On Sunday, with the Vikings’ playoff hopes on the line in a late-afternoon home game against the NFC North champion playing for a first-round bye, Kirk Cousins will step onto the turf at U.S. Bank Stadium and try to match the standard of the last Vikings quarterback in the same situation six years ago to the day.
It was Dec. 30, 2012, when the Vikings found themselves needing to beat the Green Bay Packers at the Metrodome to clinch a wild-card spot, that Christian Ponder delivered perhaps his finest performance in Minnesota. While Adrian Peterson ran for 199 yards, coming within nine of breaking Eric Dickerson’s single-season record, it was Ponder who delivered the strikes that put the Vikings over the top in a wild 37-34 win. He threw three touchdown passes in the game, flipping a go-ahead score to Michael Jenkins as he rolled to his left with 7:54 to play and engineering a game-winning field goal drive to send the Vikings into the playoffs as the NFC’s No. 6 seed.
If the moment provided the Vikings a fleeting jolt of hope they’d found the answer to their QB problems with the 12th pick in the 2011 draft, they’re counting on Cousins to deliver the same kind of return on investment, in a situation almost identical to the one Ponder faced six years earlier.
From a statistical standpoint, Cousins has fashioned one of the most impressive seasons by a quarterback in Vikings history, ranking second in the team record book for completion percentage (70.7), fourth in passer rating (100.9), fifth in yards (4,166) and sixth in touchdowns (29). And yet, at the end of a season during which they fired the offensive coordinator (John DeFilippo) who helped lead the effort to bring Cousins to Minnesota, the Vikings are 8-6-1, needing either a win or an Eagles loss to slip into the playoffs as a wild card a year after they played for the NFC title.
“For us, playoffs have already started. We know that we have to win this game in order to get into them,” coach Mike Zimmer said. “There has to be a heightened sense of energy and focus and study time. You have to make sure that your bodies are rested and understand it is going to be a physical football game on Sunday.”
The Vikings, put simply, also likely will need Cousins to be better than he was the last time they faced the Bears.
He overshot Kyle Rudolph at the end of the first half Nov. 18, throwing an interception that cost the Vikings a chance to score after falling behind 14-0.
Then, with the Vikings trailing by eight in the third quarter, Cousins threw a corner route to Laquon Treadwell, bypassing a safer throw to Stefon Diggs and delivering an interception that Eddie Jackson returned for a touchdown.
“We had three turnovers, we didn’t do well on third down and they did a good job condensing the pocket,” Cousins said of the first game against the Bears. “We’ll have to do the best we can to hold up and protect the football, run the football. All those things we talk about every single week that are important to winning are important in this game. We didn’t do as well against them the first time, and that’s why we didn’t win.”
Cousins was in a similar situation to the one he’ll face Sunday in 2016, when the Redskins needed to win a Week 17 game to clinch a wild-card spot at home against a Giants team that had already secured a playoff berth. After the Redskins tied the score in the fourth quarter, Cousins’ second interception of the day set up the Giants go-ahead field goal, and New York went on to win the game 19-10.
“I remember the feeling, driving away from the game, being disappointed,” Cousins said. “I don’t want to feel that way again. It’s not complicated: I want to win. We want to win. We understand what’s at stake. There’s no magic formula, there’s no button you can push or hours you can put in to suddenly snap your fingers and guarantee a win. You do all you can, give everything you have.
“There have been plenty of games this year where I’ve given everything I have and we don’t come out on top — I don’t have a great game — but there have also been plenty of games where I do that exact same process, and it’s more than good enough, and I play at a very high level, and we play at a very high level. We just have to be the best team that night.”
At his youth football camp in Holland, Mich., last summer, Cousins said, “Sixteen Sundays are going to define Minnesota for me.”
That’s true more of the one coming up than any other.
“There will always be excitement, nerves, anxiety, butterflies — whatever you want to call it. That’ll always be there,” he said. “This matters to me. I joke with people that when the math teacher in junior high school said, ‘Hey, we’ve got a pop quiz,’ you start to feel the butterflies, because you want to do well. It matters to you. Frankly, when I have butterflies, I think I play a little better. It heightens your awareness, your attention to detail and your sense of urgency.”