The first trip to AT&T Stadium, for Kirk Cousins, came during his rookie season with Washington, when he was Robert Griffin III’s backup and still years away from the questions about his fitness for big games that will follow him to north Texas this weekend.
“I was a rookie in 2012,” he said this week. “We played on Thanksgiving Day, and obviously back then some of these other great stadiums like the one we play in hadn’t been built. So that was the first of its kind in some ways. It was a special day. Obviously playing on Thanksgiving Day, too, as a rookie, you are taking that in for the first time as well. But it certainly lived up to the expectation and the hype.”
Cousins has been back three times since, winning in a Week 17 game that cemented Washington’s 2015 NFC East title, passing for 449 yards in a wild Thanksgiving Day loss in 2016 and throwing a pair of interceptions in a 38-14 Thursday night defeat in 2017. He’s 1-6 in his career as a starter against the Cowboys, 0-4 against Dallas QB Dak Prescott and 6-28 against teams with winning records.
In a year where both the Vikings and their quarterback are trying to take things to the next level, a victory Sunday night over the Cowboys would do plenty for their cause.
“Big game this week. I feel like I keep saying that, but on the road against a really good football team,” Cousins said. “They’re highly ranked on all sides of the football, great players at all levels of their defense, and obviously on their offense, and really good coaches. Big challenge for us; exciting challenge for us.”
The Vikings’ inability to beat good teams on the road is well-documented, and it’s been an obstacle for them longer than Cousins has been on their roster. The metrics, however you would like to cut them, aren’t good: The Vikings have won only four times in 20 games on the road against teams with winning records at the time of the game since Mike Zimmer became the coach in 2014, and they are only 5-16 against teams that finished seasons with winning records.
But they are hardly alone in their struggles. According to Pro Fooball Reference, only two teams — the Patriots and Cowboys — have winning records vs. better-than-.500 teams on the road since 2014, and only six (the Patriots, Cowboys, Chiefs, Steelers, Eagles and Seahawks) are better than .400. But the Vikings’ win-loss percentage against winning teams on the road (.238) is 17th in the league, and a victory Sunday would bump them up to 15th.
“The crowd noise, you’re sleeping in different beds, you’ve got to do the travel,” Zimmer said. “That’s why the bookmakers add three points to the home team, I guess. That’s kind of how it is all the time.”
Their issues against good teams on the road, in other words, are exceedingly common. Cousins, though, believes those issues have to stop if the Vikings want to become one of the league’s uncommon successes.
“I just think that to get in the playoffs you’re going to have to do that, right?” he said. “I mean, you can’t really pick only certain teams that you’re going to beat. When you’re a playoff team, if you’re going to be a playoff team, you have to win tough games in tough environments at some point, otherwise you’re probably not getting into the playoffs. We see this week as a great opportunity to do that. You just treat it like it’s a one-game focus right now. All of our energy has to be poured into this game, and a really good opponent.”
A victory would put the Vikings at 7-3, with a chance to either tie the Packers for the NFC North lead or gain a game in the wild-card race on the Panthers, should Carolina fail to win at Green Bay’s Lambeau Field on Sunday.
Their Sunday night road game against the division-leading Cowboys — the kind of test the Vikings have often struggled to handle, in other words — comes with much to gain.
“The bottom line is how you play more so than where you play, really,” Zimmer said.