Quarterback Kirk Cousins' third Vikings season will end Sunday without a second playoff appearance, but he will have delivered on at least one of the reasons General Manager Rick Spielman signed Cousins to be the solution under center.
When Cousins starts Sunday against the Lions, he'll complete six straight years without missing a regular-season game because of injury. That spans 95 starts — 47 for the Vikings, a franchise that before Cousins hadn't had a full-time passer complete three straight healthy seasons since Fran Tarkenton in the mid-1970s.
"There have been a lot of answered prayers along those lines," Cousins said.
His only missed NFL start came when Vikings coach Mike Zimmer decided to sit him and others during last year's finale after the team had already qualified for the playoffs.
Cousins, 32, remains among the NFL's ironmen at quarterback, a position where only Seattle's Russell Wilson and Indianapolis' Philip Rivers have started all 96 regular season games since 2015, when Cousins became the full-time starter in Washington. And this year, having taken a career-high 111 hits in 15 games, he has tested that durability in a few ways.
"These guys who have these tremendous careers and put up these numbers, they take care of themselves, they stay healthy," coordinator Gary Kubiak said. "One thing about Kirk is that he's going to be there every week for his football team, battling, and there's a lot to be said for that."
Cousins said he's always "praying for protection." And his blocking has continued to be a talking point. The past six games have been particularly rough on Cousins, who in that span has taken 19 sacks within 62 hits — meaning over half of this season's 36 sacks allowed have come in the past month and a half.
Averaging 10 hits across the past six games is a strikingly high rate when considering the Vikings had surrendered just one double-digit game — 11 hits by the Eagles in October 2018 — in Cousins' first two years in Minnesota. Repetitive blows will erode anyone's durability, but Cousins said he's been lucky so far.
"As much as, yes, I have taken a few hits," he said, "that's part of the game. I think the key is my teammates and coaches have done a good job of preventing those hits that would actually keep you out, so, [I'm] grateful for that."
Cousins has previously noted that sacks are a quarterback-influenced stat, and he's had a hand in the rising damage behind an offensive line that has had four different starters at right guard and now has left tackle Riley Reiff quarantined on the reserve/COVID-19 list.
Getting the ball out, or not, can fall on the quarterback, receiver, tight end or running back, and Kubiak admitted Cousins can "definitely improve" in doing his part to minimize trouble from pass rushes.
"Everybody looks at the offensive line, but there's so many things involved in sacks," Kubiak said. "Maybe we could have gotten the ball out quicker, maybe we ran a poor route and couldn't get the ball out.
"That's a category we can definitely improve. I do think Kirk improved this year as far as making a lot of plays with his feet, finding ways to keep us on the field on third downs. We've been a pretty good third-down team since the bye week."
Cousins has focused on not only buying time with his legs but making plays on the run, picking up 15 first downs this season on 21 carries (excluding botched snaps or kneel downs). Kubiak even dialed up a designed quarterback sweep in Houston, where Cousins ran for 5 yards to convert fourth down in perhaps the only such play of his NFL career.
He's also had to navigate new COVID restrictions and adapt his weekly recovery routines. Players were discouraged from entering TCO Performance Center as often as they normally would for treatments. Outside recovery specialists, like a chiropractor, came with new risks as any virus exposure could lead to quarantine and potentially a missed game.
"The rules got more strict as we went on and as they kind of learned more about the way the virus was behaving," Cousins said. "It was kind of discouraging to be in the building right after the game on Monday and Tuesday [during] the second half of the season. You're trying to be in there only if it was a priority. You also have other people you try to see outside the building, and you just had to be smart about that."
A little hope and a prayer don't seem to hurt, either.
"Knock on wood," Cousins said, "and you just keep praying for protection."