MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — The Minnesota Vikings had moved into position for the go-ahead touchdown at Green Bay in the fourth quarter of their Week 2 meeting, with first-and-goal inside the 10-yard line.
Then one regrettable off-balance throw by Kirk Cousins thwarted their rally and seemingly threatened to cement his status as a so-so quarterback who couldn't be counted on in the most crucial moments.
Cousins and the rest of the offense have made a resolute recovery from the cringe-inducing decision and resulting end-zone interception that essentially sealed a 21-16 victory for the Packers. Finally, the Vikings have the opportunity to avenge that damaging defeat when they host the rematch on Monday night. Having clinched at least a wild-card spot in the playoffs, the Vikings can also prevent their chief rivals from clinching the NFC North on their home turf.
In a testament to patience in this snap-judgment league, Cousins and his runners, blockers and receivers have performed well enough after an iffy September that scoring points and protecting the ball have become the least of Minnesota's problems. They've definitely come a long way since that day in Green Bay.
“It’s hard going back and watching that tape. We’re so much better as a football team, so much better of an offense than we were,” tight end Kyle Rudolph said.
Cousins was picked off twice in that game while going 14 for 32 for the second-worst completion percentage of his career, as the Vikings fell behind 21-0 in the second quarter. Two weeks later, they lost 16-6 at Chicago with a season-low 222 total yards as Cousins was sacked a season-most six times.
Coupled with his regression during the second half of 2018 that contributed to Minnesota missing the playoffs in his debut season, the fully guaranteed $84 million contract the Vikings gave Cousins was beginning to look like a liability. As it turned out, Cousins just needed more time to settle in with the new system directed by offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski and designed by offensive adviser Gary Kubiak.
The Vikings have averaged 29.4 points over the last 10 games, even with star wide receiver Adam Thielen absent for about two-thirds of that stretch. With a productive rushing attack as the foundation, Stefanski has put Cousins in consistently favorable situations by frequently using play-action, screen and rollout passes from under center. That has set up several well-timed deep balls to Stefon Diggs that Cousins has put in the right places for game-changing gains.
“It's always a work in progress, and I don’t really like putting my stake in the ground and saying something or other about my performance,” Cousins said, “but I do think the longer you play, the more comfortable you get in a system, the more comfortable you get with teammates, the better you can make decisions in split seconds as to whether to check the ball down or take the deep shot, throw it away, avoid a sack.”
In his fifth full season as a starter, Cousins still lacks a postseason win and has only a handful of victories on the road over winning teams. He has, however, begun this year to slay a few of those sports-talk-show-filler dragons with fourth-quarter comebacks, night-game victories and a significant reduction of turnovers.
Currently ranking in the top five in the league in completion percentage, yards per attempt, passer rating and interception percentage, Cousins has unquestionably produced the best season of his career. Beating the Packers would be another notable accomplishment.
“Hopefully he has a great game and hopefully we win, but it’s not all on him,” coach Mike Zimmer said. “We have 21 other players, and they have to go out and execute just as much as he does.”
Packers coach Matt LaFleur has long admired Cousins. He was the quarterbacks coach for Washington in Cousins' first two years in the league.
“If the play’s there, he’s making the play, period, every time,” LaFleur said. “He’s so accurate, and he’s extremely intelligent. He knows what he's looking for, and when he sees it there’s no hesitation.”
LaFleur's current pupil, Aaron Rodgers, has long displayed such decisiveness, among many other elite attributes. With the Packers relying more on the run these days and a collection of mostly inexperienced receivers, Rodgers ranks behind Cousins in almost every statistical measure this year. Still, he hasn't thrown an interception in eight straight games, and he has helped the Packers reach the 11-win mark for the first time in five years.
“This is why we play the games, for times like these, to go on the road in a hostile environment and have a chance to lock up the North with a win,” Rodgers said. “Everybody will be ready to roll. 'Monday Night Football' adds a little extra to it, I’m sure. It’s going to be one of those old-fashioned NFC North contests.”
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