EAGAN, Minn. (AP) Minnesota's investment in Kirk Cousins has yet to yield a postseason victory. The hyper-scrutinized quarterback's first opportunity to get one with the Vikings has arrived this week, on the heels of his career-best season.
Traveling to the Superdome to take on New Orleans in the first round isn't exactly a soft launch.
''I think there's just more juice and excitement,'' Cousins said. ''There always is, but certainly in the playoffs it brings an intensity that makes it kind of fun.''
Cousins has little experience with this, having been to the postseason only twice in his previous seven years in the league. He was the backup for Washington as a rookie in 2012, when he replaced an injured Robert Griffin III in the fourth quarter against Seattle in a 24-14 defeat. Cousins went just 3 for 10 for 31 yards in relief. Then in 2015, his first season as the full-time starter, Cousins went 29 for 46 for 329 yards and a touchdown against Green Bay, taking six sacks in a 35-18 loss.
All the Vikings needed to do to make the playoffs in his debut in 2018 was beat Chicago at home on the final week of the schedule, but they lost 24-10 in what was essentially a postseason game to finish 8-7-1 and miss the cut. This year, with the offense much improved save for that poor performance in defeat on Dec. 23 against the Packers, the Vikings (10-6) had their spot secured with two games to go.
They have to play against the Saints (13-3), however, in a venue as daunting for a visitor as any in the NFL. The last time the Vikings had a postseason game away from home, two years ago, they were blown out 38-7 in the NFC championship game at Philadelphia. Cousins has never taken snaps on the road in the playoffs.
Naturally, the intensity and focus has increased this week, but by how much should it ramp up?
''On one hand you say, `Shame on us if we haven't been giving our all every week, every day, all season long.' You can also talk on the other side and say, `Don't leave anything on the table. Bring everything you've got.' I don't think that means you haven't been doing that. I think it just means there's a sense of urgency in the playoffs,'' said Cousins, whose touchdown rate (5.9 percent), interception rate (1.4 percent) and average yards per attempt (8.1) in 2019 were the best marks of his career since he became a full-time starter in 2015.
Cousins is only under contract through the 2020 season, with a whopping salary cap hit of $31 million. The Vikings don't have to do anything with his deal this winter, but if they're not convinced he's worth an extension then they'd be wise to strongly consider using this draft to find a potential replacement. Either way, his performance at New Orleans on Sunday will go a long way toward shaping his legacy in purple.
Though Cousins is the most scrutinized of the bunch, he's far from the only member of the Vikings facing a crossroad game this weekend. Both general manager Rick Spielman and head coach Mike Zimmer each have only one more year on their contracts, too. Despite all of the strides made and stability established under their leadership in the front office and on the field, the Vikings have won just one postseason game in the past 10 years. That was, fittingly, against the Saints two years ago on the ''Minneapolis Miracle'' touchdown pass on the final play.
''Every little thing becomes a lot more magnified because of the consequences of winning and losing,'' Zimmer said, ''so everybody has to do a little bit extra in preparation so we don't make those mistakes, we line up and play hard and play fast.''