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Kirk Cousins Altering Career Narrative, But Playoff Test Awaits

Minnesota Vikings
Dec 17, 2022; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins (8) celebrates after throwing a touchdown to wide receiver Adam Thielen (not pictured) during the fourth against the Indianapolis Colts quarter at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports

Throughout Kirk Cousins' NFL career in Washington and Minnesota, the narrative has been consistent: He's smart, has a strong arm, and puts up good stats, but he shrinks in big moments, such as in prime-time and late-season games when playoff berths are on the line. 

Well, Cousins is in the process of changing that narrative, as it's a much different story this season. He just engineered the biggest comeback in NFL history as the 11-3 Vikings rallied from a 33-0 deficit to beat the Colts and clinch the NFC North title. This is Cousins' first division title in his five years in Minnesota, with a home playoff game coming in four weeks. 

The Indianapolis game was not just a one-off performance in 2022. Cousins threw for a remarkable 417 yards in the second half and overtime to produce his seventh come-from-behind victory this season —a league-high in 2022 — and led his career-high seventh game-winning drive in the fourth quarter or overtime.

The Week 10 overtime win in Buffalo featured the play of the year in the NFL when wide receiver Justin Jefferson made a miraculous one-handed, 32-yard catch on a fourth-and-18 Cousins pass with two minutes remaining in regulation to keep the Vikings' hopes alive. 

On Thanksgiving night in prime time, Cousins passed for 299 yards and three TDs, including the 15-yard game-winner in the fourth quarter to Adam Thielen, in a 33-26 win over the Patriots. 

It's been an unexpected season full of excitement thus far for the Vikings and their fan base. One of the most surprising elements has been the public personality change of Cousins, who has morphed into "Kirko Chainz." It started with the quarterback wearing a teammate's chain on the flight home after winning in Miami in Week 6. Two weeks later, following Cousins leading a game-winning drive against his former Washington team, the video went viral of him shirtless and wearing a bunch of his teammates' chains on the flight home. 

In his post-game media session after the Colts game, Cousins wore a gaudy purple coat with multiple Vikings logos, which he never would've done a year ago. But as is typical of his leadership, he humbly deflected credit to his offensive mates and the defense for holding the Colts to three points after halftime to aid the comeback. 

Credit Cousins and a winning season for this metamorphosis at 34 years old, as he is clearly enjoying the moment. But also credit the presence of Jefferson, the NFL's best receiver. Leading a great supporting cast of offensive skill players for Cousins, Jefferson leads the NFL in both receptions (111) and yards receiving (1,623), with a chance to break Calvin Johnson's single-season record of 1,964 receiving yards. 

Cousins has other excellent options in two-time Pro Bowler Adam Thielen (66 catches, 686 yards, 5 TDs), emerging third-year receiver in KJ Osborn (career-highs of 10 catches for 157 yards against the Colts) and mid-season trade acquisition T.J. Hockenson, who has been a very productive tight end with 39 catches in his seven games in Minnesota. Hockenson caught the game-tying two-point conversion late in the Colts game to send it to overtime. Dalvin Cook is one of the league's top dual-threat backs. He has 1,045 yards rushing, 265 yards receiving and 10 total TDs and produced the biggest play with Cousins in the comeback on a 64-yard screen pass to pull the Vikings within two points.

The offensive line is up and down due to some injury issues (seven sacks of Cousins vs. Indianapolis), but when fully healthy, it's an effective unit. Cousins also has done a better job under new coach Kevin O'Connell's tutelage of stepping up or rolling out to avoid the rush and occasionally running for a key first down.  

O'Connell is perhaps the biggest factor in the excellent season for Cousins and the obvious increase in his confidence level. He was Cousins' QB coach for one year in Washington, and as a former NFL quarterback, there was an immediate level of trust between coach and player.

O'Connell talked up Cousins' skill set in his first press conference. He empowered Cousins to be a leader and not be afraid to give Jefferson contested-catch opportunities, such as the Buffalo play. He even praised Cousins for taking a risk after an interception in Washington where Cousins made a tight window throw to a double-covered Jefferson, but the ball was tipped and intercepted. 

In his media session after the historic rally to beat the Colts, O'Connell continued his season-long positive reinforcement of Cousins.

"I just think of his poise, his demeanor, his accuracy when we needed it most," O'Connell said. "He was a huge part of us winning this game. I think back to some huge plays that were not his first progression or second progression. He knives a beautiful throw to Adam Thielen on the winning drive that's three of four on the progression. Kirk deserves a huge amount of credit for willing our team. That guy keeps playing at a high level." 

Cousins put up numbers despite having new offensive coordinators every year. Before this season with O'Connell, Cousins had his best season working with Kevin Stefanski when he was the OC in 2019, one of Cousins' three Pro Bowl seasons. Cousins went 10-5 that year with a career-high 107.4 rating and played well in leading an overtime wild-card victory in New Orleans for his only playoff win (against two losses). But that game was followed up by an ugly 27-10 defeat in San Francisco when he was under siege and sacked six times. Media and Vikings fans continued to be lukewarm at best on Cousins' ability to get the Vikings to a Super Bowl. 

After Stefanski was hired as Browns head coach in 2020, Cousins put up good stats working first with Gary Kubiak and then his son, Klint. But Cousins couldn't overcome the Vikings' defensive struggles and produced a 15-17 record over the next two seasons. 

It's all kumbaya in Minnesota now with Cousins and his coaches, teammates and even a majority of the fan base, all of whom seem to be embracing the new Kirk after several years of mixed feelings. 

As in the case of almost all current quarterbacks not named Patrick Mahomes, there are Cousins doubters who want to see a long playoff run or Super Bowl appearance before they fully embrace the Vikings QB. They've been quieted temporarily as the comeback victories have stacked up. 

Cousins' passer rating at 92 is 15 points below his career-best, but the reality is he's playing much better in crunch time and winning more than he ever has in the regular season. Cook is a 1,000-yard rusher once again, but the running game has been inconsistent overall (ranked No. 28). So Cousins is throwing more than in recent years — partially because of Jefferson's elite talent — and is on pace for the most passing yards in his five Vikings seasons. He ranks sixth league-wide with 3,818 yards and is fifth in TD passes with 24, but his 11 interceptions are third-most, again due to his greater willingness, as preached by O'Connell, to take chances.

Cousins is not in the MVP conversation, but with 11 wins and all the come-from-behind victories, I think he deserves some top-five votes. With an excellent season for the team and himself, Cousins is putting himself in a great position for a sizable contract. He is signed through 2023 with a $36 million cap hit next year. The Vikings are going to be tight against the cap, which means another extension at the $40 million-plus per year rate for successful QBs is likely so the team can get a reduced cap number by including a big signing bonus. A deep playoff run will only enhance his already strong leverage. 

It's been a memorable regular season for the Vikings and Cousins, highlighted by two of the most thrilling games in league history against the Bills and Colts. As is always the case, the ultimate level of success for this Vikings team and their quarterback will be determined in the upcoming playoffs. 

Cousins will face expectations like never before in his career since the Vikings will be no lower than the No 3 seed in the NFC (and they're hoping to hang onto No. 2 for a potential divisional-round game against the 49ers at home, where their loud fans can be disruptive to rookie QB Brock Purdy). 

Cousins knows the drill and understands he'll receive a good share of the blame if the team doesn't at least make it to the NFC title game. In 2019, he said, "It's really all about winning. I'm pretty much a .500 quarterback in my career, and I don't think that's where you want to be. If I don't have gaudy statistics, but we win multiple playoff games, the narrative will be I went to the next level."

Cousins will likely have to beat top-5 defenses, such as the 49ers and Eagles, with fierce pass rushes, to advance to his first Super Bowl (and the Vikings' first since 1976). But all season long, he's hung in the pocket as a quarterback, willing to absorb big hits while he confidently throws it downfield to Jefferson and Co. 

His alter ego "Kirko Chainz" will simply say to the pass rushers and the pressure — physical and mental — "Bring it on." 

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