NEW ORLEANS — Wearing a dark suit and wheeling a black suitcase, Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins strode across the field at the Superdome late Sunday afternoon. On the surface, the previous few hours seemed likely to rank among the most meaningful of his life.
In the wild-card round of the NFL playoffs, Cousins and the Vikings made the trip to one of the loudest stadiums in pro football, where most pundits expected them to lose by double digits, where oddsmakers had made them eight-point underdogs. Minnesota had taken a 10-point lead, lost it and gone to overtime. And they had triumphed, 26-20, against a Saints team that won 13 games this season, against a hostile crowd, against Drew Brees and Sean Payton, and against the prevailing sentiment that this is exactly the kind of game that Cousins typically would lose. Only here, Cousins did not lose, and the Vikings did not win in spite of him. They won because of him.
As Cousins walked across the same turf where he netted his first career playoff victory, it seemed fair to wonder if his baggage had lightened over the course of the afternoon. He had already fielded roughly a dozen inquiries as to his record in primetime and playoff games (7-16 before Sunday), and each time, he had insisted there were no lingering hurt feelings and dismissed the idea that one win would validate his eight-year career.
But what if all the external emphasis on doubt had instead obscured what really mattered in Cousins’s story? What if what mattered was the team that did believe in him, that guaranteed all $84 million of his three-year contract in 2018, that cashed in its big bet on Sunday? (Obligatory disclaimer: yes, this was only one game; yes, the Vikings will again be underdogs next week at San Francisco; yes, the top-seeded 49ers could blow them out after Cousins throws a bunch of interceptions. None of that mattered against the Saints Sunday night.)
Cousins wouldn’t cop to that. He said he did feel “believed in” during six tumultuous seasons in Washington, and he said that if he didn’t define himself the way his critics did, he couldn’t define himself by his answer to them, either. “Ultimately, you’ve gotta earn things,” he told SI. “I felt like we would be here. I felt like we had a chance.”
The quarterback had stood before his teammates in the locker room, taken one of two game balls handed out by head coach Mike Zimmer and shouted the same three words he famously screamed after a Redskins’ victory in 2015: “You like that!” The moment seemed to say what Cousins wouldn’t, that he understood the magnitude of what had transpired on that field. But hours later, as he walked across the same turf, all he’d say was “It’s a phrase that’s followed me. Certainly, after a big win, it’s something that comes to mind.”
Cousins exited the Superdome, wheeled between barricades and found his family waiting for him outside the team bus—his father, Don; his brother, Kyle; his wife, Julie; and three friends. Tears welled in his dad’s eyes. His brother raised both arms skyward. Everybody hugged. This was the moment that showed what Sunday meant to Cousins.
What a game: the Vikings, according to linebacker Eric Kendricks, wanted to pressure Brees and limit the Saints’ dynamic plays. They stifled shifty running back Alvin Kamara (55 total yards), limited (as much as anyone can) record-setting wideout Michael Thomas (seven catches, 70 yards) and forced Brees into a fumble and an interception. Only Taysom Hill, who plays like 49 positions for New Orleans, hurt them. Hill almost beat them on his own.
The Vikings turned early to their running back, Dalvin Cook, feeding him handoffs, sending him off tackle, creating space for him to operate. Cook had missed the final two games of Minnesota’s season, both losses, but as he carved through the NFL’s fourth-ranked run defense with surprising ease, he announced that he was both healthy and more rested than he would have been had he played the entire season.
Between the Vikings’ stout defense, the Saints’ ill-timed miscues and Cook’s day (28 carries, 94 yards), Minnesota controlled the tempo. The Vikings went ahead, 13-10, on a Cook touchdown scamper just before halftime. They extended that lead on another Cook score late in the third. They believed, Cook would say later, when others did not. He remembered what Zimmer had told the team shortly before Minnesota departed for the game. “We’re in the dance,” Zimmer told the Vikings, “and we’re going down to New Orleans to win.”
“We’ve got some fighters,” Cook said.
The Saints came back; Brees cut the Vikings lead to a field goal with a 20-yard touchdown pass to Hill and kicker Will Lutz tied the game with a field goal just before time expired in regulation. The roar at the Superdome grew so loud the building seemed to shake. Sure, the same fans who had endured so much playoff heartbreak—losing to the Vikings in the playoffs two years ago on the “Minneapolis Miracle” touchdown, then falling to the Rams last year after referees blew an obvious pass interference call—were booing the officials and cursing some of Payton’s time-management decisions. But maybe, just maybe, fate or luck or fortune or whatever helps decide close playoff football games would turn their way this time. Minnesota, of course, has its own tortured history, and it’s longer and more painful. Perhaps New Orleans could add to that.
And yet, the team expected to lose this playoff game then went out and seized it.
On the sidelines before overtime, veteran safety Harrison Smith turned to wide receiver Adam Thielen. “Why don’t you go ahead and win this for us?” Smith asked him.
“Yeah, sure,” Thielen responded.
That’s pretty much what happened. The Vikings won the coin toss and began a slow march down the field. Then, on the sixth play of overtime, Cousins saw both his Pro Bowl wideout and a favorable match-up, and he dropped back and heaved a pass deep down the right side of the field. Thielen settled under the ball, secured the catch and fell forward, two yards from the end zone. Three plays after that, Cousins dropped back again, lobbed a fade to Kyle Rudolph and watched one of Minnesota’s the longest-tenured players, a tight end who has lived through plenty of playoff heartbreak and also received a game ball on Sunday, grab the walk-off, game-winning touchdown (after what looked like a push off of the defender, but the NFL confirmed the officials made the right call).
The Vikings celebrated on the field, jumping and hugging, then retreated to the cramped visitor’s locker room. A line formed for the shower. The lights kept going on and off. But Thielen wanted to be clear: Cousins made two elite, critical throws in overtime, the same kind of passes he made to convert third downs and fit passes in short windows and finish with 19 completions, 242 passing yards and the touchdowns that mattered most. Who cared what anyone said? The Vikings were moving on.
“A lot of the criticism of Kirk doesn’t make any sense,” Thielen says. “I’ll ride with Kirk any day. We don’t win this game without him.”
Outside of the Superdome an hour later, as the Vikings’ bags were being loaded onto their buses, Cousins stood with his family, wearing a dark suit with brown boots and suspenders, his beard neatly trimmed.
He figured that those who doubted him before would continue to, but that hardly mattered, not when some teams seeded sixth, like Minnesota, have not only advanced to but won the Super Bowl. (That list is small, with four total teams since the introduction of the wild-card round in 1970, the last being the Packers in the 2010 season.)
Cousins hugged his family, took a few selfies with fans standing behind barricades and boarded the bus as the sun was dropping behind him. His family remained behind, trying to explain what Sunday meant. His dad noted that “this isn’t golf or bowling or tennis,” meaning that Cousins needed several elements to work in his favor—the defense, Cook, Thielen, Rudolph on that catch to win it, to name a few—in order to secure his first playoff win. That was as true in his primetime losses as it was on Sunday when he triumphed.
His family had watched from the upper reaches of the Superdome, saw Kirk conquer his playoff demons, saw him win a game few outside of the Twin Cities expected him to win. “Crying, shaking, a lot of tears” is how his brother, Kyle, described the final moments.
“I get tired, as his dad, hearing the critics and some of the things that they say that just have no basis in fact,” Don Cousins said. “You have to just brush it off. It’s just the commentary people make.”
For now, for Sunday, one playoff win was enough; this didn’t have to be a referendum, only a step forward. Perhaps not to change the perception of Kirk Cousins, but to put the Vikings into the second round of the playoffs, to give them a chance to reach their stated goal, tough as their road ahead may be. That’s all Cousins ever wanted, anyway—not to beat perception, just to win.
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