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Matthew Coller: Vikings devastated by Cousins injury, must move forward quickly

Inside the locker room at Lambeau the Vikings were somber knowing their QB is likely out for the year.

LAMBEAU FIELD — Right tackle Brian O’Neill was at a loss when he tried to explain his immense respect for Kirk Cousins. Center Garrett Bradbury said it was startling not having Cousins on the field because he’s always been there. Head coach Kevin O’Connell could barely get the words out of his mouth to acknowledge that it was a great win over a division rival. He also isn’t sure what’s next.

You will never see a more muted locker room and postgame reaction to a victory that slingshots a team into the center of the playoff race more than at Lambeau Field following the Minnesota Vikings’ 24-10 win over the Green Bay Packers. Normally entering the locker room after a win you can hear loud music and jovial voices celebrating but on Sunday there was mostly silence and players sitting stunned by their lockers because the victory came with the loss of Cousins, who suffered an Achilles injury that appears likely will keep him out for the rest of the season.

“I think you guys can feel it throughout our locker room,” O’Connell said. “They know. Our guys know, and I really didn’t want it to be something where we just don’t talk about it. Gave all the defensive guys game balls. I thought K.J. Osborn, one yard away from a 100-yard performance, I thought he was huge. Jordan (Addison), T.J. they were all big time today, but the last game ball was for Kirk, and rightly so because he is playing absolutely fantastic football for us.”

Oct 29, 2023; Green Bay, Wisconsin, USA; Green Bay Packers defensive tackle Kenny Clark (97) pressures Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins (8) during their football game at Lambeau Field.

Oct 29, 2023; Green Bay, Wisconsin, USA; Green Bay Packers defensive tackle Kenny Clark (97) pressures Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins (8) during their football game at Lambeau Field.

Cousins’ injury came in the fourth quarter of one of his most impressive performances. Behind strong protection from the offensive line and a playmaking receiving corps, he pushed the offense up and down the field to the tune of 23-for-31 passing for 274 yards and two touchdowns. His strong showing came on the back of a season-saving win on Monday Night Football against the 49ers in which Cousins threw for 382 yards and drove the offense to victory.

“I know he has meant so much to me personally and the role that I am,” O’Connell said. “He talked to the offense on Saturday about how the truest measure of performance is consistency and that it is the hardest thing to do in the NFL, and that is all he has really done this year is demonstrate and prove that against some really good defenses. Road games, home games, all those things. My challenge to our home team is that we are going to need to absorb this.”

Rookie Jaren Hall replaced Cousins in the fourth quarter. He was strip-sacked on his first drive but came back and threw a dagger completion to TJ Hockenson that put the game on ice.

“I’ve really got no words for it,” Hall said. “It breaks your heart. That guy’s the leader of the team. He’s the heart and soul of the team. Had such a great season to this point. It’s been an honor and so fun to watch.”

O’Connell said that he was impressed by how Hall got the calls from the sideline and handled the offense in a chaotic moment. The former BYU quarterback noted that he has tried to emulate Cousins’ preparation in order to be ready when he was called upon.

“Kirk loves this game, he gives everything to this game and you hear it every time he addresses the team,” Hall said. “Every time we’re in meetings. The questions he asks. The things he wants to get clear before we go out there. The dude’s just the most prepared guy I’ve ever seen.”

The Vikings will now quickly have to assess all their options and make a decision on whether to keep Hall in as the starter or do something more drastic like trying to woo a former star out of retirement or trading for a current backup or starter.

“They are going to talk about that,” O’Connell said about whether they would go forward with Hall. “First and foremost we will confirm the severity of the injury and then we will talk internally and get a lot of thoughts and opinions on where we are at. I did think Jaren (Hall) did a nice job.”

O’Connell added that backup Nick Mullens, currently on injured reserve, could be in the mix as well.

Had Cousins not gotten injured, the Vikings would have come out of the game against the Packers feeling more confident than ever that they were back in the midst of a fight for the postseason and had good chances to make noise in the NFC with the easiest part of their schedule coming up. Now at 4-4 the Vikings’ path becomes much more of an uphill battle. However, it is not over with Cousins’ injury considering the play that they have gotten recently from the offensive line, receivers and defense.

“[We are playing] complimentary football the way we kind of envisioned it has really executed these last two weeks. It has been fun to see,” O’Connell said.

Jordan Addison in particular stepped up again with seven receptions for 82 yards. He was flanked by Osborn, who had 99 yards receiving and Hockenson caught six passes for 88 yards and a touchdown.

“I am very, very excited about Jordan but how about K.J. Osborn?” O’Connell raved. “He doesn’t get talked about a whole lot, but all he has done since he has really assumed more of a significant role with the Minnesota Vikings is continuously made plays, a huge third down catch for an explosive, but then it is also his ability to be really in all three spots at once. It makes him so incredibly versatile, and then T.J. Hockenson picked up right where he left off once he was able to overcome that injury from Monday night.”

On the defensive side the Vikings have now strung together three excellent showings, holding Jordan Love to just 229 yards on 41 attempts, sacking him four times and picking him off once. With two chances to keep the Packers in the game at the end, the defense stopped Love from reaching the end zone by breaking up passes.

“The more we are starting to play in [Brian Flores’ defense] the more we are starting to play with each other and band together and figure out what we do best, Flo has done a great job to put is in position to make plays,” Metellus said.

No matter how good the defense was even Metellus couldn’t help but acknowledge how difficult it is for everyone to see Cousins go out.

“The quarterback position is everything in this league,” Metellus said. “Kirk is everything on this team so when a guy like Kirk goes down and you don’t feel his presence out there you just have to have the other seven captains step up and I think we did a great job of that today…a guy like that, that’s a big hit for the team. That hurts a lot.”

The one area that struggled that will have to improve is the ground game. Alexander Mattison and Cam Akers totaled 25 rushes for just 50 yards.

“Everybody is going to have to step up,” O’Neill said. “Hopefully everyone is starting to see how much [Kirk] means to our team.”

The Vikings head on the road to Atlanta where they will face a team that is reeling off a loss to the Tennessee Titans. Presumably Hall will be under center for his first NFL start. Past that — in both the short and long term — is unclear. The only known thing walking out of Lambeau on Sunday was that the Vikings took a massive blow just as they were on the cusp of turning the season around and that won’t be easy for anyone to reckon with during the flight back to Minneapolis.