EAGAN, Minn. – Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins fully anticipates feeling some "butterflies" in his stomach Sunday prior to kickoff – and really, he believes that's a good thing.
Minnesota will host Chicago for the regular-season finale, and it's a "win-and-in" situation for the Vikings, who hope to secure a playoff berth. Without a win over the Bears, they would need a loss or tie by the Eagles, who will be playing the Redskins at the same time.
Cousins was asked during his Wednesday session with Twin Cities media members if he's learned to "quell the anxiety" of a big game after seven seasons in the league.
The quarterback paused for just a brief moment before responding that there "will always be excitement, nerves, anxiety, butterflies – whatever you want to call it" because of how much the game of football matters to him.
"I joke with people that when the math teacher in my junior year of high school said, 'Hey, we've got a pop quiz,' I mean, you start to feel the butterflies. Because you want to do well; it matters to you," Cousins said. "And frankly, I think when I have butterflies I play a little better because it heightens your awareness and your attention to detail and your sense of urgency.
"I've always felt that when I step on the field, regardless of the game, and those will be there again Sunday afternoon, and that's OK. That's part of the deal," Cousins added.
He did acknowledge, however, that as a veteran player he's able to draw on past experiences and tell himself, "I've been in these moments before, and I understand what's required of me."
Cousins emphasized that football is a team game, and the Vikings goal each and every week is to play complementary football.
"This is not a defense that we're going against that teams are putting 50 points up against and having 500 yards of offense. And that may not be the game that's required to win," Cousins said. "If our defense and special teams play really well … if offensively we don't have the most dynamic day but we come out with a win, then that's what we do. That's what's required to win.
Added Cousins: "As long as we win as a team, we don't really care how it's done."
Here are three other topics Cousins covered during his media session:
1. 'It's not complicated. I want to win.'
Cousins in Washington experienced a win-and-in scenario in which his team ended up on the wrong side of the equation, and he doesn't want to be in that situation again.
"I remember the feeling, driving away from the game – I remember being disappointed. I don't want to feel that again," Cousins said. "It's not complicated. I want to win. We want to win. We understand what's at stake. There's no magic formula; there's no button you can push or hours you can put in to suddenly snap your fingers and guarantee a win. So you do all you can, give everything you have.
"There have been plenty of games this year where I've given everything I have, and we don't come out on top, and I don't have a great game," Cousins continued. "But there have also been plenty of games where I do that exact same process, and it's more than good enough, and we play at a very high level. We just have to be the best team [on Sunday]."
2. Playing for the big picture
In Kevin Stefanski's first game as interim offensive coordinator, the Vikings went up 21-0 in the first quarter. In his second game, a road contest at Detroit, the Vikings struggled offensively at the start but found their rhythm late in the second quarter and into the second half.
Cousins reminded media members that "the sky is not falling" if a series ends without points or without gaining much ground.
"We talk about what happened, why we didn't convert, but at the end of the day, if it's things that we can control, if it's something that's out of our control, then we'll just shrug our shoulders and say, 'OK, let's wait [and] hopefully our defense gets us the ball back soon, and we'll have another crack at it.' It's a long game," Cousins said. "Many times, avoiding critical errors and just punting can still be a win. If you're giving them the ball back without great field position or if you're able to flip the field a little bit, it's OK. We play for the long game, and we play to be there at the end. Certainly, we all know that it's a long game and may not be perfect right away."
3. Benefits to running the ball, finding balance
Cousins feels positive about improvements in the Vikings run game over the past two weeks, but he reminded that "things can change week to week" based on the opponent's defense and game situation.
The Vikings ran the ball 14 times and produced just 22 yards on the ground in their last matchup against the Bears, at Soldier Field in November. Over the past two games against the Dolphins and Lions, Minnesota has totaled 320 rushing yards on 68 carries.
"We've run the ball more, and when you do that, that usually leads to more production. And when you have a lead like we've had the last couple of games in the second half, then you're going to get more attempts naturally, and it's going to lend itself to having a better run game," Cousins said. "It's a small sample size, but I think you can look at the sample size and say, 'Yeah, that's been a little different the last couple weeks.' "
Cousins also acknowledged the way that different facets can open up by playing offensively balanced.
"When you run it well, now that's something they have to focus on, and that – in theory – should open up play-action opportunities, and maybe it slows the pass-rush opportunity a little bit," Cousins said. "And defenses' calls – you know, the coverage plan is going to have to build in to stop the run if you're running well, and that should open up more people on the outside to get open. They can't double the receivers quite as much if they're worried about the run. So the more you can run, the more it may open up other opportunities.
"But vice versa – if you're throwing the ball well, you might get a lot of two-safety looks or safeties who are doubling the receivers, and now that should open up opportunities for your run game to pop a run here or there," Cousins added.