Kirk Cousins had a chance to be the hero with less than three minutes left in a wild-card test against New Orleans on Sunday, with his Minnesota Vikings up three points and facing a third-and-19 at their own 38-yard line.
The Saints rushed only three, and for some swashbuckling quarterbacks — think Patrick Mahomes, Deshaun Watson and Aaron Rodgers — that would have been like refusing to double-team Kobe Bryant in the waning seconds of a game and daring him to beat you.
Cousins doesn’t have that reputation. He was placed in the “game manager” category long ago, written off as someone who needed a strong defense and strong supporting cast to win big.
So when Cousins took a sack against New Orleans’ meager rush Sunday, playing it safe and running straight into a defender’s grasp, it wasn’t a surprise. It was confirmation of what everybody thought he was. And in turn, it certainly wasn’t difficult to imagine the great Drew Brees leading his team right down the field for a game-winning score the ensuing drive.
Most of the time, NFL quarterbacks like Cousins wind up leading their teams to strong regular-season records, but their inability to conjure magic catches up to them in the playoffs. They lose to the superstars and alphas, get judged for not being superhuman in a game of mutants. They are thrown into the pit of “good but not great” and derisively called a “game manager.” It might not be fair, but that’s how it is.
Here’s what’s also true about the NFL: In the playoffs, sometimes the pit of game-managing quarterbacks throws something back.
Most of the time, elite quarterbacks win Super Bowls. But it doesn’t always go down like that. Sometimes a good quarterback gets hot. Sometimes, a game manager is buoyed by a strong defense and the momentum that comes with winning against the odds. Nick Foles did it in the 2017 season. Same with Peyton Manning, who might as well have been playing with a gigantic fork sticking out of his back, in Denver’s 2015 run. Other notable seasons: Joe Flacco in 2012. Eli Manning in 2007 and 2011. Brad Johnson in 2002. Trent Dilfer in 2000.
So, yeah, it’s possible for a non-elite quarterback to win a Super Bowl. They just need to get hot, along with a little luck, too.
What does this have to do with Cousins? Well, what happened Sunday certainly qualifies for the “they got lucky” and “he got hot” territory.
After that late sack, the Vikings’ defense held Brees and the high-scoring Saints to a game-tying field goal on the ensuing drive.
Then Minnesota won the overtime toss.
And on their OT drive, facing first-and-10 at the Saints’ 45, the Vikings’ ultra-conservative coach, Mike Zimmer, allowed offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski to call a deep play-action shot to receiver Adam Thielen, who ran a great post corner route and split his man and the safety. He still needed Cousins to uncork a perfect ball to have a chance.
Thielen’s over-the-shoulder haul, which set up the game-winning score, was the catch of Thielen’s professional career. The throw was the best of Cousins’ life, even better than the picture-perfect jump ball he threw to tight end Kyle Rudolph on third-and-goal for the winning score.
Those two moments, those two throws, delivered not only Cousins’ first playoff win, but they also raised his team’s Super Bowl ceiling. This is the type of victory — a sixth seed over a third seed, on the road, in a raucous environment — that gives a team confidence in its quarterback going forward. And if you need proof of that, all you had to do was watch the ensuing postgame celebration, where a smiling, giddy Cousins stood before his teammates, clenched his right fist and delivered the best moment of the 2020 postseason, one that hearkened back to another viral moment he produced several years ago:
“That’s how we’ve won all year — a team, right? Thanks for holding them to 20 points, man — you gave us a chance at the end,” Cousins said, before bellowing the kicker:
“I got three words for you — you like that?”
Cousins finished the day 19-of-31 for 242 yards and a touchdown.
Now, no one will pick the Vikings to beat the top-seeded 49ers in Santa Clara on Saturday in the divisional round, and rightly so. But if Minnesota manages to do the impossible, remember those clutch throws on Sunday, and Cousins’ ensuing postgame speech, which was punctuated by his teammates roaring and mobbing him in approval.
While improbable Super Bowl runs where game managers can become legends don’t happen every year, when they do, they almost always include a good quarterback getting hot.
And while there’s still a chance for the worst-case scenario to play out for Cousins — which is the Vikings losing their next game and deciding to draft his eventual replacement in April — it must also be noted that it’s hard to imagine a better postseason springboard than what Cousins just accomplished against the Saints.
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