MINNEAPOLIS — The scrutiny came from inside and outside the organization.
Minnesota’s loss at Chicago in Week 11 brought out the critics for quarterback Kirk Cousins, citing his 4-12 record in prime-time games. The Vikings had appeared on national television three times this season, all losses in potential playoff matchups.
Vikings coach Mike Zimmer questioned his team’s offensive approach, wondering if there were too many offensive plays being incorporated each week and saying the team needed to run the ball more.
Minnesota’s chance to prove itself came on Sunday night against the rival Green Bay Packers.
Cousins thrived against Green Bay again and the Vikings helped their playoff chances while possibly dashing those of the Packers with a 24-17 decision.
“It was real big,” said Minnesota running back Dalvin Cook, who scored his first touchdown of the season. “It was very big. Coach Zim, he enforced that all week and we knew it. We knew it because we let the Chicago game slip. We knew we had to come out here and rebound in front of our fans.”
Cousins has had, perhaps, his two best performances of the season against Green Bay. A 425-yard, four-touchdown effort at Lambeau Field was only good enough for a tie in Week 2 after rookie kicker Daniel Carlson missed three field goals.
The $84-million quarterback was coming off his worst game of the season at Chicago with two costly turnovers and a 76.5 quarterback rating.
Like his team, Cousins recovered in another big spot. He was 29 of 38 passing for 342 yards, three touchdowns and no turnovers on Sunday night.
“It shows his characters and what kind of player he is to just not really care what people talk about him, and not care what happened last week and to go out there and play some really good football,” receiver Adam Thielen said. “The throws he was making and his full game was really impressive, and that’s what you expect of him.”
Thielen caught eight passes for 125 yards and a touchdown, and provided an unexpected highlight as the limbo bar for a celebration of Cook’s touchdown on a screen pass.
Stefon Diggs had eight catches for 77 yards and another touchdown from Cousins.
“He’s a hell of a guy,” said Tom Compton, who was with Cousins in Washington when he was a frequent target of criticism. “He’s shown it and I’m glad he could show it out there tonight. A lot of people were doubting him, so it is good for him.”
Cousins threw for 867 yards in the two games against Green Bay this season, the most in a single-season by anyone in Vikings’ history. His 64 completions are the most against any team in a single season in team history.
While there have been some concerns — four interceptions in the previous three games and a league-high four lost fumbles — Cousins demonstrated again on Sunday why Minnesota made him the priority in free agency to solve its constant turnover at the game’s most important position.
“We have 100 percent faith in the guy,” Diggs said of Cousins. “He’s proven why he’s as good as we say he is. We’re behind him all the way. Tonight, he focused on doing his job the best way that he can and today he did that.”
It turns out, Cousins and Zimmer had met last week. Cousins wouldn’t discuss the subject of the meeting, but it clearly was appreciated from the quarterback’s perspective.
“When we talked this week, he finishes the conversation with a question,” Cousins said after the game. “‘What can I do to help?’ Just when you have a head coach who is able to approach you with that kind of mindset; what do you need, what can I do to help? Is always going to you to listen and communicate makes a big difference, and I just want to play well for these guys.”
On the other side, the Vikings’ defense battered Aaron Rodgers and held him to 17 of 28 passing for 198 yards. He had one touchdown pass to Davante Adams but was sacked four times, and Green Bay was 2 of 10 on third down.
After driving for touchdowns on back-to-back drives in the first half, the Packers’ next six drives would tally 62 net yards.
A stout defense backing an explosive offense led by Cousins is just what Minnesota had dreamed up in the offseason. A win on primetime against a division rival showed the potential is still there.
“I think it meant a lot to Kirk,” said tight end Kyle Rudolph, who had seven catches for 63 yards. “I think it meant a lot to this team. Our backs are against the wall. We couldn’t afford to drop one at home to a division opponent, in the NFC, in the situation we are in.”
Brian can be found on Twitter at @MNBrianHall. See all of the Vikings’ coverage at footballmaven.io/vikings