MINNEAPOLIS (AP)The doubts about Kirk Cousins have chased him his whole career, like a relentless pass rusher bearing down on him as he’s preparing to throw.
The pile of comeback victories he’s had this year just keeps outgrowing that pessimism about his ability to elevate the Minnesota Vikings to win the toughest games.
”His poise, his demeanor, his accuracy – when we needed it the most,” coach Kevin O’Connell said after Minnesota made the largest comeback in NFL history to beat Indianapolis 39-36 on Saturday.
As a fourth-round draft pick who finally became a full-time starter in his fourth NFL season with Washington and didn’t get a team to commit a big contract until signing with Minnesota for his seventh year in the league, Cousins entered 2022 with a 59-59-2 regular-season record and just one win in three playoff games. His 11-18 mark in prime-time games hasn’t helped the perception.
Cousins hasn’t proven slippery or creative enough to consistently beat pocket pressure when the protection in front of him breaks down.
His firm grasp of the finer details of the position and dutiful adherence to the script has at times kept him from letting it loose by settling for safe throws.
But the arrival of O’Connell this year – both personality and playbook – has clearly helped bring out the best in Cousins, not to mention the continued ascendance of star wide receiver Justin Jefferson. O’Connell raved about the way Cousins scanned through the progression to find third and fourth options open and deliver the ball on time and on target in the clutch against the Colts.
The 2-point conversion pass to T.J. Hockenson that tied the game with 2:15 left was one of those. The 21-yard connection to Adam Thielen that got the Vikings to the edge of field-goal range on the eventual winning overtime drive was another.
”Regardless of the plays that are called, that guy keeps playing at a high level. He was a huge part of us winning this game,” O’Connell said.
The Vikings (11-3) have won 10 games by eight points or fewer. They trailed Indianapolis by 33, Buffalo by 17, Detroit by 14 and Washington by 10 and were behind by 10-plus points in the fourth quarter in all four of those.
Cousins leads the NFL this year in passing yards (1,305) in the fourth quarter and overtime and is fifth among regulars in passer rating during that span. Not that he’s been able to find much depth of satisfaction, with so many tight games and the Vikings still trying to secure the No. 2 seed in the NFC after clinching their division.
”I’m kind of wired, `What’s next? What’s next?’ It’s hard for me to enjoy the process,” Cousins said. ”I want to enjoy the product.”
The defense inside the 20-yard line was stout again, yielding only one touchdown in four trips by the Colts. The Vikings are tied for 16th in the league with a 56% touchdown rate in the red zone. They’ve allowed 33 field goals regardless of field position, the second most in the NFL.
WHAT NEEDS HELP
Cousins took seven sacks, partly a product of the 54 pass attempts, but the protection against a dangerous front was leakier than the Vikings would like to live with.
Wide receiver K.J. Osborn helped produce one of the most important plays of the comeback, a 63-yard reception on a skinny post route he broke wide open from the slot to reach the 4-yard line with the Vikings trailing 33-0 in the middle section of the third quarter. Osborn caught a touchdown pass three plays later and finished with 10 receptions for 157 yards, both career highs.
Jalen Reagor had a 51-yard punt return that was erased by a facemask penalty on teammate Kris Boyd, but the seven snaps he took at wide receiver were rough. Both interceptions Cousins threw were intended for Reagor on a play immediately after Jefferson left for injury, and Reagor appeared to be out of sync with the quarterback on each route. He also took a 5-yard loss on a jet sweep in the third quarter, and his motion toward the handoff was disjointed.
Jefferson had a bruised chest from a hard hit, but O’Connell said on Monday he ”came out strong” from the game. Cornerback Cameron Dantzler didn’t play because of an illness, but should be on track to return with a full week of practice.
The biggest concern is center Garrett Bradbury, who’s missed the past two games with a lower back injury. O’Connell didn’t sound optimistic about his immediate status.
417. That’s the number of passing yards Cousins compiled after halftime against the Colts. He went 28 for 42.
The Vikings play their last of nine regular-season home games this Saturday against the New York Giants, who are currently in control of a wild-card spot and the No. 6 seed in the NFC.
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