaron Rodgers. They gave Cousins a three-year, $84 million deal with the belief he could augment a team that went 13-3 a year ago, rather than having to make up for its deficiencies.
Still, the price the Vikings paid Cousins — after saying goodbye to two quarterbacks who had won division titles for them — comes with the expectation that the 30-year-old will have nights when he can be the difference in an otherwise close game. And after what might have been his worst performance of the season last Sunday night in Chicago, Cousins responded with one of his best when the Vikings needed him most.
He completed 29 of his 38 passes for 342 yards and three touchdowns in the Vikings’ 24-17 triumph over the Packers, rebounding from a two-interception performance against the Bears by helping the Vikings to a victory that keeps their division title hopes alive.
“I think it meant a lot to Kirk. I think it meant a lot to this team,” tight end Kyle Rudolph said. “Our backs are against the wall; we couldn’t afford to drop one at home to a division opponent in the NFC, in the situation that we were in. When you look forward now at our last five, we have to take care of our business at home, and we’ve got to go start winning games on the road.”
The victory moves the Vikings to 6-4-1, still 1½ games behind the Bears in the NFC North but still ahead of their competitors for one of the conference’s two wild-card spots. The Vikings are currently the NFC’s No. 5 seed, ahead of the Redskins before a tough two-game road stretch against New England and Seattle.
It also provided an opportunity for the Vikings offense to assert itself, after a week in which coach Mike Zimmer called for more balance in the team’s offense and wondered aloud if the volume of plays in the team’s game plan was inhibiting its ability to execute.
The Vikings still leaned heavily on their passing game against a depleted Packers secondary — before they took over at their own 7 with 12:48 to play, the Vikings had thrown 32 times and run 15, counting at least one designed run from Cousins and a pair of scrambles. But when they did run, their most effective plays came when they pressed the edges of the Packers defense, motioning Dalvin Cook in from the slot for a jet sweep that went for 9 yards and giving Stefon Diggs the ball on a sweep that went for 13.
“I think a lot was made out of what Zim said this week, but that’s all stuff we know,” Rudolph said. “He’s not telling us anything that we didn’t already know about ourselves. Our identity was the team that was out there tonight. We ran the ball efficiently. We threw the ball to everyone. We have so many weapons that when we involve everyone on offense, you can’t stop us. The only time we stopped ourselves again tonight was when we had penalties, or got behind schedule.
"This offense is just so talented, and the guy handling the football is one of the best in the league at sharing the football. It’s hard to stop.”
Indeed, Sunday’s victory seemed to do plenty to clear the air.
Zimmer opened his postgame news conference by praising the job offensive coordinator John DeFilippo did keeping the Packers off-balance, and Cousins said he had a particularly productive meeting with the head coach this week, to help get things back on track after the Bears game.
“He’s been really good with communication from Day 1,” Cousins said. “He came out to Michigan to see me this summer, just out of intentionality to make sure we’re on the same page. When we talked this week, he finishes the conversation with the question, ‘What can I do to help?’ When you have a head coach that approaches you with that kind of mind-set, it makes a big difference. I just want to play well for these guys, not just for Coach Zimmer, but for our staff — they work so hard — and for our locker room.”
Said Zimmer: “I thought [DeFilippo] did a great job of putting him in the right situations all night. And some of the things we talked about, me and [Cousins] this week, I thought he did tonight. I was really proud of him, and I thought he played exceptional.”
For the better part of the night, the Vikings gave Cousins ample opportunity to test a depleted Packers secondary with throws off play action to his best two receivers, often lining up Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs for combo routes like the one they ran on Cousins’ 30-yard touchdown strike to Diggs, who was wide open after Thielen’s route created a natural screen and Packers defensive back Tramon Williams fell down.
While Cousins found himself in a groove with the Vikings offense, Rodgers appeared as out of sync with his unit as he’s been all season.
The two-time league MVP finished with 198 passing yards, marking only the third time in Rodgers’ career he’s failed to surpass 200 yards in the air against the Vikings in games when he played all four quarters.
“They didn’t pressure in the first half, and they brought a couple in the second half,” Rodgers said. “It’s just execution, getting guys in the right spot, me making the right throw.”