The Minnesota Vikings’ offense is truly a thing of beauty – when it works.
They have Dalvin Cook and Alex Mattison, ripping up defenses with outside zone running, as well as receivers Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs streaking behind distracted defenders. That’s when the fun really starts, as Kirk Cousins has shown an aptitude for hitting those two in stride for big chunk plays.
More often than not this season, we’ve seen this good version of the Vikings’ play-action-reliant offense.
But when the Vikings’ offense doesn’t work? Whew, it’s ugly.
And that’s the version the entire nation was cruelly treated to Monday night, when Green Bay clinched the NFC North by harassing Cousins into an underwhelming performance in a 23-10 victory in Minnesota.
In the loss, Cousins completed 16 of 31 passes for a mere 122 yards, a touchdown and an interception. He dropped to an improbable 0-9 as a starting quarterback on “Monday Night Football,” the only quarterback in NFL history to do so. It is a statistic that will be weaponized against him by his growing army of doubters, just as much as the history-making, fully guaranteed $84 million deal he signed last March will be.
Even his opponents are taking a special glee in his demise. In a victorious strut through the tunnel after winning, the Packers’ Preston Smith, a former teammate of Cousins in Washington, borrowed a page from Cousins’ book, yelling, “You like that?!”
And guess what? The criticism is fair, as it comes with the territory.
The Vikings finished the game with just seven first downs, the fewest they’ve tallied in a home game since 1971. That’s remarkable considering some of the quarterbacks the Vikings have started over the years. Since 2000, Matt Cassel started nine games for them, while Joe Webb, Kelly Holcomb, Spergon Wynn and Todd Bouman each started at least two.
But I digress. Cousins has generally been really good this year, evidenced by his touchdown-to-interception ratio of 26-to-6.
While his struggles Monday were a reflection of circumstances like the absence of Cook and Mattison due to injury, Cousins will (rightfully) have to wear this one. He’ll share some of the blame with offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski, whose play-calling was very conservative throughout most of the first half. He’ll also share it with an offensive line that got its ass handed to it all night, as the Vikings eked out a meager 57 yards on 16 carries and surrendered five sacks and seven quarterback hits.
On a night where he was missing his two stud backs and his offensive line was less than its best, Cousins blew a golden opportunity to shut up his doubters. These days, elite quarterbacks, ones who can win a Super Bowl, often find a way to get the job done in less-than-ideal conditions. These “over my dead body” games happen all the time in today’s pass-happy NFL.
The best of the best — Patrick Mahomes (Week 3 vs. Baltimore), Lamar Jackson (Week 7 vs. Seattle), Tom Brady (Week 16 vs. Buffalo), Aaron Rodgers (Week 8 vs. Kansas City) — have all had them this year. I even saw first-hand Jimmy Garoppolo get one in the 49ers’ 48-46 road win over New Orleans in the NFL’s Game of the Year.
Cousins is still searching for his signature win in Minnesota, the one that shows he can put his team on his back and carry it to victory. That victory against Dallas in Week 10? Well, that looks much less impressive, given the Cowboys’ second-half swoon.
So while the Vikings’ offense was dominated so thoroughly Monday that everyone involved from the coaching staff on down has to take a piece of the blame, there’s no doubt the big loser in all this was Cousins, as the loss served as another reminder of his general inability to create magic out of nothing like a Patrick, Aaron or Lamar can.
And for that reason, when Aaron Jones high-stepped into the end zone for a touchdown that put Green Bay ahead by 13 with a little under six minutes left, the game didn’t just feel over — it felt over over.
So much so that when Cousins, with a little under two minutes left, fired a missile downfield on a fourth-and-15 scramble (hey, there’s some magic!) into the waiting arms of his wide open receiver, it didn’t feel strange that his receiver (Olabisi Johnson) flat-out dropped the pass, which hit him in the chest beyond the sticks.
It felt appropriate.
And so did the fact the Vikings’ hometown faithful unleashed a chorus of frustrated boos that accurately reflected a frustrating night.
The good news is that the Vikings (10-5) have already clinched a playoff berth, and help is likely on the way in the form of Cook, the NFL’s best running back this season.
But here’s what we also know: If the Vikings are going to make it out of a loaded NFC to the Super Bowl, at some point very, very soon, they’ll need their $84 million quarterback to deliver what he has been unable to thus far in Minnesota — a heroic, “over my dead body” performance in which he refuses to let his sixth-seeded Vikings lose to a higher-seeded team, even when their offense doesn’t “work” as intended.
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