CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The Vikings quarterback whose late-game wherewithal has been maligned for much of his career stood on a podium Sunday, answering questions mostly about his fourth and fifth late-game drives in six weeks.
Two of those Kirk Cousins-led drives resulted in field goals from Greg Joseph to tie or win the game. The fourth-quarter march Cousins directed on Sunday ended just like the one he'd facilitated three weeks earlier, with Joseph missing a game-winning attempt.
But the overtime coin toss fell the Vikings' way on Sunday, providing Cousins an opportunity for a nine-play, 75-yard drive that ended with K.J. Osborn catching a high corner route in Bank of America Stadium, stretching into the end zone and doing his best Stefon Diggs impersonation by throwing his helmet after the game-winner in the Vikings' 34-28 victory over the Carolina Panthers.
Cousins has attempted 239 passes through the Vikings' first six games; 35 have come in the final two minutes of games with his team tied or trailing by one score. No other NFL quarterback has even half as many passes in those do-or-die situations this year. As the 33-year-old looked toward the Vikings' bye week late Sunday afternoon, he made no effort to conceal his exhaustion.
"I'm spent," he said. "It's an absolute grind, and it's an absolute grind every Sunday. It takes everything I got. But I've been on the other side of those losses, too, in my career over the 10 years, so it's rewarding when you know how the other side feels too. You really enjoy it when you do make a play and win it."
The week off will likely bring an examination of how the Vikings keep finding themselves in these situations, after they blew a double-digit lead for the second straight week to a quarterback who'd appeared overmatched for the game's first 53 minutes. There would have seemed to be no need for late-game heroics, not when the Panthers' Sam Darnold had committed turnovers, overshot targets and watched his receivers drop at least a half-dozen passes.
The Vikings could have also put the game away by turning two short field goals into touchdowns, or converting either of the two-point conversions coach Mike Zimmer chose to attempt, or by not fumbling to set up a first-quarter Panthers touchdown, or by not allowing Carolina to block a punt for a TD, or by stopping Darnold from scrambling for 30 yards with seven minutes left before he led a tying 96-yard drive for eight points in the final two minutes of regulation.
But for all their issues — 11 penalties, periods of offensive stagnancy, a bundle of special teams mistakes and another late defensive swoon — the Vikings are alive and kicking in the playoff race because of the quarterbacking mettle they have so often lacked.
"I think it's really come a long way," Zimmer said of Cousins' late-game performance. "I don't know — you guys know all the stats on second-half comebacks or fourth-quarter comebacks and all that stuff — but I know that he's done an awful lot. Even since that New Orleans game down in the playoffs [in 2019], he's done this continually now. I think that breeds a lot of confidence in him in some of the two-minute drills."
The victory brought the Vikings to 3-3 heading into their bye week, and moved them into a tie for second in the NFC North with the Bears, who lost to the Packers on Sunday.
Cousins finished 33-of-48 for 373 yards and three touchdowns. Dalvin Cook returned to the lineup and rushed for 140 yards and a touchdown on 29 carries. Adam Thielen had 11 catches for 126 yards and touchdown. The Vikings' 571 total yards were the third-most in franchise history, behind only their 622 against the Colts in 1969 and 605 against the Saints in 2004.
Darnold threw an interception on his first attempt of the game, and completed just five of his 18 passes in the first half for 60 yards. He finished 17-of-41 for 207 yards and an interception; though the Panthers dropped passes throughout the game, Darnold was inaccurate enough on several of the throws to make catches tougher than they should have been.
And yet, the game came down to the final minutes.
“I'm spent. It's an absolute grind, and it's an absolute grind every Sunday. It takes everything I got. But I've been on the other side of those losses, too, in my career over the 10 years, so it's rewarding when you know how the other side feels too.”
With Minnesota ahead 12-10 in the third quarter, Frankie Luvu broke through the middle of the Vikings' line to block Jordan Berry's punt, and Kenny Robinson recovered it for a touchdown. Despite the fact Darnold hadn't eclipsed 100 passing yards by that point, the Panthers led 17-12.
"A guy tried to get out too soon and left a hole from me to Bob away," Zimmer said, using Vikings public relations director Bob Hagan, who was standing several feet away, as a point of reference. "It was big. It was a big hole."
On the sidelines, the Vikings offense finally responded to the need for urgency.
"You got Adam, Kirk, Justin [Jefferson], the O-line, you're seeing guys just going, 'Nah, we're not going that direction,'" Cook said. "Change the attitude, get the energy going. When we're back on the sidelines, get the whole sidelines going, too. Just the energy and the positive vibes around us, I think that's what lured us back in that direction. Like, go score some points."
The Vikings' next three drives would produce two touchdowns and a field goal. On the first one, C.J. Ham turned a fullback dive into a 30-yard gain with a nice cut in the middle of the Panthers defense. After Cook's touchdown run, Cameron Danztler and Xavier Woods stripped D.J. Moore of the ball on Carolina's first offensive play.
Eric Kendricks' fumble recovery led to another TD when Thielen somehow maintained his balance after stumbling out of his break, finishing a diving grab near the sideline for a 3-yard score. Joseph hit from 38 yards out after that, putting the Vikings up 28-17 with 10:17 to play.
The game wouldn't have gone to overtime if Carolina hadn't been able to convert two fourth downs on its final drive. On the first one, Darnold hit Ian Thomas for 41 yards just beyond Kendricks, who'd backed out of a pre-snap blitz look.
"The guy ran a go route; I thought he was going to stop at the sticks," Kendricks said. "It was fourth-and-10, so I got to play it true. I was man-to-man on him. It was a good ball, right down the middle and away from the safety. Tried to punch it out as soon as he caught it. Sometimes that happens."
Moore beat Dantzler with an outside release for a 25-yard gain on fourth down that set up Robby Anderson's TD and Darnold's shovel pass to Tommy Tremble for a two-point conversion with 42 seconds left.
But Cousins had only two incompletions in 11 attempts the rest of the way, and one was a spike to stop the clock.
The single-season franchise record for one-score games came in 1999, when the Vikings had 12 games decided by seven points or fewer. They're on pace to break that record this season.
"It's called the NFL," Zimmer said. "That's the way it is."
It's a league where quarterback play often makes the difference. For the Vikings on Sunday, it did once again.