Fourth-and-three decision undermines otherwise great night from Kirk Cousins

Mike Florio

Kirk Cousins did plenty of great things on Monday night in Seattle. But with the game on the line, and in the flash of an eye, a not-so-great decision derailed what would have been one of the greatest come-from-behind victories in Monday Night Football history.

First, Cousins merits praise. He made multiple good decisions in spreading the ball to nine different receivers. He threw the ball well. The third-quarter fumble that allowed the Seahawks to take the lead for the first time wasn’t his fault. The interception — his first since Week Six — came after blatant defensive pass interference that wasn’t called, a failure by receiver Stefon Diggs (despite the interference) to catch the ball when it him in the hands, and an incredible look-what-I-found play by Seattle defensive back Tre Flowers

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Down 34-17, Cousins didn’t flinch. He pressed. He made even better throws and even better decisions. He had the sense of urgency that we so often criticize quarterbacks in the fourth quarter of a potentially lost cause for not demonstrating, pushing the Vikings to the line of scrimmage, realizing that every second counted when down 17 and later when down 10.

Still, with the game on the line and the ball in his hands, Cousins made a bad decision, and a bad throw.

It was fourth and three from the Minnesota 42, with 2:31 to play. In shotgun formation, Cousins got the snap, made a quick read, and fired the ball to tight end Irv Smith, who was running an out route from the left slot. It wasn’t even close to being completed.

Kevin Seifert of ESPN.com posted a diagram of the options available to Cousins at the time he threw the ball. Smith was covered. Diggs, split wide to the left, flared deep toward the sideline and was covered. Laquon Treadwell did basically the same thing on the right side, and was covered. Tight end Kyle Rudolph, who ran the same route as Smith on the other side of the formation, also was covered.

Running back Alexander Mattison leaked out of the backfield, and based on the graphic posted by Seifert was open.

The NFL’s NextGenStats account chimed in with this observation: “For added context, targeting Alexander Mattison had a Completion Probability of 89.9% (Expected Yards = 5.6). Targeting Irv Smith had just a 43.2% Completion Probability at the moment Cousins attempted the pass. Smith also had the highest INT probability (25.8%) of any receiver.”

The problem for Cousins is that, because he lacks the mobility to buy time with his legs, he had to make a quick decision. And when making a quick decision, it’s important to make the right decision.

In that moment, he didn’t. While it doesn’t take away the very good things that he did last night, it ultimately kept the Vikings from the kind of season-defining win that would have propelled them toward the division title, possibly a bye, and possibly the Super Bowl.

While, as coach Mike Zimmer said, the loss isn’t the end of the world, here’s what it is: The start of a path to Miami that will be much more challenging than it otherwise could have been, with a likely trip to Green Bay with the reward for an upset being a trip to New Orleans/Seattle/San Francisco followed by (with another upset) another trip to New Orleans/Seattle/San Francisco.

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