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Five Takeaways From a Wild Vikings OT Win vs. Panthers: Kirk Cousins, K.J. Osborn Come Up Big

Also, some players on the defense who stepped up, and a question mark at kicker going forward.

The Vikings' thrilling, heart-stopping walkoff win over the Panthers on Sunday had a little bit of everything. 

A historic offensive performance from the winning team, including some contributions from unlikely sources. A 96-yard drive authored by a struggling quarterback, capping a remarkable late comeback. Big plays on special teams. Back-breaking turnovers, penalties, and missed kicks.

In the end, all that matters is that the Vikings got the last laugh and found a way to win for a second straight week, putting themselves at 3-3 heading into their bye week. But let's dive into some of the other things we learned from this bizarre game. Here are five takeaways from Minnesota's much-needed win.

Kirk Cousins keeps showing up in the clutch

The Vikings are becoming quite well-acquainted with close, intense games this season. Five of their six contests have been one-score affairs that came down to the final play, four of those involved a Greg Joseph field goal attempt to end regulation, and two went to overtime.

One of the constants throughout their drama-filled start to the season has been Cousins putting them in position to win those close games. In Week 1, he got the Vikings within Joseph's range at the end of the fourth quarter, then led what might've been a game-winning drive in OT if Dalvin Cook hadn't fumbled. In Week 2, Cousins set up Joseph for what should've been a simple game-winner against a Cardinals team that still hasn't lost this season. Last week against the Lions, he didn't panic after losing the lead and marched downfield with a couple big throws that set up the win.

On Sunday in Carolina, Cousins did it again. And again. He set up Joseph for a potential game-winner to end regulation, then shrugged off that miss, got the ball to start OT, and took care of business himself. Cousins finished the day with another gaudy line of 373 passing yards and three touchdowns without a turnover, but it's the way he continues to get it done in the big moments that has been the most impressive thing about his season so far.

“I think it’s really come a long way," Mike Zimmer of Cousins' success in two-minute drill situations. "I don’t know – you guys know all the stats on second-half comebacks or fourth-quarter comebacks and all that stuff, but I know that he’s done an awful lot. Even since that New Orleans game down in the playoffs [in January 2020], he’s done this continually now. I think that breeds a lot of confidence in him in some of the two-minute drills ... he’s been really successful at it."

If the Vikings are going to make a run at the playoffs down the stretch, they need their QB to keep playing like this. Ideally, they would put games like these last two away earlier, but having confidence in your offense to move the ball downfield in late-game situations is a great thing for any team.

K.J. Osborn is a major difference-maker for this Vikings offense

The usual suspects all played big roles in the Vikings' 571-yard outburst, the third-highest yardage total in franchise history. Cousins was excellent. Dalvin Cook turned 31 touches into 143 yards. Adam Thielen snapped out of a mini-slump with an 11-catch, 126-yard day. Justin Jefferson went over five catches and 65 yards for a sixth straight game, making him the only player in the NFL this year with that level of statistical consistency.

But this offensive performance was also characterized by some huge moments from less obvious players. C.J. Ham's career-long 30-yard run on 3rd and 1 seemed to spark the offense in the third quarter, and Tyler Conklin picked up big chunks on two of his three catches. Even Chris Herndon got in on the action with a touchdown catch.

And then there was Osborn. One of the breakout players of training camp became known earlier this season for his reliability in critical situations, and he continues to show why Cousins trusts him to make plays. Through 59-plus minutes of football, Osborn had just two catches in this game. But he caught two passes on the final drive of regulation, and then made two massive plays in overtime. The first was an impressive grab to move the chains on third down. The second, of course, was the game-winner.

"He’s continued to be just a tremendous player for us," Cousins said. "We talked about it with all you guys here in August. He had a great OTAs, had a great camp. I thought you all saw it watching practice. I said you just hope it carries over to the games because that’s what matters. As far as what he’s been able to do so far, he’s done everything right. I’m just happy it’s now showing up in games and that it’s showing up a lot in crunch time too. Can’t say enough good things about the contributions he has made to our offense."

Remember, Osborn didn't play a single snap on offense last year as a rookie. The fifth-round pick dedicated himself to improving this offseason, and it has paid off in a big way for both him and the Vikings' offense. Osborn is up to 26 catches, 321 yards from scrimmage, and two touchdowns in six games this year, giving the Vikings the type of No. 3 receiver they haven't had in a long time. Having another weapon that Cousins trusts when defenses lock in on Cook, Jefferson, and Thielen is a big reason why this offense has had so much success.

The sacks keep coming for the Vikings, this time from the DTs

Last season, the Vikings' defense had just 23 sacks in 16 games, a bottom-five mark in the NFL and the lowest total in the history of a franchise that has basically always been able to get after quarterbacks.

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This year, after revamping their defense, the Vikings are tied for the league lead with 21 sacks in six games. They've had at least two in every single game and three or more in all but one contest. On Sunday, they were in Sam Darnold's face all afternoon and wound up with their second consecutive four-sack performance.

What was most notable about this effort from the Vikings' defense is where the sacks came from. Heading into this game, Danielle Hunter, Everson Griffen, and Michael Pierce were responsible for 12 of Minnesota's 17 sacks. Pierce missed his second straight game this week, and although Hunter and Griffen combined for nine pressures, both received significant attention and were held sackless.

Yet the Vikings still got four of them. One came from James Lynch, a 2020 fourth-round pick who was a healthy scratch for the first four games of the year. One came on a pursuit sack from All-Pro linebacker Eric Kendricks, his second of the season. One was split by Dalvin Tomlinson and Anthony Barr, with Armon Watts also creating pressure on the play. Then Watts, Pierce's replacement and another recent day three pick, got his sack and punched the ball out of Darnold's hands for a takeaway, just for good measure.

Hunter and Griffen have been dominant this season, but that game was a testament to the overall talent and depth the Vikings have in their front seven.

"I feel like we were strapping [Darnold] up pretty well the whole day," Kendricks said. "Couldn’t really do much on us. We were talking, communicating. Got into a nice rhythm, getting sacks and getting fumbles. We were doing most things right."

Bashaud Breeland steps up with incredible game

Early this season, there was no bigger weak link on the Vikings' defense than Breeland, the veteran corner they acquired late in free agency. He may have single-handedly cost them a win in the season opener in Cincinnati with a nightmarish debut for a new team. Through three games, Breeland was last among all NFL corners in almost every conceivable statistic, including touchdowns allowed, passer rating against, and missed tackles.

Over the last two weeks, we've seen the Breeland the Vikings thought they were getting when they signed him, the player who firmly beat out Cameron Dantzler for a starting spot in training camp and shined in the preseason. He was solid against the Lions, allowing only three catches on seven targets for minimal yardage. He was even better against the Panthers, not surrendering a single catch on six targets in his coverage and snagging his first interception of the year.

Panthers receivers struggled mightily with drops in this game, which made Breeland's coverage stats probably look a little better than they really were. But he was excellent in this game, never getting out of position and starting the game off strong with a diving pick. Look at this incredible turnaround in his numbers:

If the Vikings can get something closer to the Breeland of the last couple games than the one we saw to start the season, it would be a big boost to their secondary going forward. Patrick Peterson has also had a strong season, and Dantzler is a good piece to have as a rotational or depth option at outside corner behind those two.

The Vikings' kicking struggles remain a concern

It didn't end up mattering because the Vikings won the overtime coin toss and never let the Panthers get the ball back, but Greg Joseph's up and down season continued in Charlotte. He was three for three on kicks from less than 40 yards, but missed badly from 50 and 47 in the fourth quarter, when either kick would've wrapped up the game. Both went wide right and never had a chance to split the uprights.

That's now five missed kicks in six games for Joseph, who missed an extra point and the potential game-winner in Arizona back in Week 2. He also missed short from 49 yards last week against Detroit with a chance to put the game away.

Zimmer declined to express any concern about Joseph's misses against the Panthers, citing a tough wind.

"That was a tough wind today, honestly," Zimmer said. "It was a tough wind. Kicking into that wind, and I knew those two were right on the edge, that he missed, I think. But he’s done a good job. I don’t fault him for those."

Whether Zimmer says it or not, there's reason to be concerned about Joseph's struggles heading into the teeth of the Vikings' schedule. There may come a point soon where they need to either explore different options at kicker or turn up their aggressiveness on fourth downs significantly. But that's a discussion for down the line.

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