I’ve been looking at the collection of quarterbacks playing on Super Wild Card Weekend — specifically the difference between those in the AFC and NFC — and I’m drawn to the contrast.
While uncertainty exists with Tua Tagovailoa being ruled out and Lamar Jackson‘s status up in the air, the AFC group is dominated by young first-round picks. Trevor Lawrence vs. Justin Herbert, Joe Burrow and Josh Allen both starting at home, and Patrick Mahomes awaits in the divisional round. Blue-blood quarterbacks doing what they were drafted to do for the teams that originally drafted them.
Then, there’s the NFC.
That’s just the start. The context of each one’s story makes it even better and frames the feeling around each one’s challenge. You have three quarterbacks whose seasons have already been individual “wins,” no matter their team’s result this weekend: Brock Purdy, Geno Smith and Jones.
Purdy’s and Smith’s success have been way beyond what anyone expected, and Jones has played well enough — and meshed with new coach Brian Daboll — to likely earn the team’s belief and another contract. All three are playing with house money. Now we get to sit back and see which one(s) will double down and let it ride.
Brady and Dak Prescott are each their own form of an enigma. Would you be surprised by any of the range of possibilities they could produce on Monday night? Me neither. It’ll be wonderful quarterback theater, no matter the outcome.
Then, there’s the quarterback whose reputation has the most to gain, and likewise, the most to lose. I find Kirk Cousins‘ weekend to have more intrigue and meaning than any of the others playing in the NFC.
Without a January win or two, his season won’t be called a success, and his future will be called into question.
His age and experience are a factor. He’s 34 years old and the second decade of his career is well under way. The real attraction to his performance against the Giants revolves around the lingering question that won’t go away until he and the Vikings have postseason success: Haven’t we seen this before?
Cousins stacking good-to-great numbers throughout a regular season where the Vikings win more than they lose is something we’ve seen before. But we haven’t seen it lead to playoff success. That’s why he is being patted on the back instead of truly believed in. It’s like he’s been given partial credit for what most fans have deemed to be a series of 17 pop quizzes amounting to 10 percent of his grade, with Sunday’s test counting for the other 90 percent.
Right or wrong, Sunday is his best chance to change the narrative. Because even though the Vikings have an impressive 13-4 record, they aren’t built to win without big production from their quarterback. Cousins won’t just be “along for the ride” of a playoff win or two. He’ll have to be at the wheel with his foot on the gas, white-knuckling for most of the ride.
The Giants aren’t a high-scoring machine, but keep in mind Minnesota produced the worst rushing offense of all the NFC playoff teams, and their defense gave up more points than any playoff team in either conference. If their run game and scoring defense follow suit on Sunday, Cousins will need to be the best part of the team to land a Vikings win.
In addition to Minnesota’s own shortcomings, the Giants aggressive defense needs to be considered as well. They had the highest blitz rate of any defense during the regular season at 43 percent, per PFF. So, let’s say the Vikings’ run game and scoring defense produce in a similar way to the regular season, and the Giants blitz as frequently as they did in qualifying for the playoffs. In that scenario, Cousins will need to be the best part of the team for the Vikings to win.
It’s not a great formula for a deep playoff run, but it’s a recipe for a quarterback to stand out.
The spectacle of improbable comeback wins against Buffalo and Indianapolis are the poster games of Minnesota’s 13-win season. But along the way, Cousins played a brand of efficient and explosive ball, throwing for more yards than every NFC quarterback besides Brady, without throwing a single interception in the majority of Minnesota’s games. And the way the Vikings learned to win is conducive to performing under playoff pressure, as they went 11-0 in one-score games. The season has prepared Cousins for Sunday’s stage.
If the game plays out the way many of the Vikings’ regular-season games did, the onus will be directly on Cousins. Which is exactly what he needs to move the needle of his playoff perception.