NEW ORLEANS — A healthy Dalvin Cook more than made a difference in his first-career playoff game.
Because of an ACL injury in his rookie season, Cook wasn't in uniform when the Vikings defeated the Saints in January 2018 when the teams last met in a playoff game.
This season, the Vikings running back had battled multiple injuries in December and been withheld from playing in Weeks 16 and 17.
Fresh off the rest and with a large audience watching, Cook showed his dynamic versatility, racking up 31 total touches for 130 combined yards and scoring both of Minnesota's rushing touchdowns for good measure.
"He's a special player, he's been that way all year for us," said Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins. "He's a great teammate and a great person … a great player and I'm lucky to play with him."
Added Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer: "I thought Dalvin ran the ball very hard today, the offensive line did a nice job of protecting. They've got some really great players on the defensive line. The way he runs the football with the acceleration to get through the seams and the cracks, and then the physicality that he runs with, he made some great runs today."
Cook had 28 carries for 94 yards on the day, and added three receptions for 36 yards. While most of his yards were tough-sledding against a defense that ranked fourth against the run in the regular season, he was able to pop free a few times.
The 2017 second-round pick's longest run was a 22-yard scamper, but he also added a pair of 11-yard runs and five others that went for five or more yards.
That included his first-career playoff touchdown, a 5-yard run that included a masterful cutback with just 23 seconds left in the first half. The score gave the Vikings a 13-10 advantage.
Cook then padded Minnesota's lead late in the third quarter, when he plunged into the end zone from a yard out.
"Big time … it's a playoff game," Cook said. "Anytime I can change the scoreboard and get us points, I'm going to do everything I can. Whatever I have to do."
Cook endured an up-and-down final few weeks of the season, as he initially got hurt in a Week 13 loss in Seattle. He kept playing, but suffered another upper-body injury in Week 15 against in Los Angeles.
Minnesota shut him down for the final two weeks of the season, and Cook said Sunday that the rest helped get him ready for the playoffs.
"I did. I felt it in practice and was flying around, just getting myself back in condition to play football," Cook said. "I was flying around, and I was pushing myself like I was in a football game. I think it paid off."
View postgame celebration images that followed the Vikings win over the Saints.
Cook's presence on the field certainly opened up things for Cousins, especially on one of the game's biggest plays.
It was Cook who looked like he was initially getting the ball on first-and-10 at the Saints 45-yard line in overtime, only to have Cousins pull the ball back for a play fake.
That allowed Adam Thielen to get past a drawn-in Saints defense and haul in a 43-yard catch that eventually set up Cousins' game-winning pass to Kyle Rudolph.
Cousins explained how Cook and the Vikings running game impacts the rest of Minnesota's offense.
"I think it plays a role. Hopefully it gets you into more manageable third downs when you run the football well," Cousins said. "It can run the clock, you can possess the ball. If you run it well, you hope it can force some coverages by the opponent to help you pass the ball. Hopefully it can slow down the pass rush a little bit.
"All those things, and it's not easy to come into this place against a good defense and just run the football," Cousins added. "We hit some and we didn't hit some. But I felt like we were consistent enough, and we certainly stayed with the run, that ultimately we'll look back and feel good about it."
Cook's 31 total touches were a team-high (not counting Cousins or center Garrett Bradbury), as he helped the Vikings rumble for 136 total yards on the ground on 40 carries.
Cook said he was ready to carry the load in the Superdome.
"It's the biggest moment, the biggest game," Cook said. "We worked hard all season. In the big moment … you have to want the ball.
"I knew I couldn't get it every play — you saw what Adam and Rudy did there at the end — but I definitely want the ball," Cook added.
The sixth-seeded Vikings will now play at the top-seeded 49ers on Saturday in San Francisco. Kickoff is at 3:35 p.m. (CT).
With Cook in the mix, anything could be possible for the Vikings on offense.
"It's a special team, man," Cook said. "We can continue to be whatever we want to be, I've been saying that all year.
"We control what we want to do, we control our destiny," Cook added. "We took care of Game 1, now look to Game 2. But it's one game at a time."