MINNEAPOLIS — Kirk Cousins’ first game as a Minnesota Viking came in a 2018 victory against old friend Kyle Shanahan and the 49ers. Five years later, as a touchdown underdog to Shanahan’s Niners in his own stadium on Monday night, Cousins guided yet another Vikings victory. This time, however, it was even more of a statement — the biggest of Minnesota’s 2023 season.
Staring down a potential 2-5 start against the NFC runner-ups,, and missing his top weapon in injured receiver Justin Jefferson, Cousins proceeded to throw for a season-high 378 yards and two touchdowns against one of the NFL’s stingiest defenses. He outdueled 49ers phenom Brock Purdy in crunch time. He fed standout rookie Jordan Addison. And in upsetting the 49ers in a 22-17 decision, he may have jumpstarted Minnesota’s hopes for a total turnaround.
“He’ll tell you,” running back Cam Akers said after the game. “In the middle of the field, I told him, like, ‘Dude, you an effin’ dog. Like, you ballin.’ I haven’t seen many quarterbacks do that — sit in the pocket like that, under pressure, make perfect throws.”
Jefferson, who’s typically the center of festivities at U.S. Bank Stadium, stormed the field in street clothes after Monday’s win to personally place a diamond chain around his QB’s neck. Asked if custom grills are next for Minnesota’s notoriously Midwestern signal-caller (receiver K.J. Osborn described Cousins as “Dad” over the summer), Akers yelled across the Vikings’ celebrating locker room to ask Cousins himself.
“Kirk! Kirk! You think you ever gonna get the grills?”
Cousins hollered back.
“I gotta do it.”
To be clear, Cousins wasn’t the only reason the Vikings halted the 49ers, who were vaunted as the most balanced team in the league not so long ago. Coach Kevin O’Connell was particularly creative early, finding ways to get speedy receivers like reserve Brandon Powell in space. Addison was Jefferson-esque on his own, with several highlight-reel grabs downfield. And defensive coordinator Brian Flores oversaw a unit that mostly bottled up 49ers star Christian McCaffrey, while forcing two late-game turnovers by Purdy, whose calling card early in his career has been improbable composure.
“I think our defense is 100% slept on,” safety Josh Metellus said after the game. “But we’re just gonna keep going, keep putting our head down and grinding, and it’s gonna show in the win column when we just keep stacking up wins.”
But the No. 1 reason the Vikings feel they’re “still at play” in the NFC North, even after losing four of their first six? The No. 1 reason Metellus and Co. believe “we’re putting ourself in a position to contend (and) be there in that dance when the time is right”? The No. 1 reason tight end T.J. Hockenson told reporters afterward that “people need to be scared of us, too”?
That would be the man under center, who now leads the NFL with 16 TD passes through seven games.
“(Kirk’s had) elite-level play all year,” Metellus said. “He’s just one of those quarterbacks who can get the job done if you give him time, give him opportunities, good play-calling like KO had today. If you put a quarterback like him in that situation, he’s gonna dominate every time.”
The jury, of course, is still out on whether the Vikings can build off Monday night’s surprise win. It’s also still out on Cousins’ long-term future with Minnesota; he’s in the last year of his contract after five statistically productive seasons that simply haven’t produced the big-game wins thousands of purple-wearing fans are still seeking. And yet, for a single evening at least, Vikings fans can believe once again. Because on Monday, the big-game victory belonged to them, and not the 49ers.
“It was a statement,” Akers said. “It was a statement game. We talked about that all week. ‘Let’s go make a statement, show people that we’re serious, that we are who we say are.’ We played a complete game. And we got the ‘W.'”