MINNEAPOLIS — The NFL season has already featured 22 games with a winning score in either the final minute of regulation or in overtime, the highest six-week total in history.
The Minnesota Vikings, for all their problems and setbacks, have been able to play right along with the rest of the clutch teams in the league.
They entered their bye week after two straight white-knuckle victories that essentially saved their bid to return to the playoffs, thanks largely to the mettle displayed by quarterback Kirk Cousins during those make-or-break hurry-up drives.
"I think it's really come a long way," coach Mike Zimmer said, alluding to the overtime win at New Orleans in the first round of the 2019 playoffs as a turning point for Cousins and his ability to command a late-game possession. "He's done this continually now. I think that breeds a lot of confidence in him in some of the 2-minute drills."
In his 10th year in the NFL, Cousins has largely been excluded from the conversations about the game's most dangerous high-pressure-situation passers, but it's never too late for improvement. The repetitions have clearly had a positive effect.
According to Sportradar data, Cousins has a league-high 71 pass attempts, not counting clock-stopping spikes, in either the final 2 minutes of the fourth quarter or in overtime since the start of the 2020 season. The next closest in the league is Ryan Tannehill (53). Only Derek Carr (four) has more touchdown passes in those situations than Cousins (three).
"In the NFL, so many games come down to the final possession. There's a back and forth all game, but you kind of know that if you're hanging around or they're hanging around, it probably will come down to the final drive or the final kick," Cousins said. "It's just the way this league tends to work."
As Cousins and the Vikings prepared to take the field at Carolina last week, they watched Jacksonville beat Miami on a final-play field goal on a TV inside the stadium tunnel. That visual reminder of the NFL's tendency to produce tight games made Cousins think the Vikings were probably bound for another one themselves that afternoon. About 3 1/2 hours later, Cousins proved himself right by passing to K.J. Osborn for the winning touchdown in overtime.
The previous week against Detroit, after the offense stalled in the second half and a calamitous 2 1/2-minute stretch of a missed field goal and an own-territory fumble let the Lions take a 17-16 lead with 37 seconds left, Cousins completed three passes for 46 yards to get the Vikings in range for Greg Joseph's 54-yard field goal.
Against the Panthers, he had gone 4 for 4 with a 16-yard run to set up a 47-yard kick that Joseph missed with 1 second left that would have eliminated the need for his overtime success.
Joseph missed a final-play 37-yarder on Sept. 19 at Arizona, after Cousins and the Vikings drove 58 yards at a less-frantic pace in 2:09 to set up the potential winner in a 34-33 loss. In the season opener at Cincinnati, Cousins went 6 for 7 for 60 yards with no timeouts to reach the 35 for Joseph's game-tying field goal on the final play of regulation, before the Vikings lost in overtime.
"We have a bunch of fighters, bunch of guys that aren't stressed out. They're just going out there. It's just laser-focused, and there's not a lot of talk. We're just staying in the huddle and waiting for that play to start to just get going," wide receiver Adam Thielen said.
Cousins has long been driven by method over improvisation. He'd be hard-pressed to succeed in these clutch situations without the line protection holding up, Justin Jefferson, Thielen and Osborn continuing to run superb routes and new offensive coordinator Klint Kubiak making the right calls.
Cousins and Thielen reminded each other after the game last week of the importance of practice, recalling Kubiak's insistence during training camp that the Vikings rehearse their hurry-up offense.
"Every day you were like, ‘Ugh, we've got to do this walkthrough.' It was a 2-minute walkthrough, and it was just the guys that weren't involved in all the special teams, and we did it every single day — over and over and over and over and over," Thielen said. "Looking back, I think that definitely helped us, moving it forward into the season, to have confidence in what we're doing."
The Vikings (3-3), who are clearly still competitive but seemingly caught by their contract situations between rebuilding and contending, face a stiff schedule after their break. They play Dallas (5-1), Baltimore (5-1), the Los Angeles Chargers (4-2) and Green Bay (5-1) over the next four weeks.
"Could we be better? Yeah. Could we be worse? Yeah. We are where we are, but I like the resiliency of this team. They fight," Zimmer said. "We still have to get where we get to the point where we get a team down and we put them away."