A full range of Kirk Cousins’ strengths and weaknesses was on display during a wild second half that started with the Vikings quarterback losing the lead on a turnover and ended with him beating the Carolina Panthers by living up to his standing as the third-most accurate passer in NFL history.
“I know he was fired up after the game,” coach Mike Zimmer said after Cousins needed just 1 minute, 5 seconds and no timeouts to complete six of seven passes for 75 yards and the game-winning touchdown to beat the Panthers 28-27 at U.S. Bank Stadium on Sunday.
“It felt good for him to be able to go out and do that and win the football game. … Obviously, on the last drive he was terrific.”
Fans who have seen too many opposite endings from No. 8 — Tennessee Week 3, Dallas last week — would agree it was a nice change. Cousins completed 34 of 45 passes for 307 yards and three touchdowns, ran twice for first downs and is a huge reason the Vikings escaped Week 12 with a 5-6 record and playoff aspirations.
“He just exudes confidence, and we all felt that,” said receiver Chad Beebe, who caught the game-winning 10-yard touchdown pass with 46 seconds left. “When you have that feeling, you feel like you’ve always got a chance to win. And that’s what happened.”
Cousins also played a role in a 10-second span in which Panthers rookie Jeremy Chinn became the first player in the Super Bowl era to return two fumbles for touchdowns in the same game. In a blink, the Vikings’ 10-7 lead became a 21-10 deficit.
Chinn’s first scoop and score came with Cousins playing the role of statue-turned-deer-in-the-headlights-turned-dead-duck-in-the-pocket. It’s never been a good look on him.
It wasn’t Cousins’ fault that backup Brett Jones — playing right guard for the second straight week — couldn’t handle a stunt between defensive tackle Zach Kerr and linebacker Shaq Thompson. Thompson went right and was picked up by center Garrett Bradbury and running back Dalvin Cook. Kerr went left and beat Jones badly to the inside and easily punched the ball out of Cousins’ right hand.
What is Cousins’ fault is not protecting the ball in that situation. Time and again, he talks about needing to cover the ball with two hands. Yet, time and again, he turns sacks into strip-sack turnovers.
It was his third lost fumble of the season and the second in two weeks. He led the NFL in lost fumbles in 2018, his first year with the Vikings, and was top-five the year before that.
“I think on that play it was a five-man rush,” Cousins said.
Indeed, it was.
But that would change in the fourth quarter. For whatever reason, Carolina chose to beat Cousins with extra coverage and three-man rushes.
Asked what was different in the fourth quarter — when he completed 11 in a row and 12 of his last 13 passes for 136 yards, six first downs and two touchdowns — Cousins seemed to shrug and say, “I think some of it was just the rush they brought.
“Much of the two-minute drive was a three-man rush, so they’re bringing two less guys, and so that allows for some double teams and some chance to hold up in protection.”
The protection held up nicely for a change. And, yes, more defenders in coverage means smaller windows to throw through. But with time to throw, Cousins can exercise his greatest strength: accuracy to every part of the field.
In NFL history, only Drew Brees (67.8%) and Deshaun Watson (67.3%) can top Cousins (66.9%) in career completion percentage.
“The protection was really clean,” Cousins said. “A couple of those plays, I probably took longer than I should have, but I just didn’t feel the rush collapsing on me.”
And therein lies the root of the argument between people who love Kirk and people who love to hate Kirk.
Left to create plays on his own, he struggles. But give him time and, well, his accuracy is, as Beebe noted, “off the charts."