In between gulps of the revelatory mood that swept over the state — and even extended to his commute home — following the Vikings' 34-31 win over the Packers on Sunday, Kirk Cousins paused to consider whether he needs to make some fine adjustments to the bombs-away mentality that helped him answer Aaron Rodgers.
Cousins threw for 341 yards in the victory, hitting Justin Jefferson for gains of 56 and 43 while drawing a 37-yard pass interference penalty from Darnell Savage on a deep ball to the receiver. It augmented the aggressive approach the Vikings used the previous week against the Chargers, when Jefferson surpassed 100 yards thanks to a couple of 27-yard jump balls along the sideline, and was likely necessary on Sunday as the Vikings tried to answer three second-half touchdown passes from Rodgers.
But Cousins was also quick to note how much good fortune he had in a game that easily could have gone the other way.
A Kingsley Keke roughing penalty bailed the Vikings out on Cousins' first interception to Savage, and the safety could've set the Packers up for a game-winning score if he'd been able to hold onto the ball after undercutting a deep route for Jefferson on the game's final drive.
" I think the ball I threw is more of a driven ball that may not have given Justin an opportunity to high-point [it]," he said. "And so that's kind of what I would take from it. I think the read wasn't necessarily a bad read but maybe obviously the throw didn't give him that chance."
Eric Stokes had a chance for an interception on a downfield throw to K.J. Osborn, and Savage essentially turned Adam Thielen into a defensive back on a third-quarter pass, where the receiver had to break up a would-be interception. Cousins recovered his own fumble, on a Preston Smith strip sack later on the same drive, though the would-be turnovers in that spot became moot when the Packers scored on the following drive anyway.
Asked about his 26-yard throw to Thielen on the game's final drive — after Rasul Douglas overran a chance for an interception — Cousins talked about the fine line between aggressiveness and recklessness.
"I could kind of point to a half-dozen throws there that were too aggressive and I could argue that that's one of them," he said. "I don't think you want to live doing that. I think that we got away with it a couple times. I keep saying we're [on a] razor's edge, but that's a play where it's an example of it. The difference between him catching that and making the play he did and it going the other way is very small.
"Tyler Conklin did a great job on his route winning on that play and so I've got to go back and look at it and say, 'How can we give Adam a better chance to create separation?' Maybe a different route concept for me to give to him and then even what took me there, should I work with Tyler instead? And so you're hard on yourself, working through all that, because you don't want to live in a world throwing the ball into a covered player and crossing your fingers. You don't want to live in that world. There's a time and a place for it, but you also want to be a smart football player."
Thielen said Monday that Cousins gave him more of a chance by putting the ball in an unorthodox spot (on his inside shoulder) where Douglas wasn't expecting the ball to be.
"It doesn't happen too often," Thielen said. "So when I turned my head, Kirk did a good job throwing it inside where it doesn't happen a whole lot. But he threw it inside, I was able to react to the ball and make a play."
Cousins has still thrown just two interceptions this season, and given all the trouble the Vikings have had opening space for Dalvin Cook, they might need Cousins to flirt with the edge a little more than he is naturally given to doing.
But as the quarterback said, there certainly seemed to be some throws on Sunday where he was putting the ball up for grabs. Had Savage come down with the interception on the final drive — where the Vikings used a similar route concept to Cousins' 56-yard throw to Jefferson in the first quarter — or Douglas picked off the pass to Thielen, there'd likely be something less than unqualified approval of what the quarterback did Sunday.
Mike Zimmer might have been aware of as much. The coach has talked about the occasional turnover as a cost of doing business with a more aggressive passing game. No two turnovers are the same, of course, and an interception on either of the final-drive throws could've had disastrous effects, with Rodgers in position to win the game after a turnover.
Zimmer has referenced his Thursday meetings with Cousins more frequently in the past couple of weeks, and on Sunday he relayed an interesting exchange from one of them.
"I talk to Kirk every week, and I told him, 'Look, you try to score touchdowns, you let me back the game down when it's time to do it,'" Zimmer said. "So that's kind of our approach."
It's an interesting one, for a quarterback and coach who tend to be cautious by nature. But it might be easier for the Vikings to tell Cousins to hit the gas and apply the brake to him selectively, rather than only giving him certain conditions under which he can push the limits.
The trick is just finding the right balance.
"I think it's week to week, maybe even quarter to quarter, series to series, but certainly we've been fairly aggressive the last couple weeks," Cousins said. "Certainly, we feel good about the people we get to throw the ball to, and that goes far beyond Justin and Adam. KJ [Osborn], Tyler Conklin and Dalvin and Alex [Mattison], there's a lot of production to be had there throwing the football."
TWO PLAYERS WHO STOOD OUT
Bashaud Breeland: Green Bay went after Breeland early on a go ball to Marquez Valdes-Scantling, and threw at the cornerback six times, according to Pro Football Focus. While the Packers had plenty of success downfield, they didn't find much, relatively speaking, against the oft-maligned Breeland. He broke up a second-and-9 pass for Davante Adams in the first quarter, and only allowed one completion to a Packers receiver (Equanimeous St. Brown's 17-yard catch late in the second quarter).
Dalvin Tomlinson: The Packers got away from the run rather than banking on the cumulative effect of A.J. Dillon, but when they did try to run it, the Vikings stood up well to the powerful back. Tomlinson had a pair of run stops, and did a solid job against the Packers' line, also pressuring Rodgers once.
TWO AREAS OF CONCERN
Pass rush: The Vikings got to Rodgers in the first half, as the quarterback held the ball while trying to decipher their coverages, but he had plenty of time to work later in the game as the Packers rallied. That's due in part to Rodgers' ability to get outside the pocket — he had more than five seconds to throw while rolling to his left on his touchdown to Josiah Deguara — but the Vikings spent so much time honoring fakes to Randall Cobb and A.J. Dillon that they almost seemed to forget about Rodgers in the pocket on his third-quarter touchdown to Adams, and only pressured him on 27% of his dropbacks for the day. They moved Sheldon Richardson to defensive end and generated some early pressure on Rodgers as a result of it. Harrison Smith also set up a sack with pressure on Rodgers off an early blitz. But especially late in the game, the Vikings could not do enough to make the quarterback uncomfortable.
Offensive line's ongoing struggles: While the Vikings allowed just two sacks, curbed their number of penalties and gave Cousins time to take some shots downfield, familiar problems emerged upon closer examination. They decided to stick with Mason Cole at center instead of putting Garrett Bradbury back in the lineup, but Packers nose tackle Kenny Clark did as much damage with Cole in the middle of the line as he's done against Bradbury. On Preston Smith's strip sack in the third quarter, Clark overpowered Cole on his way to Cousins, while both Brian O'Neill and Christian Darrisaw gave up pressures to Tipa Galeai and Smith.
Overall, Cousins was pressured on 43.2% of his snaps, according to Pro Football Focus, and Cook had to gain 64 of his 86 yards after contact. The 49ers will present another difficult challenge for a front that's continued to have trouble.
ONE BIG QUESTION
How serious are the Vikings' playoff chances at 5-5? We'll have a much better answer to this question after Sunday's game against the 49ers. But the short answer, for now, is they're pretty serious.
FiveThirtyEight currently gives the Vikings a 59% chance to reach the postseason, with those odds increasing to 80% if they should win Sunday's matchup of 5-5 teams. They're the No. 6 seed at 5-5, and have a couple of things going for them in a group of five teams fighting for the final two wild-card spots.
First, on a concrete level, the Vikings are 4-2 in the conference, while none of the other teams they're battling (the Saints, 49ers, Eagles and Panthers) have fewer than three conference losses. A win on Sunday would give the Vikings head-to-head victories against San Francisco and Carolina, with three NFC games against losing teams (the Lions and Bears) still on the schedule. That'd put the Vikings in strong tiebreaker position, especially if they're able to win the games they should.
Which leads us to our second point: Of the teams fighting for a playoff spot, it's difficult to say any has a more stable offensive foundation than the Vikings. Cousins has continued his remarkable streak of durability, and the Vikings' outstanding trio of skill players — Cook, Jefferson and Thielen — has remained healthy. If that continues to be the case, the Vikings are on sturdier footing than just about anybody chasing them.
They'd need to go 4-3 in their final seven games to get to 9-8; if they beat the 49ers on Sunday, they'd only need to win their three games against the Bears and Lions to get there. And if they beat the 49ers while the Rams lose to the Packers on Sunday, the No. 5 seed could be in play with a Dec. 26 victory over Los Angeles.
Essentially, the Vikings are in control of their own playoff fate, with seven games to go. They've got every reason to think they can get back to the postseason.