Luke Inman contributed to this story.
To no one’s surprise, the Minnesota Vikings have gone as Kirk Cousins has gone in 2019, and right now that path has a very positive trajectory.
Cousins completed a 20-point comeback on Sunday to beat the Denver Broncos 27-23, sending the Vikings into a 15-day break between games with plenty to celebrate. It was the first 20-plus-point halftime deficit any team has overcome in the last five years, and Cousins had to be virtually perfect to achieve it, leading four touchdown drives in the Vikings’ only four possessions.
That’s been par for the course for Cousins during Minnesota’s six out of seven wins. In that span, he has the best passer rating of any NFL quarterback in second halves (131.3) and fourth quarters (141.3), following two lousy second-half performances in losses at Green Bay and Chicago in the first four weeks.
“I know the way he’s played over this last six to eight weeks,” said general manager Rick Spielman, “he’s played as good as any of the quarterbacks in the league right now for what we’re asking him to do.”
A quick look back through Cousins’ recent stretch reveals how consistently good he’s been late in games.
- Holding one-possession leads against the Giants and Eagles, Cousins led two late-game scoring drives to give the Vikings matching 18-point wins.
- Engineered two fourth-quarter touchdown drives at Detroit to pull away by 12. On the second one, he hit Stefon Diggs on a deep play-action pass to virtually clinch the victory.
- Led a go-ahead touchdown drive at Kansas City to give the Vikings a lead (but faltered later in the game with a chance to win)
- Captained a go-ahead touchdown drive at Dallas in the final seconds of the third quarter to earn a huge primetime road victory.
- Scored 20 unanswered fourth quarter points versus the Broncos, going 18 of 23 for 261 yards and three touchdowns after halftime.
Cousins has been a 73.5% passer in second halves with nine touchdowns and no interceptions since Week 5. Only Cousins, Patrick Mahomes and Russell Wilson have played interception-free football in second halves during that stretch (out of passers with 50 or more attempts). Narrow it down to the fourth quarter, and Cousins is completing 73.7% of passes for 390 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions.
“Making quick decisions, getting rid of the football in this league, you can’t talk about that enough,” said offensive advisor Gary Kubiak, “because it’s a game where if you hold the ball, bad things happen, so we just try to put a big point of emphasis on that, and the way that Kevin [Stefanski] has called games I think has been the most important thing of how Kirk has been able to translate that to Sundays.”
The comeback versus Denver demonstrated Cousins’ ability to play decisively while taking what the defense gave him in the short passing game and capitalizing on opportunities over the top.
Let’s take a look at his fourth quarter throws.
He starts off the quarter with a third-down conversion to Diggs on a well-thrown ball to the left sideline, one of seven third- or fourth-down conversions the Vikings converted in the second half.
Then he found Dalvin Cook for a nine-yard screen, one of two screens the Vikings would hit in the fourth quarter.
Then, another precise throw to Bisi Johnson to set up Cook’s eventual touchdown run. Cousins did a great job being accurate throwing to the boundary in the second half.
Denver played the above drive perfectly, even though the Vikings scored a touchdown. They forced Minnesota to go 18 plays in 5 minutes, 58 seconds, and they even stopped the ensuing two-point conversion to keep it a two-score game.
The next two drives? Not as good.
Cousins starts out the following series with an extremely difficult throw — no, not the deep ball to Diggs — a bullet to Tyler Conklin for eight yards between two Broncos defenders. This set up a more manageable 3rd and 2 instead of 3rd and 10.
Then came the deep shot, a backside post to Diggs that Cousins said many teams only hit “once per decade,” even though the Vikings have hit two of them this season. Irv Smith Jr. froze the safety with a crossing route, and Diggs burned by the cornerback for a 54-yard strike on a perfect throw from Cousins, rolling out to his left, where he’s been extremely comfortable this season.
Below you get a better idea for how the play developed in the secondary to let Diggs loose.
The Vikings only needed 35 seconds to score on the drive, cashing in on Denver’s slight hesitation in the secondary and whipping the U.S. Bank Stadium crowd into a frenzy.
Head coach Mike Zimmer said the last 10 minutes of games were a situational emphasis throughout OTAs and training camp.
“Again, it’s another area that we talked about this spring and worked on,” he said. “Maybe just being in those situations helped. He’s not doing it by himself. There’s a lot of other guys helping him. The receivers are making good catches. The offensive line blocked well. There’s a lot of good things that happened.”
After the Broncos missed a field goal, the Vikings got the ball back with a chance to take the lead and started off with another screen to Cook for 21 yards.
Three plays later, another third-down. Diggs made a nice contested catch against corner Duke Dawson to convert a 3rd and 5 and move the chains.
On 1st and 10, the Vikings went with another bootleg to the left. They performed two of them in the second half, both for touchdowns. Kyle Rudolph snuck behind Dawson on the crossing pattern with no safety help, allowing him to walk in for the score.
Watch how Laquon Treadwell’s route cleared out two Broncos and opened up the entire left side of the field for Rudolph.
The Vikings had no margin for error in the second half. Even settling for one field goal would probably have lost the game.
“We didn’t play the way we wanted to play or had the game go the way we’d like to play it,” Kubiak said on Tuesday, “but yet we turned [Cousins] loose in the second half. He put it on his back and led us to a big win.”
While the first half against the Broncos reminded fans of their frustrations about Cousins — the conservative decision-making, fumbling, etc. — the comeback more than made up for it.
Cousins is becoming a second-half quarterback.