Kirk Cousins is a valuable, occasionally frustrating quarterback. But in the midst of what’s statistically been his worst season as a full-time starter, he’s the engine that’s pushed the Minnesota Vikings out to an 8-1 start.
His ups and downs were on full display Sunday. He threw two interceptions. He twice stumbled flat onto his back because his feet got tangled up with his own center’s after the snap. He got crushed by opposing pass rushes. He scored only one touchdown on drives that pushed inside the Buffalo red zone.
But he also put his head down, pressed forward and delivered the drives that turned a 27-10 deficit on the road against the preseason Super Bowl favorite Buffalo Bills into a 33-30 upset win.
oh damn Kirk Cousins WANTS this pic.twitter.com/j35svrUNIp
— Christian D’Andrea (@TrainIsland) November 13, 2022
Cousins’ final line wasn’t pretty. He threw for 357 yards but needed 54 dropbacks to get there. He threw more interceptions (two) than touchdowns (one). His biggest pass of the day — the one that saved the game for Minnesota — was a function of Justin Jefferson making one of the greatest clutch catches in league history.
JUSTIN JEFFERSON ASDGJSKDNFGKSDF;K
— NFL (@NFL) November 13, 2022
But Cousins deserves the credit for this win because he did what Josh Allen didn’t; with a chance to win the game, he didn’t crush his team with mistakes.
With the game on the line, Cousins knew enough to put the ball in his playmakers’ hands. In his final drive and overtime he targeted Jefferson on seven of his 12 passing plays. He defaulted to Dalvin Cook, whose 81-yard touchdown run had started the team’s comeback, to churn out 29 yards over three carries to start overtime. In simple language, he trusted the playmakers around him to elevate his offense without overexerting himself in a way that could cost the Vikings the game.
This was the right decision. Cousins finished his day with -1.1 expected points added (EPA) — Allen was only good for 1.5 EPA — but thrived when it came to making tough throws downfield. One of the biggest concerns about his underwhelming 2022 was that his average target distance had dropped from a career-high 8.2 yards downfield in 2021 to a career-low 6.6 this fall. After completing 68 percent of his passes between 10 and 19 yards beyond the line of scrimmage in 2020-21, that number had fallen to 62.9 percent in 2022. His deep ball completion rate had dipped as well despite Jefferson morphing into his final form.
On Sunday, Cousins stared down a top five passing defense and cracked it consistently on those same throws.
On throws that traveled more than 10 yards downfield Cousins was 11-17 for 239 yards, one touchdown, one interception and a 103.2 passer rating. Four of his final 12 passes covered at least 16 yards in the air and resulted in 75 net yards (two catches and one defensive pass interference) that proved instrumental to his team’s win.
The knock on Cousins has always been that his performance in big games hasn’t matched his stats. While Sunday’s 1 p.m. kickoff didn’t do anything to dispel the theory he’s a lesser quarterback in primetime — which he is, but not by as much as you’d expect — there’s no denying his ability to step into the spotlight in a hostile environment in the face of a potentially hopeless situation.
Buffalo’s win probability peaked at 96.8 percent late in the third quarter of Week 10’s decidedly epic game. Cousins, from that point forward, led scoring driving on three of his next four meaningful drives — and the only one that failed to put points on the board ended at the one-inch line and set up the defensive touchdown that gave the Vikings a late lead. His numbers weren’t mind-blowing: he completed 12 of 19 156 yards and no touchdowns.
But he also didn’t turn the ball over, converted three different fourth downs and provided the stability the Bills lacked on the other side of the ball. Allen, on the other hand, didn’t lead a single touchdown drive in the second half and threw two interceptions in the end zone — one of which was a reasonable fourth-and-goal throwaway, but the other one was a game-sealing Patrick Peterson pick in OT.
Cousins stepped up in the midst of an absolute BEATING in the pocket. Cousins was tackled at least 18 times, by my count, including four sacks and 10 quarterback hits from the Bills pass rush. All four of those sacks came during the rally that pushed this game into overtime and the extra frame itself. Despite being behind the eight ball and operating from sloppy pockets protected by a tired offensive line, Cousins still put his team in places where it could succeed.
The Minnesota Vikings lacked a signature win over the first half of the season. Their 7-1 record came against falling stars like the Green Bay Packers or Arizona Cardinals or New Orleans Saints. Their best win, before Sunday, was over a Miami Dolphins team reduced to splitting quarterback snaps between Teddy Bridgewater and Skylar Thompson. Their only game against a team that currently has a winning record and wasn’t reduced to starting a backup quarterback came in Week 2, where the Philadelphia Eagles pasted them 27-7.
In Week 10, the Vikings seized an opportunity made possible by an embattled quarterback. Kirk Cousins isn’t perfect, but he’s smart enough to let the All-Pro playmakers at his side carry him when needed. Cousins’ game Sunday was the equivalent of a child playing Nintendo and asking his or her mom to finish off the toughest levels. It worked, because the Vikings have built around a quarterback who is occasionally great and occasionally a liability.
Now the rest of the NFL has to be worried about the Vikings. Because if they could do this in Orchard Park — on an afternoon where Cousins spent a good chunk of his day in a rut — they can do it anywhere.
The last 2 minutes of Vikings-Bills were pure, glorious football chaos