NEW ORLEANS – Once again in a big game in New Orleans the Vikings discovered they had a 12th man in the huddle threatening to end their season. This time it was the life-size shadow of big games past that clung to Kirk Cousins like a cloak of doom.
The statistics had begun to add up like the national debt. Cousins was 0-15 in his career against teams with a .700 winning percentage and 0-9 on Monday nights. With the Vikings he was 0-10 against 10-win teams, 2-10 against playoff teams, and 3-11-1 against teams with a winning record.
Now he was heading into overtime in a playoff game against a heavily favored team, in a cauldron of noise, with a star receiver throwing fits on the sideline, jobs (perhaps) on the line and his reputation hanging in the balance.
In a city known for the occult, Cousins pulled the biggest pin out of his personal voodoo doll. After 60 minutes in which he looked shaky early and his team looked uncomfortable with him throwing late, Cousins made three throws in overtime that displayed the skill that led to the Vikings signing him — three throws that gave the Vikings a 26-20 victory in the first round of the playoffs at the Superdome.
“That’s him,’’ running back Dalvin Cook said. “That’s our guy. That’s our quarterback. The type of guy he is, we love him so much.’’
Through four quarters, Cousins had completed 15 of 26 passes for 179 yards and no touchdowns. It was typical of Cousins in big games — the numbers looked better than the live performance.
The Vikings won the toss and took the ball at the 25 and quickly faced third-and 1. Cousins dropped back and drilled a pass to Stefon Diggs on a slant route for 10 yards and a first down. Without that pass, the next two would not have occurred.
After Cook ran for 11 yards to the Saints 45, Cousins dropped back and saw Adam Thielen with a step on his defender and lofted a high pass that dropped into Thielen’s arms for a 43-yard gain.
On third-and-goal from the Saints 4, Cousins took the snap and realized the Saints’ “Zero Blitz.’’ He would not have much time but his receivers would be single-covered. He lofted a pass to tight end Kyle Rudolph in the back left corner of the end zone. After a push-off that would have made Drew Pearson proud, Rudolph made a leaping catch and Cousins had finally won this kind of game.
“I appreciate the question, but I’m just glad we won a playoff game,’’ Cousins said. “I just do my part. We won the game today because we played great defense, we got a turnover, we had great special teams, we had great play-calling, we had a great plan. We protected, we ran the football, we probably had 35-40 rushing attempts. There were a whole lot of reasons we won the game. Does the quarterback play a role in that? Yes, but it was a team win.’’
That’s all true. Cook was the Vikings’ best offensive player, the Vikings’ offensive line performed well two weeks after collapsing against Green Bay, and key receivers all made big plays on the final drive.
You can win in the NFL without great quarterback play, but the Vikings didn’t sign Cousins to a record contract so they could win without him. They signed him to win games like this, even though he never had before.
“Being a fourth-round pick and working your way up in the league, now you win a playoff game and guess what — you look around and you realize there’s more mountains to climb,’’ Cousins said.
Late Sunday afternoon, he aced the biggest moment of his NFL career and responded with three palm-seeking throws that silenced the loudest stadium in football. When he got back to the locker room, his coach handed him a game ball, his phone held 77 messages, and he had finally erased the word “never’’ from the first page of his resume.