EAGAN, Minn. – Growing up in the Midwest, Kirk Cousins was raised on the football of the Chicago Bears, Detroit Lions and the other members of the NFC North.
The division was still called the NFC Central when Cousins became a Bears’ fan after being born in Illinois. He moved to Michigan when he was still young but stayed loyal to Chicago. He got his fill of the Lions on TV.
Cousins is now trying to win the NFC North as the Minnesota Vikings quarterback with a crucial stretch of three division games in four weeks for Minnesota starting with Detroit on Sunday.
“It’s a good division,” Cousins said. “I think anybody can win it. I think it’s filled with good quarterback play. It’s filled with good defenses with pass rushers. It’s the way I envisioned the NFC North being. I think the margin for error is very small in most all divisions and I think our division is no different. I’m sure it could come down to the last couple weeks of the season.”
Cousins’ boyhood team, the Bears, lead the NFC North at 4-3 with just one game separating all four teams. Minnesota (4-3-1) hosts Detroit (3-4) on Sunday. After a bye, the Vikings follow at Chicago and home against Green Bay.
Despite Sunday’s loss at home to New Orleans, the Vikings have been preaching positives this week and know what’s in front of them.
“Big division game this week,” coach Mike Zimmer said, opening his Wednesday press conference. Excited to get back out there and continue to improve, try to get better. I feel good about this team. We just have to do a little bit better job finishing.”
Two turnovers proved costly against New Orleans, but Minnesota outgained the Saints, had more yards per play, more first downs and led in time of possession. An unfortunate tie at Green Bay in the first game and an 0-3-1 record when losing turnover-margin have led to missed opportunities at the halfway point of the season for the Vikings.
“Right now, it’s really not about my disappointment or how I feel,” Cousins said, downplaying whether he’s disappointed with the team’s start. “I just want to beat the Lions and get back on track. And we do feel that with eight games and a lot of divisional opponents that we can put ourselves in a very good position to not be disappointed at the end of this regular season.”
In a quirk of scheduling, Minnesota faced just one division team in the first half of the season. After playing their next three games in the division, the Vikings will go four in a row outside before finishing the season with a home game against Chicago.
Cousins is not new the NFC north as an opponent. He’s faced NFC North teams seven times in his career. He’s 4-2-1 with a completion percentage of 69 percent, an average of 322.9 yards per game and 13 touchdowns to three interceptions. His 108.6 quarterback rating against the North is his best of any division.
The NFC North changed in the week leading up to this week’s trade deadline. Green Bay traded safety Ha Ha Clinton Dix and running back Ty Montgomery out of the division. Detroit picked up defensive tackle Damon Harrison last week and traded away receiver Golden Tate before Tuesday’s deadline.
“I was surprised about that,” Vikings cornerback Xavier Rhodes said of the Tate trade. “He was their main guy on third downs. He was great, yards after the catch. One of the best, probably the No. 1 with the YAC yards. Yeah, I was pretty surprised by that. It was one of those situations where you were like, ‘Oh, let me check my phone.’”
Zimmer said preparation is difficult when a team makes a dramatic change in the week before a game, but he wasn’t worried about what was happening around the league before the deadline.
And with quarterback Matthew Stafford, there is plenty of familiarity between Minnesota and Detroit.
“I’ve been going with him six years now, going to be the sixth year, so a pretty accurate quarterback,” Rhodes said. “Fourth-quarter kid. You’ve got to play all four quarters with this guy. With every quarterback, but definitely with this guy because you know you never can count him out.
“He’s accurate with his throws. He trusts and believes in his receivers. He throws the ball up and lets them get it. He scrambles. If the receiver’s not open, he finds a way to gain yards instead of lose yards. He’s just a good all-around quarterback.”
And Cousins is the Vikings’ equivalent as he faces his first extended test in his new division.
Brian can be found on Twitter at @MNBrianHall. See all of the Vikings’ coverage at footballmaven.io/vikings