As Kirk Cousins prepared for the Vikings prime-time game against New England last Thursday, the Minnesota quarterback could feel the pressure start to sink in.
Minnesota's recent seven-game win streak had been snapped in a dismal performance against Dallas just four days before, a loss in which Cousins was sacked a career-high seven times.
The questions started to arise: How would the Vikings respond in such a short turnaround? Is this the start of a downfall?
Wide receiver Adam Thielen heard the noise, too, and went to his quarterback to provide some confidence.
"You're a dang good football player, and you prove it week in and week out," Thielen said to Cousins. "You show how tough you are, how prepared you are. Just go out there and let it fly."
Cousins went on to complete 30 of his 37 pass attempts for 299 yards and three touchdowns while also throwing an interception. He led Minnesota to another thrilling one-score victory — its eighth this season — over the Patriots in a 33-26 final.
"At times it almost brings me to tears the way these guys support me and have my back," Cousins said. "It really adds to the fun of playing and working together."
View Vikings in Big Head Mode during the huge win over the Patriots on Thanksgiving at U.S. Bank Stadium.
Jon Krawczynski of The Athletic recently looked at how the Vikings belief in Cousins has transformed his confidence level under center — and how Minnesota is reaping the benefits. He wrote:
In a season of come-from-behind wins and social media memes, of daring throws into double coverage and gutsy scrambles for first downs, conversations like that one with Thielen have buoyed Cousins to play some of the most resilient and clutch football of his career.
Cousins has not only gotten Minnesota out to hot starts — the Vikings have scored seven touchdowns on opening drives this season — but he has also executed in late-game situations.
Despite the Vikings having trailed in the second half in nine of their 12 games so far — including eight in the fourth quarter — Cousins has orchestrated six game-winning drives. In those six possessions, he has completed 19 of his 28 pass attempts for 274 yards.
Krawczynski said even after a strong performance, Cousins will be the first to point out things he could have done better.
He lamented a throw behind [wide receiver Justin] Jefferson in the first quarter that could have been intercepted and a much-too-softly tossed pass to K.J. Osborn that the receiver had to make a great play on to avoid another interception.
"I'm not playing any better," Cousins said. "If anything, I'm coming into these press conferences trying to smile and having to work to smile because I'm thinking to myself, 'Man, I gotta play better.' I appreciate winning because it does make this a little easier, but there's a lot in the game where you're always saying, 'I've got to be better.'
"I probably drive myself crazy, my family crazy being this way. But it's just the way I'm wired. I'm an improver," Cousins added. "I'm kind of obsessed with improvement. Even when things are good, my mind goes to 'How can they be better?' You kind of torture yourself that way. I much (prefer) talking to you guys and thinking about how we can be better after a win than after a loss."
Krawczynski noted Cousins' stats don't indicate he's playing other-worldly, he's taking more risks this season.
A prime example was the throw he delivered to Jefferson on second-and-2 from the Minnesota 49-yard line in the fourth quarter on Thursday with two Patriots defenders glued to Jefferson, who made the tough 36-yard catch. One play later, Cousins found Thielen in the end zone for the go-ahead touchdown with 9:34 left.
"This whole year, ever since I've been here, I've been asking him to do it," Jefferson said. "I feel like every single week he's getting more and more confident to give me those types of balls."
Cousins' risk-taking — whether it's through his arm or, in a couple of instances, his legs — has paid off several times. As a result, the Vikings are having their best season since 2017 and are inching closer to a division title.
A large part of that is not only the confidence Cousins' teammates are instilling in him, but the faith that Head Coach Kevin O'Connell has in his quarterback.
"Kevin has empowered me so much," Cousins said. "This team has empowered me so much. The guys have just been tremendous. I can't say enough about the way they've had my back after these interceptions, support me all week long, support me pregame in the locker room."
The confidence in Cousins has drifted far past the outskirts of the locker room. During the Vikings seven-game win streak, players celebrated by adorning Cousins with their chains on road trips and calling him "Kirko Chainz."
The fans have embraced it, too. During Thursday's game, a young fan was spotted in the crowd at U.S. Bank Stadium wearing a Vikings stocking cap, no shirt and several gold chains around his neck as a tribute to Cousins. He was put on the videoboard multiple times in the second half, and the visual even drew the quarterback's attention.
"That was just tremendous," Cousins said. "We may have to hire him as a team mascot. That was awesome."
Cousins said they needed to get in touch with the boy's family and have him back when they play the Jets. He then joked that there will be no more chains for him and that he has to step his game up to match Jefferson's diamond-encrusted grill.
"I've got to call my dentist back in Holland, Michigan, and ask for some custom grills," Cousins joked. "That's probably where you take it from here. It's been fun. When you win, you get to do things like that. When you lose, you don't."
CBS Sports Gives Out Grades for Week 12
The Vikings victory against the Patriots Thursday capped a holiday full of exciting games.
Jeff Kerr of CBS Sports analyzed every game on Thursday from Week 12 and provided grades for each team. Kerr gave the Vikings an 'A-' for their game. He wrote:
At the very least, we can now point to Week 12 against the Patriots on Thanksgiving as a prime-time game where Kirk Cousins was good. While the Vikings QB did have a rough interception in this game, he was largely efficient with the football, completing 30 of his 37 passes for 299 and three touchdowns along with that pick.
With the ground game not providing much in terms of moving the chains, Minnesota had to rely on Cousins to keep them in the game even as New England continued to match them score-for-score. Of course, a big part of his success was thanks to Justin Jefferson, who continues to be a cheat code against opposing secondaries. He had 139 yards and a touchdown on nine catches. Arguably his biggest reception of the night came on a second-and-2 pass from Cousins at midfield where he brought the Vikings inside the red zone to eventually get the go-ahead touchdown.
Minnesota also had contributions from all three phases as Kene Nwangwu took a kickoff 97 yards to the house in the second half, Meanwhile, the defense shutout the Patriots down the stretch, forcing two three-and-outs, a turnover on downs and kept them at bay as they clock hit zero on the final four drives.