Through the Minnesota Vikings season so far, one important trait has continued to appear: Kirk Cousins making plays when his team needs him the most.
Minnesota has fought to earn a 4-1 record, including three consecutive victories. The latest chapter was a 29-22 thriller against the Chicago Bears on Sunday, with the Vikings finishing a home sweep of their NFC North opponents.
The two previous victories against the Detroit Lions in Week 3 and the New Orleans Saints in Week 4 in London also featured comeback efforts. While Minnesota's offense has been inconsistent at times during its three-game winning streak, Cousins has been able to step up and lead the Vikings on game-winning drives in the fourth quarter in all three games.
Dane Mizutani of the Pioneer Press recently looked at how Cousins has helped Minnesota win the past three weeks despite not putting up gaudy stats. He wrote:
The fact that Cousins has struggled and still found ways to win games is not insignificant. He deserves credit for getting the job done. Especially considering he's done the exact opposite too many times throughout his career, putting up a respectable stat line in games that were never close.
"Until the clock says '0:00' we're feeling like we've got a fighting chance," Cousins said. "You kind of always keep hope alive."
After only getting touchdowns on two of their five red-zone trips last week against the Saints, the Vikings started red-hot on Sunday, scoring touchdowns on their first three appearances in the red zone. Cousins was even more scalding, starting the game with 17 consecutive completions to set a team record, and Minnesota zipped to a 21-3 lead early.
But then the inconsistencies kicked in. The Vikings only recorded 44 yards offensively to start the second half, and the Bears battled back to take a 22-21 lead with 9:26 left.
In need of a response, Cousins and Minnesota did just that, methodically putting together a 17-play, 75-yard drive that lasted an even seven minutes.
The Vikings faced multiple key situations during the drive, including a third-and-5 from the Chicago 20-yard line with 3:37 left. Cousins was able to escape the Bears defensive pressure and scrambled for a 5-yard gain and a crucial first down.
"I felt somebody cross my face and rather than progress to the backside I knew I had chance to run, and I just said, 'I'm going to take off here and try to get it,'" Cousins said on the play. "Usually I'd slide, but when it's third down and we're down there I had to find a way to get it across the line."
View postgame celebration photos from the Vikings 29-22 win over the Chicago Bears at U.S. Bank Stadium on Oct. 9.
Cousins then converted two more third downs, including a 1-yard sneak for the go-ahead score. He then followed it up with a 2-point conversion to wide receiver Justin Jefferson to put the Vikings up 29-22 with 2:26 left.
Minnesota converted on 12 of its 15 third downs on Sunday, joining the Kansas City Chiefs (Week 4 at Tampa Bay) as the only teams to have success on at least 12 third downs in a game.
Mizutani said Cousins has emphasized that Minnesota needs to have strong starts like it did on Sunday against Chicago, but not allow opponents to work themselves back into games and have things decided on the final plays.
But in the meantime, Cousins has shown this year that he can be there in the big moments.
"He's an even-keeled guy," wide receiver Adam Thielen said. "We see that every single day. We have a lot of faith and trust in him that he's going to get us in the right spots."
Vikings defense also coming up clutch in final moments
Just like their offensive counterparts, the Vikings defense can be clutch, too.
Not only have Minnesota's past three games come down to a final offensive scoring drive, it's also featured key defensive plays to help seal consecutive victories in back-to-back-to-back weeks.
Against the Detroit Lions, Vikings safety Josh Metellus came up with his first career interception in his first NFL start in place of Harrison Smith.
The next week, in London, Minnesota caused consecutive incompletions by Saints quarterback Andy Dalton to force New Orleans to kick a 61-yard field goal with two seconds remaining, which kicker Wil Lutz missed on a double-doink.
Then on Sunday against the Bears, Chicago quarterback Justin Fields found wide receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette on its final drive to try and force the game into overtime. The former Vikings receiver initially got past Minnesota cornerback Cameron Dantzler, Sr. with a stiff arm, but Dantzler continued with the play and stripped the ball from Smith-Marsette's arm.
Dantzler’s efforts secured the victory for the Vikings.
"He was kind of loose with the ball, and that's a drill that we work on with our turnover drills, so I saw an opportunity and took it," Dantzler said following the win.
Also similar to the Vikings offense, their defense has struggled to piece together consistency and allowed early leads to slip away.
But Minnesota has been able to come up with defensive stops, especially in the final moments of the fourth quarter. Matthew Coller of Purple Insider recently analyzed the Vikings ability to earn three consecutive victories from a defensive standpoint.
Coller said that Dantzler has been one key factor during Minnesota's winning streak. He wrote:
View the Vikings in "Big Head Mode" following the comeback win over the Chicago Bears at U.S. Bank Stadium on Oct. 9.
Dantzler, for example, has been on the wrong end of a number of last-minute losses early in his career, including last year against Dallas and Detroit but that hasn't been the case this season with several vital pass breakups coming against the Saints and then Sunday's strip.
"The coaches had confidence in me when they came in it was like, 'We want you to be our guy, we have confidence in you,' and that brought swagger to my game from Day 1," Dantzler said.
Coller added that high level of confidence has also been a big contributor to the Vikings success.
Players were not shy about saying this offseason that they believed a focus on improving the environment would make a difference when things were at their toughest and so far there's no evidence to the contrary.
"I think what we've learned should really help us … have confidence moving forward that we can win football games that are hard-fought and competitive in this league," Vikings Head Coach Kevin O'Connell said.
While Minnesota is learning a new 3-4 scheme this year under Defensive Coordinator Ed Donatell, the Vikings have been able to limit each opponent to 25 or fewer points.
Minnesota showed some improvements defensively against Chicago, exclusively against the run. On Sunday, the Vikings allowed only 3.3 yards per carry against a Bears ground attack that was third in the NFL in yards per game (177.3) and fourth in rushing yards per play (5.21) entering the game.
Like the offense, the Vikings realize they have a lot to clean up defensively still. But 10 games in Week 5 (before Monday night's game) finished as a one-score contest, so Minnesota cornerback Patrick Peterson knows the defense has to continue to stay sharp.
"We know every game is going to come down to a one-score game, nine times out of 10 it'll come down to the defensive stop or takeaway and we have to take pride in that and relish the opportunity," Peterson said. "That's why you play defense, to put your team in position to win."