Saints Playoff Success vs. Minnesota Likely Depends on Which Cousins Shows Up

Photo courtesy of the New Orleans Saints,

Good or bad. Hot or cold. Great or total and complete garbage. Those are just a few of the extreme and polar opposite adjectives that one could use to describe the “up and down” play recently of Minnesota Vikings starting QB Kirk Cousins.

And when the #3 seed New Orleans Saints host both him and his 6th seeded Vikings team this Sunday in the opening NFL Wild Card Playoff game at the Superdome, the chances of the Black and Gold (and specifically their pass defense) winning and moving on to the next round of the post-season, likely depends on which version of the often-criticized Vikings QB shows up.

It’s not exactly a big secret that Minnesota — which got the final spot in the Playoff spot after finishing 2nd overall in the NFC North Division behind the #2 overall seed and division champion Green Bay Packers — has a team capable of being very successful against any other team in the entire League, but only when they get consistent play from the much-maligned veteran passer.

Cousins sat out the Vikings’ 2019 regular season finale in their 21-19 loss at Chicago against the Bears, but of course will be back under center once the crucial match-up between the two teams (a record 5th time for the Saints against Minnesota in their Playoff history) gets underway at 12:05 Central time.

The only issue for Minnesota, and therefore by extension for the Saints defense themselves, is which player for the Vikings— the good Cousins or the bad one — is going to show up this coming Sunday afternoon in NOLA. 

Cousins for the most part has been very good and at times even outright superb for the Vikings, as he threw for 3,603 passing yards along with 26 touchdown passes and 6 interceptions during this just-recently completed 2019 NFL season in Minneapolis. Thus far in two years as Minnesota’s signal-caller, Cousins has compiled a personal win-loss record of (18-12-1), with the tie coming last season against Green Bay.

However, the problem for the former Michigan State University and Washington Redskins star (who drafted him originally in 2012) is that he has lacked consistency from week-to-week, both at times last year (which led to Minnesota missing the Playoffs in 2018) and now suddenly once again within the past few weeks. Included in Cousins’ “up and down” play was a Saints 30-20 victory over Cousins and the Vikings last year in Minneapolis.

In that game as Saints fans might recall, Cousins was sharp for the most part and threw for 359 yards and 2 TD’s. But the Saints defense rose to the occasion; as they repeatedly pressured and sacked Cousins and ultimately forced him to throw a “Pick 6” interception that was returned 45 yards for the game-winning score by Saints CB P.J. Williams.

The Vikings clearly are hoping that Cousins will regain his sharpness and superb capability to guide their offense on this coming Sunday at the Superdome, especially since he is expected to be aided by the return of All-Pro RB Dalvin Cook.

The young superstar missed Minnesota’s last two regular season games with chest and shoulder injuries, and his absence led some to speculate that it was his departure from the starting line-up that ultimately led to the Vikings blowing their opportunity at winning their division and earning a higher Playoff seed.

But not everyone (particularly some of Cousins’ biggest critics) are buying into that theory.

There has been much controversy and especially up north in Minnesota, as to whether or not that the Vikings overpaid Cousins and gave him way too much money; after they signed him to a fully guaranteed 3-year contract last year in 2018 NFL Free Agency to a (then) record $84 million.

But many League analysts, observers, as well as very knowledgeable NFL fans nation-wide, questioned (and still question) whether or not Cousins was really worth that much after he had an above-average-but-not-great 6-year career with the Redskins.

While the 31-year old Illinois native has had some stand-out performances (and ironically against the Saints when he played with the Redskins) as his 8th NFL season now nears the end, he hasn’t exactly done anything spectacular that would convince someone to include him among the “elite” passers (like Drew Brees).

The most recent criticism for Cousins came in Minnesota’s Week #16 loss at home over 2 weeks ago on ESPN Monday Night Football to the Packers, in a game which Minnesota would have earned the NFC North Division title and a higher Playoff seed within the conference had they won that game.

And this was following a game back early during Week #2 of this very same season, in which he had a horrible performance in that game that Minnesota eventually lost on the road to the Packers at Green Bay by a score of 21-16.

As noted by Minneapolis Star-Tribune beat writer Mark Craig, Cousins went (0-2) vs. the Packers; while only completing an underwhelming 47.6% of his passes with 3 total interceptions, and subsequent quarterback passer ratings of only 52.9 and 58.0.

And as Craig observed after the game: it was Cousins who was the QB that appeared nervous and unsure of himself, and not Packers QB Aaron Rodgers as some might have expected against a hostile Minnesota crowd.

Those horrific stats obviously are numbers by Cousins — who has an (0-1) in his career during the Playoffs — that have everyone wondering: can he bounce back this week and have a good game (and help lead Minnesota’s potentially-combustible passing attack) this weekend?

And in the process: somehow manage to steal a win away from the Saints at home inside the Superdome in front of a frenzied ‘Who Dat Nation’ sold-out crowd?

That depends on all who you ask, probably.

Nevertheless, if you are reading this as a Saints fan and are worried sick as to whether or not the team’s defense (and particularly the secondary) will hold up their end of the bargain against Cousins and company, consider these eye-popping stats.

After getting embarrassed and giving up a whopping 516 total yards and 48 points to the #1 seeded San Francisco 49ers (whom many are picking the Saints to eventually face in a re-match for the NFC Championship and a trip to the Super Bowl in a few weeks from now) in what was definitely the Back and Gold’s worst defensive performance of the year, since then the New Orleans defense in their last 3 games overall (all wins) has been outstanding.

Those wins came against the Colts, Titans, and Panthers; and while most folks would consider New Orleans to have a much better team talent-wise in comparison to those other teams mentioned, this is still the NFL and the professional level.

And in their last 3 games to close out their (13-3) season, the Saints defense only allowed 45 total points (15 per game), and gave up a grand tally of 931 yards; a respectable if not phenomenal 310.3 yards per game. Additionally: they recorded 8 sacks and forced 4 turnovers.

Those are numbers for the Saints that certainly should boost their confidence heading into Sunday’s vitally-important contest.

But will that recently-stellar performance by the Saints defense hold up once again this Sunday, especially if the “good” Kirk Cousins shows up and starts slinging deep passes (and helping Minnesota to score points at will) all over the Superdome field?

One thing is for sure: more than likely, the Saints’ chances at getting to the Super Bowl will likely depend on their ability to stop him; and limit his and the Vikings’ chances at success by rendering him ineffective and them as an offense, one-dimensional.

Because when you’re hot, you’re “hot” but when you’re not, you’re not….

Barry Hirstius is a semi-retired journalist, who has worked as a sports editor and columnist. Barry is a New Orleans native who grew up as a fan of the Saints while attending games as a young boy at the old Tulane Stadium. He is the proud Grandfather of two beautiful young girls, Jasmine and Serenity. Follow him on Twitter: @BarryHirstius

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