Kirk Cousins was 4 years old on Jan. 3, 1993, when the Bills came back from a 35-3 deficit to beat the Houston Oilers in the AFC wild-card playoffs. Until Saturday, the Frank Reich-directed rally was the largest in NFL history, earning it a spot in the canon of classic games replayed on NFL Network.
The Vikings quarterback had seen replays frequently enough to have committed some of the game's details to memory, but he was fuzzy on its defining statistic: He thought the Bills were down by 35 points in the game, not 32.
"Walking off the field, when someone said [ours] was the largest comeback, I thought of Frank Reich, the Bills, [Oilers], Warren Moon, that game in Buffalo," Cousins said. "I thought it couldn't have been bigger than that comeback. Somebody told me it was. I don't know the numbers. Really, it was bigger than that one? That one still to this day, I wonder, 'How did that happen?' "
On Saturday, the Vikings' 33-point comeback broke the Bills' record, helping them clinch the NFC North title in a game that might get its own spot in NFL Network's remember-when rotation. If it does, the replays will commemorate a gutsy (if imperfect) performance from a quarterback who has quietly been one of the NFL's best at the ends of games the past two years.
In the fourth quarter on Saturday, Cousins completed 14 of 23 passes for 203 yards, three touchdowns and an interception, connecting with Dalvin Cook for a 64-yard TD on a screen and tying the score with a two-point conversion to T.J. Hockenson, one of his secondary options on the play. His 103.2 fourth-quarter passer rating is the fourth-best in the NFL this season, following a performance that gave him the NFL lead in fourth-quarter passing yards (1,181) and touchdown passes (10).
Since the start of the 2021 season, Cousins has thrown for 2,518 yards in 30 fourth quarters, passing for 18 touchdowns against five interceptions. He is second the league in fourth-quarter passing yards, behind the Chargers' Justin Herbert, and is fourth for most TD passes in the quarter.
"I just thought that his poise, his demeanor, his accuracy [were huge] when we needed it the most," coach Kevin O'Connell said. "I think back to some huge plays that were not his first progression, second progression. The guys up front doing a great job giving him an extra click in critical moments to get that to T.J. on the two-pointer, find that dagger to Adam [Thielen] in that two-minute drive late [in overtime]. Kirk deserves a huge amount of credit for, like I said, willing our team. Regardless of the plays that are called, that guy keeps playing at a high level."
Reich's comeback came in Rich Stadium's swirling winds; Cousins made his in a controlled climate. But short kickoffs and an interception meant the Bills' six scoring drives (including Steve Christie's game-winning overtime field goal) needed to cover only 264 yards. The Vikings' six scoring drives on Saturday traveled 350. In overtime, Cousins went 7-for-9 for 87 yards. The Vikings could have clinched the NFC North with a tie; quarterbacks coach Chris O'Hara let Cousins know about the implications of a tie, and why the Vikings would begin their final drive conservatively, before they took the field. Cousins replied in jest, "It would have been nice to know that at least 10 minutes ago. Maybe three days ago.
"I'm jogging on the field thinking, 'A tie wins the division; you have options here,'" Cousins said. "[O'Connell] called the run [on first down]. The second call didn't come in very quick. I'm kind of sitting there like, 'Maybe he's going for the tie.' Then he called the dropback, so I thought, 'No, he's going to go for it.' "
Cousins hit K.J. Osborn in the middle of zone coverage for 15 yards. With the clock ticking down inside 45 seconds, he fit one in between Isaiah Rodgers and Zaire Franklin, finding Thielen for 21 yards to put the Vikings at the edge of field-goal range.
"That's [number] three or four on the progression backside trying to high-low defenders," O'Connell said. "And this guy knifes a beautiful throw to his guy."
For much of Cousins' career, the narrative around him has been built on data points (his 2-10 record on Monday nights, perhaps most notably) that cast him as a shrinking violet in big games. He is still only 11-18 in prime-time games overall, and fair or not, he likely won't be able to erase talking points about his fitness for big games unless he shines in a Vikings playoff run.
This season, though, he has seven game-winning drives and seven fourth-quarter comebacks, the most in the NFL in both categories. The Vikings' comeback victory at Buffalo was hailed as the game of the year; their record-breaking rally to beat the Colts figures to live on among the classics that catch Cousins' eye.
"I'm a fan of football," he said. "Like, the other day the 2013 NFC Championship Game came on between the Seahawks and 49ers. I'm watching that as a student of the game. That's a game and a stage I want to play in."
To whatever extent Vikings fans could be comfortable in the fourth quarter of a playoff game, Cousins has given them some confidence the Vikings can be at their best with the ball in his hands.
TWO PLAYERS WHO STOOD OUT
K.J. Osborn: In the first six games since the Vikings acquired Hockenson, Osborn had caught just 14 passes for 115 yards. On Saturday, he broke out for 10 catches, 157 yards and a touchdown; he would have posted 197 yards if the Colts hadn't successfully challenged his diving 40-yard catch from Cousins in the second quarter.
Duke Shelley: The Vikings activated Cameron Dantzler on Saturday, but didn't play him for a single snap after illness kept him out of two practice days where the Vikings were implementing changes to their coverage schemes following last Sunday's loss to Detroit. Shelley played all 79 of the Vikings' defensive snaps; the Colts targeted the cornerback six times, but completed just two passes for 15 yards.
ONE TREND TO WATCH
How the Vikings use their starters now that they've clinched: The Vikings kept Garrett Bradbury out for a second straight game because of a nagging back injury; Bradbury has said there's no structural damage, but the Vikings figure to remain cautious with players like the center as they try to reach the postseason in good health. The Vikings cannot drop any further than the No. 3 seed, meaning they're all but assured of avoiding a first-round matchup with the Cowboys, who beat them 40-3 in November. They've got a vested interest in keeping the NFC's No. 2 seed, though; if they can stay a game ahead of the 49ers, it would mean a potential divisional round matchup between the teams would be in Minneapolis, not Santa Clara, Calif. How O'Connell balances those aims with the health of his roster is worth watching during the final three weeks of the regular season.