Playoff Judgements, Week I: Cousins, Vikes pull the improbable; "You like that?"
If there was a statement this weekend, it was made by Minnesota and quarterback Kirk Cousins. And, appropriately, it was followed by … well, a statement.
“I got three words for you,” Cousins yelled to teammates after the Vikings’ overtime upset of New Orleans. “You like that?”
Well, as a matter of fact, yes. And Cousins should, too. Because Sunday’s 26-20 victory was more than unexpected. It was downright historic. It was Cousins’ first playoff win. It was his first overtime victory, period. And it was the Vikings’ first overtime win in its playoff history.
In short, it was the Minnesota Miracle, Part II.
More than that, however, it was a signature victory for a quarterback who had a history of putting up big numbers but not big wins, and the envelope, please. Prior to Sunday, he was 6-30 vs. teams that ended the season with winning records. Until Sunday, he'd reached the playoffs only once, and, when he did, he lost. Moreover, he was … and is … 0-9 on Monday nights.
Yet there was Cousins, with the score tied at 20, driving the Vikings 75 yards in overtime to launch the two biggest passes of his career. The first was a 43-bomb to Adam Thielen that set up the Vikings at the New Orleans 2 for the game-winning touchdown.
“That’s the throw," said FOX analyst Troy Aikman, "that could very well end all the conversation about whether or not Kirk Cousins can show up in big games.”
Maybe. But the second was better. Because on that one, he dropped a perfect lob to the back of the end zone and into the hands of tight end Kyle Rudolph. And with those two passes, Cousins not only short-circuited the heavily-favored Saints and outplayed Drew Brees. He pulled the plug on doubters … once, if not for all.
“I’m just glad he can’t win the big games, apparently,” a sarcastic Rudolph said afterward. “I think he proved that one wrong. I’m proud of Kirk playing huge.”
He should be. Because the Vikings are where no one expected them – headed to San Francisco – because of a quarterback who deflated a reputation that shadowed him since Minnesota signed him to a fully guaranteed $84-million million contract. This was what the Vikings expected when they hired him. But this is what he hadn't done there ... or before.
Now he has. And maybe, just maybe, that gives Minnesota a chance for another upset vs. the top-seeded 49ers.
“It’s fun to be able to win, to feel like I’m moving forward, ” said a relieved Cousins afterward. “When you climb a mountain, you sit there on the top and you look around (and) you realize there are more mountains to climb. Being a fourth-round pick, working your way up in the league, now you win a playoff game. Guess what? You look around, and you realize tere are more mountains to climb. You want to win another playoff game. You want to get to the Super Bowl.”
Against all odds, now he has that opportunity. You like that? You should.
SUNDAY SCHOOL: FIVE THINGS WE LEARNED
1. Even with them gone, the Patriots still have an impact on the playoffs. Had they won Saturday, they would’ve gone to Kansas City, and Houston moved to Baltimore, right? Check. But now it’s the Texans that go to K.C., with Tennessee off to Baltimore. So what? Well, so the Chiefs lost earlier this season to Houston, 31-24 – in Kansas City -- with the Texans’ defense holding them to seven second-half points. And Baltimore? The Ravens destroyed Houston this season, 41-7, and I saw nothing Saturday to indicate it wouldn’t happen again. Now, however, they draw Tennessee … and, trust me, this is the one team nobody wants to face.
2. The Eagles need Rocky Balboa to beat Seattle. Go ahead and look it up. Pete Carroll is 6-0 vs. Philadelphia.
3. Old guys don’t rule. Brady is 42. Drew Brees is 40. Josh McCown is 40. All lost. But Brady and Brees were favored. Both lost to sixth seeds.
4. Overtime hates the Saints. So, apparently, does replay review. For those keeping score, that’s the third straight season New Orleans has been eliminated from the playoffs on the last play of the game.
5. It’s never over ‘til it’s over in Houston. That was the 16th comeback victory for the Texans the past two years. Nobody has more.
THIRD AND 20
1. Weekend’s biggest winner: The NFL. All four games were decided by one score (eight points or fewer) and two went to OT. That’s only the third time a playoff round has gone to multiple overtimes.
2. It may be a passing league, but running the ball still matters – especially in the playoffs -- and no need to remind New England. Five of the top six teams in rushing this season, including Tennessee, are still in the playoffs, while 11 of the top 12 passing clubs are not. Only Kansas City, at No. 5, remains alive.
3. Shame on the Cowboys. They let coach Jason Garrett swing in the breeze for a week while they interviewed potential replacements … then announced his firing Sunday. I don’t know why the Cowboys waited to tell us what we already knew, but it’s an embarrassment to the organization and a disservice to Garrett.
4. For those demanding an overhaul of the NFL’s OT rules so both sides get one possession, no matter what, forget it. Ain’t going to happen.
5. Tell me again how Seattle rookie D.K. Metcalf lasted until the second round of the 2019 draft. He was the ninth wide receiver chosen, but every time I look up the guy’s making big plays.
6. I look at what injuries did to Philadelphia this season and how the Eagles had to rely Sunday on a 40-year-old quarterback who started the year with ESPN, and I ask: Why in the world does anyone think a 17-game season is a good idea?
7. Everyone knows the Patriots desperately need a tight end. So how is that Harvard’s Anthony Firkser got away?
8. The Bills may be the team to beat in the AFC East next year. They’re young. They’ve been to the playoffs twice in the past three years. And they have $89 million in cap space. Of course, it all depends on what happens to Tom Brady. If he returns to New England, everyone plays for second. Yeah, I know he’ll be 43. He’s also 32-3 vs. Buffalo.
9. I just added Doug Pederson to my Coach-of-the-Year ballot. He won key games down the stretch with a lineup so depleted by injuries that all that was missing Sunday was Charlie Sheen taking snaps at quarterback.
10. With Brady saying it’s “pretty unlikely” he retires in 2020, get ready for a long offseason of rumors, speculation and “Where’s Waldo?” stories.
11. Calling all New Orleans lawyers interested in filing a class-action suit to litigate that last Vikings’ TD.
12. If I’m Jadeveon Clowney, I make my New Year’s resolution now: Go nowhere near the 215 area code without a police escort.
13. Drew Brees has 10 interceptions in his last eight playoff games. He had two in his first eight. Just sayin.’
14. Gotta believe the 49ers are relieved to draw Minnesota, not Seattle, next week. They were 1-1 vs. the Seahawks this season, with the one loss in Santa Clara.
15. OK, so Tennessee’s Mike Vrabel took advantage of a rules loophole Bill Belichick exploited to run valuable clock late in the fourth quarter. And so it helped to close out Belichick’s Patriots. Terrific. Now let’s address that loophole and close it. That’s more than a suggestion to the league’s competition committee. It’s an urgent plea.
16. It doesn’t matter what Tony Romo wants in a new contract. CBS should hand him a blank check and let him fill in the numbers. He’s that good..
17. The Saints’ Taysom Hill is an RFA. I know 31 teams that should draw up an offer sheet.
18. Not sure I understand this hysteria about Brady going to the Chargers. I mean, why would a last-place club trade one old QB for another? And why would Brady want to go to a team with an offensive line that leaks like the Andrea Doria?
19. Line of the year comes courtesy of ESPN’s Rex Ryan, talking about Patriots’ receivers in general and Phillip Dorsett in particular. “Phillip is a fast guy, but he can’t play dead in a ‘B’ Western.” You can’t make this stuff up.
20. Here we go again: The NFL should get rid of PI reviews. Reason: Because they don’t work as they were designed, with Rudolph’s touchdown catch the latest example. As outlined by the league in June, that’s precisely the kind of contact that should be reviewed, with the play overturned. Yet it wasn’t. And don’t ask Al Riveron why. He defended it. “This is why we put the rule in,” said NBC’s Tony Dungy. ”Supposedly, they told us (that) these big plays in the playoffs … they’d be reviewed and overturned. And it wasn’t.”
FIVE SIGNS THAT IT’S A NEW YEAR
1. Kirk Cousins just won a playoff game. See above.
2. The Redskins are making smart decisions. First they hire Ron Rivera as head coach. Then he hires Jack Del Rio as his defensive coordinator. No wonder Chase Young declared for the draft. He could have a future in Washington.
3. New England has gone home … and I mean HOME … for the playoffs. For the first time since 2009, there’s no sign of the Patriots in the divisional round of the playoffs. That’s because Saturday’s loss ended a streak of 104 games at Foxboro without back-to-back defeats at home (they lost last weekend to Miami, too). If that sounds like a lot it’s because it is. It’s a league record. The previous high was 86, set by the 1976-86 Dolphins.
4. J.J. Watt is back to making game-changing plays. The guy missed 48 regular-season games the past four years, with 5-1/2 sacks in the 16 games he did play. Now he’s back, making the key sack that ignited the Texans in their come-from-behind defeat of Buffalo.
5. Meet the new boss. Not same as the old boss. Remember the teams that were alive in the playoffs this time last year? Well, all but one of is gone. The only returnee is Kansas City. As for the rest -- the Patriots, Saints, Rams, Colts, Chargers, Eagles and Cowboys – it's turn out the lights. The party’s over.
AND FIVE THAT IT’S NOT
1. NFL sleuths are back on the trail of the Patriots. Reports have them facing NFL discipline, and while I have no idea what happens I know what should: Instead of taking draft picks or cash away from them, confiscate their video equipment.
2. NFL officiating needs Chip and Joanna Gaines. Yep, this is a Fixer-Upper. Rewind the videotape to the second-half kickoff of the Bills-Texans game, and you’ll see what I mean. As former ref Gene Steratore pointed out, the initial call demanded a “common sense ruling.” It didn’t get one until alternate officials on the sidelines intervened. But why stop there? Carl Cheffers’ crew blew multiple calls in the Vikings-Saints game, and Jadeveon Clowney wasn’t penalized for spearing Carson Wentz in Philadelphia. Someone get me HGTV.
3. Carson Wentz and playoff games don’t mix. That’s why the Eagles had Nick Foles, but he’s gone. So Wentz starts his first playoff game and what happens? He gets hammered by Clowney in the first quarter and leaves with a concussion ... never to return.
4. Seattle keeps winning the close ones. The Seahawks were 10-2 in one-score games in 2019. They’re 1-0 in 2020.
5. State Farm is still running Aaron Rodgers commercials. And we’re still reaching for the mute button.
STAT THAT MAY ONLY INTEREST ME
This is the first time since 2002 that quarterbacks not named Tom Brady, Peyton Manning or Ben Roethlisberger will be involved in the AFC championship game.
ONE THAT MIGHT INTEREST YOU
The Vikings and Saints must love drama. Their last three times they met in the playoffs (2009, 2017 and 2019) the outcomes have been decided on the last play. According to EliasSports, that’s the most matchups decided on the final play in playoff history.
AND ONE FOR BOTH OF US
The Seahawks are going to their 17th playoff game with Pete Carroll ... or more than all the head coaches (1976-2009) before Carroll arrived.
THE WEEKEND’S GOLD JACKET WINNER
Derrick Henry, RB, Tennessee. He brought down Goliath with 204 yards of offense, or 75 percent of the Titans’ offense, including 182 rushing on 34 carries. He not only wore down the Patriots; he wore them out. "It's just like a crash landing," said New England safety Devin McCourty. I'd say that sums it up. Now comes the challenge: It’s Henry, the league’s leading rusher, vs. a Baltimore team that set a league rushing record. Who you got?
THE WEEKEND’S GOLD JACKET QUOTES
“When you’re looking at a Tom Brady coming back to be the Patriots’ quarterback and finish his career, man, get him some help.” – former WR and now ESPN analyst Randy Moss.
"It was a bang-bang play. I don't want to hurt nobody in this league. I've been down that injury road. It ain't fun. My intentions weren't to hurt him." -- Seattle defensive end Jadeveon Clowney on his hit on Carson Wentz.
Follow on Twitter @ClarkJudgeTOF