EAGAN, Minn. — It's the playoffs, which means the spotlight will undoubtedly shine brighter on the dozen quarterbacks who are looking to navigate their teams to Miami for Super Bowl LIV in early February.
Sunday's Wild Card game features two of the most well-known signal callers in the league, as Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins will go toe-to-toe with Saints quarterback Drew Brees, who is in his 19th season.
A surefire Hall of Famer, Brees is the NFL's all-time leader in touchdown passes (547) and passing yards (77,416). Brees is also a Super Bowl champion, has eight career playoff wins and is regarded as perhaps the most accurate quarterback in NFL history.
The 40-year-old drew (pun intended) plenty of praise from the Vikings this week.
"Well he's very smart. Drew is a great competitor," said Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer. "He's moving well in the pocket. He's not a runner, but he moves well in the pocket when he gets pressure, goes to the side.
"He knows where the check downs are, and he's very accurate," Zimmer added. "His completion percentage because of those things, I think, is extremely high. I'll stop there."
Added Vikings safety Harrison Smith: "He's one of the best to ever do it."
View practice images from the Vikings practice on Jan. 2 at TCO Performance Center.
Even Vikings wide receiver Adam Thielen, who was around Brees at the 2018 Pro Bowl, marveled at the quarterback's work ethic in practices before the all-star game.
"He was at the first one I went to," Thielen said. "Just to see the way that that guy prepares and the way that he works … I think I've talked about this before, but he's a guy that really works and really makes you understand why he's great and why players in this league are great.
"He's out there at a Pro Bowl practice going through his reads and progressions and is 100-percent focused on practice when practice at the Pro Bowl doesn't mean a whole lot," Thielen said. "That's why he's great and why he's so difficult to go against."
Brees missed five games due to a thumb injury in 2019. He completed 281 of 378 passes (74.3 percent) for 2,979 yards with 27 touchdowns, four picks and had a career-high passer rating of 116.3 that ranked second in the league.
While Brees certainly has a sterling reputation around the league, take a closer look at the numbers and it becomes obvious that Brees and Cousins had similar seasons in 2019.
According to Next Gen Stats, Brees had an aggressive-throw rate of 13.8 percent, while Cousins was at 13.1. Both quarterbacks were also among the most accurate in the league, as Brees had an expected completion percentage of 68 percent. His plus-6.3 completion percentage above expectation ranked second in the league.
Cousins was third in the NFL in that category with a plus-5.6. He completed 69.1 percent of his passes while his expected completion percentage was 63.6 percent.
While Brees will make his 16th career playoff start, Cousins is preparing for his second (and first with the Vikings).
The 30-year-old explained his mindset this week.
"Really, this is what we've been working toward for a long time. Kind of hit the reset button and begin a new year … and then also begin a new season, if you will, as well," Cousins said. "It's a one-game season … and I'm looking forward to that challenge.
"I think I've improved as a quarterback and have gained a lot from those four years of playing through a lot of different things," Cousins later added. "I think there's just more juice, excitement. There always is, though. But certainly the playoffs bring an intensity that makes it fun."
The Saints also made it clear they have plenty of respect for Cousins, who completed 307 of 444 passes (69.1 percent) for 3,603 yards with 26 touchdowns and six interceptions in 15 games. His passer rating of 107.4 was a career high and ranked fourth in the NFL. It is the second highest by a Vikings QB in a single season.
"We were in the Pro Bowl together a couple years ago when he was in Washington, and I remember we talked [then]," Brees said. "We've spoken on a few occasions during the offseasons – talking shop, talking concepts, that kind of stuff. I do have a lot of respect for him.
"The road he's traveled – [fourth]-round pick, the same year that they drafted RG3 with the first-round pick – for a guy to come in and really have to earn it every step of the way, I respect that road and what he's had to earn to put himself in the position he's in," Brees added. "And he's had a great year."
Added Saints Head Coach Sean Payton: "He's accurate, he's got a good deep ball, and he's going to prepare for the different looks that he sees. He's someone like Drew that's going to watch the whole season. He's going to go back and watch last year."
"I think you understand you have a football game against a really good team, and you have to go win it. That is really where your focus is and how you go about that. I don't really need to think about too much else."
Depending on what the outcome of Sunday's game is, national pundits and experts alike will be quick to add to the narrative for each player.
Cousins brushed off that notion this week, saying his sole objective was to go into New Orleans and get his first playoff win.
Because when the playoffs arrive, winning is all that matters.
"I think you understand you have a football game against a really good team, and you have to go win it," Cousins said. "That is really where your focus is and how you go about that. I don't really need to think about too much else."
Downplaying the Minneapolis Miracle
It was almost two years ago that Stefon Diggs caught a 61-yard touchdown pass on the final play of the Divisional round game against the Saints, racing into franchise lore and propelling the Vikings to the NFC title game.
As a playoff rematch between Minnesota and New Orleans looms, it's only natural that the Minneapolis Miracle has been brought up again this week.
Diggs said this week that while he'll forever cherish the moment, he's shifted his focus to the upcoming contest.
"Outside of the building, it's really like more of a fan thing," Diggs said. "Right now, I'm focused on this week. It's another opportunity to play them. We saw them in the preseason.
"It's always good to play them. I love playing the Saints," Diggs added. "They're a good team, and I love football, so that moment will be a memory, but right now, I've got a new week and something that I'm really looking forward to."
Zimmer provided a classic answer when asked if he gets "warm and fuzzy" feelings when looking at the highlight.
"Come on, man," Zimmer said. "Concentrating on the Saints this week; we don't care about three years ago or whatever it was."
Perhaps Vikings running back Dalvin Cook, who didn't even play in that playoff game because of an ACL injury, summed up the Vikings mindset about the historic play.
"That can't help us this game. We know what's at stake," Cook said. "We know. We know. We wake up fired up. We know what's at stake. It's playoff football; we've gotta go."
Yarbrough fired up to join Vikings
The Vikings made a late-season roster move this week as they signed defensive end Eddie Yarbrough off Buffalo's practice squad and put rookie defensive tackle Armon Watts on Injured Reserve on Tuesday evening.
Yarbrough recorded one sack in 31 career games with the Bills, which included six starts.
While it remains to be seen if Yarbrough will be active Sunday, he does give Minnesota a pass-rushing option on defense. (It should also be noted that defensive end Stephen Weatherly missed Wednesday and Thursday's practice with an illness.)
"You know, I'm preparing [as if] I [will play], so I'm getting in this playbook, getting in there deep," Yarbrough said. "I already have my flash cards ready, and I'm excited for the opportunity."
Yarbrough, who had 21.5 career sacks at Wyoming from 2012-15, said he feels at home in his first few days in Minnesota.
"You know, I feel like it would be harder if it wasn't a team that's such a family like this, a team full of brothers," Yarbrough said. "I come in, and they just accept me as their own.
"I feel like you don't get that a lot of places, but here it's such a family-oriented place that they welcomed me with open arms," Yarbrough added. "I'm so blessed and fortunate to be able to play for an organization like this."