GREEN BAY, WIS. – Kevin O'Connell awarded game balls Sunday to every member of the Vikings defense and to all his assistant coaches on that side of the ball.
The defense earned it. Brian Flores' unit has been disruptive and opportunistic and difficult to play against lately.
Now, suddenly, the defense needs to become a strength, or in the words of safety Josh Metellus, "the rock of the team."
Rarely has a victorious locker room felt so deflating.
"Tough to describe," defensive lineman Harrison Phillips said quietly.
"It's a weird mood," edge rusher Danielle Hunter said.
Another defensive starter simply gave a one-word cuss word that summed up the vibe inside the locker room better than any other answer as players tried to process the magnitude of Cousins' injury.
Though players declined to speculate on the nature of their leader's injury, it was obvious from their tone and body language that they were bracing for the worst outcome.
O'Connell and the team's front office must quickly untangle a complicated problem. The mission for the defense is clear-cut: Keep raising the bar on its performance.
"We've been playing some pretty good defense," Phillips said, "but we haven't touched our ceiling at all."
They will need to move closer to that ceiling as the offense recalibrates under a new quarterback — whoever that is.
The silver lining on a somber day for the organization is that Flores' defense continued to show significant improvement. The Vikings made the Packers offense and quarterback Jordan Love look like members of the Big Ten West.
The Vikings have held three consecutive opponents to fewer than 20 points and an average of 13.3 points.
"Big shoutout to Flores for putting guys in the proper positions to make plays," Hunter said. "He's been doing a good job of putting guys in position to play fast."
Flores' magic touch is becoming more evident by the week. A defense that played on its heels last season is now dictating the terms. The defense is generating more game-altering plays because players understand their assignments and Flores' scheme and aggressive play-calling creates those opportunities.
"More recently we have tended to rise to the occasion," safety Harrison Smith said. "That's kind of who we are."
They won their matchup Sunday in a landslide. The Packers didn't gain a first down until 4:11 left before halftime.
The defense held the Packers to 98 yards in the first half, and Metellus' interception in the third quarter turned the game into a rout. Metellus made a dazzling play to rip the ball out of receiver Jayden Reed's hands on a deep pass down the middle of the field.
Metellus returned the pick 43 yards to the Green Bay 20. Cousins connected with Jordan Addison for a touchdown pass on the next play to stretch the lead to 24-3.
Every level of the Vikings defense provided impactful contributions. Phillips was a run-stuffing anchor in the middle. Hunter collected another sack and caused two fumbles. Camryn Bynum had two of the team's seven pass breakups.
"We're having fun," said Smith, the leader of the defense. "We're unfazed by whatever situation we're put in."
Cousins' injury changes the entire team's situation, not just the offense. Scoring points will be far more challenging now. The Vikings will be required to win differently.
"Mentality-wise, we had already put ourselves in that position," Metellus said. "Since we were 0-3, we've been saying, 'Defense has to win games.' Just putting the ownership on ourselves. Not worrying about the offense. We've got to be the ones that make plays."
Delivering on that edict helped save their season. Now that the team has arrived at a different crossroads, BFlo's defense will need to produce more performances that get rewarded with game balls from the head coach.