NEW ORLEANS — Kirk Cousins outplayed Drew Brees Sunday in New Orleans.
Heading in, most would have presumed that statement to mean the Vikings won a shootout, trading blows with a Hall of Fame quarterback who was on a roll.
But through 60 minutes, Cousins was just OK. He avoided any game-altering mistakes but failed to make many explosive plays. Save for Adam Thielen’s 34-yard grab in the third quarter, his longest completion to a tight end or wide receiver was 13 yards.
No, Cousins outplayed Brees because Brees looked mortal. Very mortal. And the Vikings defense made him look that way.
“It was crucial [that the defensive line set the tone],” linebacker Eric Kendricks said. “At times we only rushed four. That’s what they get paid for. They’re the best at what they do. They put pressure on them, they caused fumbles, they caused havoc.”
Brees’ 208 yards was his second-lowest total of the season, as was his 6.3 yards per attempt. He threw his first interception since Nov. 24. He lost his first fumble of the season. The Vikings did to Brees what few could: Flustered him. Minnesota’s ends Danielle Hunter and Everson Griffen combined to sack Brees three times and hurry him six. The Vikings kept the Saints to 4 of 11 on third down, holding Brees to 17 passing yards with a sack and an interception.
And while the Vikings and Saints were tied at two wins apiece in their last four games, some would argue Brees had been held below his usual standards in the previous four. Sunday makes five in a row.
The newest wrinkle Sunday was sending Hunter and Griffen inside on passing downs with Ifeadi Odenigbo and Stephen Weatherly on the edges, an inverted version of the Vikings’ normal third-down pass-rushing unit.
“That’s what we planned all week,” Hunter said. “We wanted to get pressure up the middle … there was a better matchup in the middle so they put us in the middle to get more pressure. When he sees pressure he’s not going to throw an accurate pass.”
That’s a bold final sentence from Hunter, who’s referring to arguably the league’s most decisive quarterback under pressure. Brees had the NFL’s best adjusted completion percentage when pressured this season. But then again, that wasn’t the only league-leader the Vikings made look human on Sunday.
The biggest defensive play of the day came late in the fourth quarter with the Saints driving for a potential lead. On 1st and 10, Hunter used an inside move to beat Ryan Ramczyk, the league’s top-graded tackle, according to Pro Football Focus. Hunter stripped Brees as he wound up to throw, forcing a fumble that Jalyn Holmes recovered to keep the Vikings in front for the moment at 20-17.
“That’s thanks to [Linval Joseph],” Hunter said. “He was telling me all game to go inside and he was like, ‘Bro, take the inside, take the inside.’ And I’m like ‘I’m trying to set it up.’ And that time the tackle jumped out at me and L.J. was waiting for me. I went under and Brees was right there. He was trying to make a play. He was trying to throw the ball when going down.”
Brees even had an underwhelming role in the Saints’ scoring drives. He was unable to turn a first and goal at the 9-yard line into seven points after the Saints defense started the game with a takeaway. He accounted for zero yards on their first touchdown drive, which was comprised of two Alvin Kamara runs, a Taysom Hill run and a Taysom Hill pass. His best stretch of the game was an 85-yard scoring drive that brought the Saints within three, but even the Saints’ game-tying field goal drive later on was confounding as New Orleans seemingly played for the tie despite having 1:53 on the clock and one timeout.
The Vikings secondary deserves significant credit for the effort. Fans panicked openly on Friday when word broke of the absence of two corners. With Mackensie Alexander (knee) and Mike Hughes (neck) out, the Vikings turned to the physical veteran Andrew Sendejo in the nickel spot, giving them a three-safety combination they’d yet to try until this week.
“He competed his rear end off,” Zimmer said. “Tried to put him in the right situations the best we could, so having three safeties out there was OK.”
Michael Thomas, the league’s leader in yards per route run out of the slot, scarcely had the impact some feared. While he made four first down catches, he didn’t find the end zone and caught seven or fewer balls for just the fourth time this season. Xavier Rhodes held up for most of the game until departing late with an apparent injury. Ted Ginn Jr. was held to one grab for 18 yards, thanks in large part to Trae Waynes. And Anthony Harris intercepted Brees on a deep shot in the second quarter. He’s now picked off Brees, Russell Wilson and Aaron Rodgers this season — quarterbacks with three of the four lowest interception rates in football.
“Turnovers in any game is big,” Harris said. “That’s the name of the game. Especially this time of the year right now. Every possession’s important. If you can steal a couple that’s great.”
If this is the final playoff run for this defensive core, what a feather in its cap.
All 11 of Sunday’s starters were part of the Vikings 53-man roster in 2015. The fact that they shared the field in Sunday’s playoff win may be unprecedented in NFL history, a testament to the continuity Zimmer has nurtured.
The tight-knit group sent Brees packing for an offseason in which he may be contemplating his future. It’s possible that time will come soon for the Vikings defense, which carries a number of vets with untenable cap hits. But their exhibition on Sunday showed the value of consistency; the value of the same players competing for five years straight under the same coaches.
Cousins congratulated the defense first as he accepted his game ball in the locker room. Kyle Rudolph, who snared the game-winning touchdown in overtime, received the other.
Those two finished off the Saints with a final connection, but the defensive salvo for the previous 60 minutes truly won the game.