There is a quality to certain defeats, among the 70 losses Kirk Cousins has taken over 10 years as a starter in college or the NFL, that sear them into the quarterback's memory longer than others.
"I think plays where you can make them in your sleep and you don't, it's all the more disappointing," he said Wednesday. "There's plenty of games you lose where you walk off the field and you say, 'I'm playing better, I'm improving, I had a strong game; we didn't win but there's a lot to be excited about.' Then there's games where you feel like, 'That wasn't the best I can do.' Those ones tend to — when you feel like you left something out there, that always eats at you."
By that standard, the Vikings' 34-26 loss to the 49ers on Sunday might be one that lingers for Cousins. He threw his third interception of the year (on a curl route for Adam Thielen that was picked off by linebacker Azeez Al-Shaair), missed throws for a touchdown and two-point conversion to Justin Jefferson, and finished with a passer rating of 93.8, his third-lowest of the season.
"I have losses from years past, from college, that still bother [me]," he said. "You know, when they're brought up or when you remember them, it still stings. You always obviously turn the page and move forward just like I have or anybody has their whole career."
Cousins' annual trip to his home state, for the Vikings' game on Sunday against the Lions at Ford Field, is a good a place for him to move on as any.
In four career games there, he has completed 73% of his passes for 1,297 yards and 11 touchdowns without an interception. He completed a Hail Mary before halftime to Kyle Rudolph in his first game in Detroit with the Vikings in 2018, threw for four scores in a 2019 win and eclipsed 400 yards for the sixth time in his career during last year's regular-season finale, when he threw for three scores and ran for another.
Of the games in which Cousins has posted the 20 highest passer ratings of his career, four are in Vikings wins over the Lions. Three of those are at Ford Field.
The stadium is on the opposite side of the state from where Cousins grew up in Holland, Mich., but is still close enough for family and friends to make the trip. In each of his three games there with the Vikings, they've watched him win.
"I think it's a little different for me than just any other away game," he said. "Playing in Detroit does feel, to some degree, like I'm going back home. That's where our high school state championship games were played. I didn't play in one, but that's where you grew up dreaming of playing as a high school player. So it's a little different than other away games."
The Vikings are tied for the NFC's final playoff spot at 5-6 but can't afford many losses to NFC teams, given the fact their conference record (the first playoff tiebreaker) is a game worse than Washington's. In addition to the ignominy of losing to the 0-10-1 Lions, a defeat in Detroit could have serious consequences for the Vikings' postseason hopes.
"This is the NFL; everybody is playing as hard as they can play every week," safety Harrison Smith said. "This isn't like peewee ball or anything. Everybody is going to give you their best shot every week."
As the Vikings try to get back to .500 for the third time this year, Cousins can shake off an unsettling performance with a big day in Michigan.
"One on the two-point conversion I may have rushed it, just short-armed it and wasn't on rhythm. The fourth-down throw to Justin in the back of the end zone, the ball was just too high as I was falling away," Cousins said. "The last route of the game, the in-cut, the ball was up and high and I felt like again, I needed to drive it a little more, put it on him instead of trying to touch it in there. There were a couple others where you'd love to have six inches here or there. You have to learn from them and be that much sharper this week."