1. Cousins rolling as fourth-winningest Vikings QB
Four times in six games, Kirk Cousins has done EXACTLY what the Vikings are paying him $33 million a year to do with the ball in his hands late in games. He's become a confident leader and winner even though he's only 2-2 in those games after his 27-yard touchdown pass to K.J. Osborn beat Carolina 34-28 on Sunday. In the two losses, he put the Vikings in position to tie or win late four times, but lost when Dalvin Cook fumbled and Greg Joseph missed a field goal.
At 3-3 overall, he's now 28-24-1 as a Vikings starter in the regular season. That moves him ahead of Wade Wilson (27-21) into a tie with Brad Johnson (28-18) for fourth place in Vikings history. Only Fran Tarkenton (91-73-6), Tommy Kramer (54-56) and Daunte Culpepper (38-42) have won more games as a Vikings starting quarterback.
2. Panthers' third-quarter woes help Vikings' offense
Carolina is a great team to play if your second-half offense is as constipated as the Vikings' second-half offense was heading into Sunday's game. Carolina had been outscored 35-7 in the third quarter this season. That included a 27-0 drought in consecutive losses to the Cowboys and Eagles.
Sunday, a Vikings offense that hadn't scored a post-halftime TD since Week 1 found the end zone not once, but twice while outscoring Carolina 13-7 in the third quarter. The Vikings started the quarter with a three-and-out. Carolina then punted it back despite getting two first-down gifts on defensive holding penalties on third-down incompletions.
A blocked punt for a touchdown put Carolina ahead, but the Vikings sandwiched two TDs around one Carolina snap, a fumble, to take a 25-17 lead into the fourth quarter. The touchdown drives on either side of that fumble accounted for 118 yards on just nine plays.
3. 'Dang!' Cook says of Ham's great cut
The Panthers were leading 17-12 with 116 yards and Sam Darnold's 19.8 passer rating. The Vikings faced third-and-1 from their 30 with 5½ minutes left in the third quarter. They needed a big play. Who knew it would come from fullback C.J. Ham? Ham followed tight end Tyler Conklin and rookie left tackle Christian Darrisaw for the easy first down. Then, 6 yards downfield, he did something no 250-pound fullback is supposed to do: He planted his right foot hard and faked an inside cut even harder, causing cornerback A.J. Bouye to fall down.
"Y'all know he can dance, right?" Dalvin Cook said of Ham's cut. "I saw him set [Bouye] up."
Ham's career-long 30-yard run jumpstarted a sluggish offense that went on to score 22 points. As he left the interview room, Cook was shown the replay of Ham's cut. "Dang!" Cook said as he walked away, shaking his head.
4. Zimmer gets aggressive as sacks pile up
A year ago, the Vikings were 1-5 heading into a bye week that saw them trade Yannick Ngakoue, their sack leader with six. The Vikings would go on to post franchise-record lows in sacks (23) and sack yardage (126). This year, they already have 21 sacks for 142 yards after dropping Darnold four times.
"We blitzed them a lot today," Zimmer said.
Tackle James Lynch's second career sack came on a nicely designed stunt in a five-man rush. Some of the six-man rushes didn't work, which is why Zimmer didn't blitz on fourth-and-10 from the Panthers' 4 late in the game.
"I debated, 'Do we want to go hit this guy, or do we want to play coverage?' " Zimmer said. "We played coverage," and Darnold completed a 41-yard pass. "They had 96 yards to go with 2 minutes left, and I'm thinking, 'Let's not give up a big play right here,'" Zimmer said.
5. Kubiak was more aggressive, but …
The Vikings inexplicably threw only two deep balls against a vulnerable Lions defense a week ago. Sunday, offensive coordinator Klint Kubiak was much more trusting of Cousins and the deep ball. But there still were some head-scratching calls, like the ill-fated throw-back completion to Cook that lost 6 yards and almost got the running back's leg snapped off.
The worst call from this viewpoint was the decision to run Cook on a dive play on the first 2-point conversion attempt. The Vikings had done nothing to show they could overpower the Panthers between the tackles. Even though it was only 1 yard, Kubiak should have put the ball in Cousins' hands or gotten Cook to the edges, where the Eagles crushed Carolina the week before. Cook did bounce the play outside but was stopped short. The Vikings chased those two lost points the rest of the game.