For fans and media, there’s plenty of talk about Sunday’s wild-card playoff game between the Vikings and Saints being the rematch of the Minneapolis Miracle win for Minnesota in an NFC divisional playoff game two years ago.
For Kirk Cousins, who played for the Redskins at the time, this week’s game is simply the biggest game of his career and would be his signature win thus far if he can help make it happen.
There’s so much at stake for Cousins on Sunday. First and foremost is earning his first playoff victory. In his only previous postseason game, in 2015, he and the Redskins lost 35-18 in Green Bay when he threw for 329 yards and two TDs but was sacked six times and lost a fumble.
Also in the mix is Cousins $28 million per year contract that has one year remaining and would likely be extended by the Vikings — in the $32 million-$35 million range with $100 million-plus guaranteed — if Cousins plays well in New Orleans and possibly in San Francisco next week if Minnesota advances. A poor performance Sunday would create doubt among Minnesota’s decision-makers and likely delay a decision on the quarterback’s future until after next season.
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It’s easier said than done, but Cousins says he’s trying not to project ahead on his future or his contract and focus on the Saints. “All that really matters is the fact that it’s one game and you just have to go and play and get the job done in a tough environment,” Cousins said. “It’s an NFL playoff game with heightened awareness and scrutiny and I don’t need much more motivation. You just understand you’ve got a football game against a really good team and you’ve got to go win it. Beyond that is not the focus.”
Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said essentially the same thing in regards to Cousins’ future: “The importance level is to play well this week,” he said. “We’ll worry about the long term and all those other things later on. We’re going to focus on the Saints, an excellent football team.”
Back in mini-camp last June, Cousins assessed his career and foreshadowed the upcoming NFL playoffs when he said, “I think the next level is all about winning. I’m pretty much a .500 quarterback in my career so far and that’s not why you’re brought in or people are excited about you. If I don’t play well, if I don’t have gaudy statistics but we win multiple playoff games, the narrative will be I went to the next level. That’s the life of a quarterback.”
The opportunity is there for Cousins to make his first move in the direction of which he speaks in the Big Easy on Sunday. It certainly won’t be easy. The Saints, a team with a potent offense led by Drew Brees and a big-play defense, arguably are the best team playing on wild-card weekend after a 13-3 season. Zimmer is playing the no respect card this week in saying, “We’re eight-point underdogs, we’re going on the road and they just had an NFL video of all the playoff teams except us.”
Cousins has overcome the .500 QB label at least for this season in leading the Vikings to a 10-6 record, which is really 10-5 on his watch since he and most of the starters sat out last week’s loss to the Bears.
It’s been a rollercoaster season for Cousins, who started slow and heated up in a 10 game stretch in which he rose to among the league leaders in passing efficiency (he finished fourth with a career-high 107.4 rating as he threw 26 TD passes against six interceptions, his career low as a starter). But his last start was shaky with only 122 yards passing in a Monday night home loss to the rival Packers that handed Green Bay the NFC North.
Cousins’ poor performance that night on the national stage renewed the sniping by his critics that he falls short in big moments. He says he plays best with a chip on his shoulder when he’s doubted. That chip should be back in place this week after his disappointing Packers performance that has created doubt in many Vikings fans as to whether Cousins can be trusted to deliver in the intense playoff spotlight.
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The good news for Cousins: With Pro Bowl running back Dalvin Cook and No. 2 back Alexander Mattison returning to the lineup after missing the past two games with injuries, he will have his full complement of weapons for the first time since wide receiver Adam Thielen injured his hamstring in Week 7 at Detroit (he returned two weeks ago). Included in that group is Minneapolis Miracle hero Stefon Diggs, who has been over 100 yards receiving in the last two games against the Saints.
Cousins and the Vikings offense need all hands on deck to keep up with the Saints offense led by future Hall of Famer Brees, record-breaking receiver Michael Thomas and dual-threat back Alvin Kamara. The Saints have averaged a league-high 36.3 points per game since Week 10 and will be difficult for Minnesota’s No. 14 defense to contain (although the Vikings have forced 11 turnovers in the past three games).
I don’t think the Vikings can upset the Saints without an excellent game from their QB. He’ll need support from the run game to set up play-action passes from the perimeter where he’s been so effective this season. And the offensive line has to play well as they did most of the season but fell off against Green Bay with five sacks allowed. The Saints ranked third with 51 sacks (led by Cam Jordan with 15.5), and an effective run and screen game can help slow down the pass rush.
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Cousins threw for 359 yards and two TDs last year against the Saints, so he should be confident that the passing game can be effective Sunday. But two turnovers were costly in that game as the Saints won, 30-20, so Cousins and Co. need to protect the ball. It helps the Vikings that two starters on New Orleans’ defensive line, Marcus Davenport and Sheldon Rankins, are out with injuries.
Cousins and his coaches are surely studying how the 49ers’ Jimmy Garoppolo threw for 349 yards and four TDs in a 48-46 win in New Orleans on Dec. 8. Perhaps Cousins can have a similar performance against the NFL’s No. 20 pass defense.
A good omen for Cousins and the Vikings could be that the table is set for a possible repeat of the 1987 playoffs, when I was an assistant GM in Minnesota. As the NFC’s lowest seed, we upset the Saints in New Orleans and then knocked off Bill Walsh, Joe Montana and the No. 1-seeded 49ers in the divisional playoffs (before falling in the NFC title game in Washington).
Such a playoff run would begin to change the narrative on Cousins’ career and set up his long-term future in Minnesota.
Jeff Diamond is a former president of the Titans and former vice president/general manager of the Vikings. He was selected NFL Executive of the Year in 1998. Diamond is currently a business and sports consultant who also does broadcast and online media work. He makes speaking appearances to corporate/civic groups and college classes on negotiation and sports business/sports management. He is the former chairman and CEO of The Ingram Group. Follow Jeff on Twitter: @jeffdiamondNFL.