NFL divisional playoffs: Kirk Cousins fails to lift Vikings, putting emphasis on team's passing limitations

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- The cruel and unfair nature of the NFL playoffs is that one or two throws tend to define a quarterback regardless of what happened from September through December. Make the throws in the moments demanding perfection, and wind up with Super Bowl rings and the reputation of a future Hall of Famer -- like, say, Eli Manning. Miss them, and -- regardless of what came before -- get dismissed. Like, say, Kirk Cousins.

This is a cliché but necessary preface to any story that begins to discuss the complicated career of the Vikings' quarterback, especially a story that attempts to distill Cousins' reputation. Cousins is a good quarterback. But on Saturday afternoon in Santa Clara, against the league's second-best defense, he was not good enough. Cousins finished with 172 yards (21-for-29), one touchdown and one interception as San Francisco beat Minnesota 27-10.

Not good enough to shake the narrative that followed him from Washington to Minnesota and will linger into 2020. Not good enough for the Vikings to upset the top-seeded 49ers and advance to the NFC Championship Game. Not good enough to fulfill the expectations that came attached to the mega-contract the Vikings awarded him two offseasons ago.

Saturday's divisional round games are in the books and there's a lot to go over. Will Brinson is joined by the Pick Six Superfriends to break it all down; listen below and be sure to subscribe for daily NFL goodness.

The defense -- the supposed strength of the team -- got bullied in the second half by a punishing ground assault. They allowed 186 yards on 47 carries. The offensive line failed to open up the necessary holes -- the supposed strength of the offensive line -- for Dalvin Cook. He was limited to 18 yards on nine carries. The offensive line was unable to provide Cousins with adequate protection -- we already knew that was a weakness. The Vikings didn't score a point after halftime. They gained only 147 yards and picked up only seven first downs. A week after going 10-for-18 on third down, the Vikings went 2-for-12.

The Vikings lost because they're, quite simply, from top to bottom, not as good as the 49ers. They haven't been all season long, which is why they entered the game as seven-point underdogs. And they weren't on Saturday, which is why they lost by 17 points.

In that sense, nobody should put the entire weight of the loss on Cousins. First and foremost, the 49ers deserve praise. Many quarterbacks have failed to vanquish the 49ers. He wasn't the first. And he probably won't be the last with the 49ers continuing to look like the premier team in the NFC. In that sense, it's not fair to rip Cousins to shreds for what transpired on Saturday. A lot of quarterbacks would've lost that game.

But when Cousins signed a three-year, $84 million fully guaranteed deal with the Vikings in March 2018, fairness flew out the window. So did comparisons to the majority of NFL quarterbacks. Cousins was always going to be judged on his performances come January (and maybe, one day, February). Teams don't spend $28 million per season on quarterbacks so they can be passengers. They pay that money so the quarterback in question can elevate the team around him. In that sense, Cousins came up short. He wasn't good enough to adorn the Vikings' ugly flaws.

Saturday served as a microcosm of Cousins' career, neatly encapsulated into four quarters. He didn't play terribly, and it certainly wasn't all his fault. He wasn't helped by his offensive line, receivers, or coaches. Too often, the Vikings stubbornly gave the ball to Cook even though Cook had nowhere to run, putting Cousins in disadvantageous situations where the 49ers' defense was able to look for the pass. The game-changing moment came midway through the third quarter when Adam Thielen stopped on his route just as Cousins released the football. Richard Sherman, who was otherwise virtually ignored by Cousins, caught the pass. The Vikings lost nearly half of their win probability on that play alone

Eight plays later, the 49ers took a two-score lead. No longer able to stubbornly stick to their ineffective ground game, in desperate need of a touchdown, the Vikings called three straight passing plays on their ensuing drive. They gained six yards. On the third play, Cousins declined to run for a first down in order to throw incomplete to a tightly covered receiver. The Vikings went three-and-out.

After the 49ers tacked on a field goal to take a 17-point lead, the game all but ended. The Vikings officially waved the white flag when they punted the ball back to the 49ers even though they needed three scores to mount a successful comeback. 

It ended in disappointment, but it didn't begin that way. Fresh off an upset over the Saints in New Orleans, in a game that saw Cousins seemingly shake the narrative by outplaying Drew Brees and leading a game-winning drive in overtime that culminated with a walk-off touchdown, Cousins connected with Stefon Diggs in the first quarter for a 41-yard touchdown. On that series, the Vikings abandoned their running game and let Cousins sling it. It worked. Cousins threw the ball six times and on those plays, the Vikings gained 73 yards. 

Most importantly, they tied the game after a demoralizing beginning.

Those 41 yards accounted for nearly a quarter of Cousins' final output. He finished with only 172 yards on 29 attempts, meaning he averaged only 5.9 yards per attempt. From an efficiency standpoint, it was the third-worst game of his otherwise productive season.

Cousins misfired on only eight of his passes, but the misses were crucial. There was the interception, which could either be pinned on Thielen or simply credited to Sherman. And there was his inaccurate throw to Diggs late in the first half that would've given the Vikings a first down inside the 10-yard line, but instead resulted in a third-and-11 that led to a sack in an obvious passing situation and forced the Vikings to settle for a field goal in a seven-point game. It's the kind of throw -- Cousins wasn't pressured and Diggs wasn't well covered -- that NFL starting quarterbacks, regardless of their salary, are supposed to hit 10 times out of 10.

Cousins missed.

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NFL Game Pass

The replay was even more damning.

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HBO / Game of Thrones

"Just felt like when I was throwing it, I thought we had it," Cousins said. "The corner was off, but I think I just pulled him too far to the sideline. Just didn't connect on it.

"Tough one."

It's moments like that -- not to mention, the plays where Cousins declined to take open shots downfield in order to dump the ball down underneath -- that breathed new life into the narrative that Cousins can't win big games, even if he just took down the Saints one week ago. Cousins said he needed to look at the film before he could say if he missed some opportunities downfield, but admitted he missed one chance to tight end Irv Smith Jr. in the second half.

"I think we had some called," said Vikings coach Mike Zimmer when asked about throwing deep. "We didn't throw them."

What makes Cousins' struggles so frustrating is how well he played leading up to Saturday. It genuinely did feel like he turned the corner after his first season in Minnesota that was statistically impressive but didn't result in a playoff berth. In the regular season, he played a starring role in the Vikings' 10-win season (it likely would've been 11 wins if he and the rest of the starters hadn't sat out a meaningless Week 17 loss to the Bears) by playing like a top-10 quarterback. 

He finished the regular season fifth in completion percentage, sixth in touchdown rate, seventh in yards per attempt, fourth in passer rating, seventh in DYAR, 10th in DVOA, 13th in total QBR. Against the Saints last week, he went 19 of 31 (61.3 percent) for 242 yards (7.8 YPA), one touchdown, no picks, and a 96.4 passer rating. But Saturday's performance rendered what he accomplished throughout the entire season insignificant because fair or not, it's what a quarterback does in January and February that matters. 

It remains true that Cousins is hardly the sole reason why the Vikings' season ended on Saturday.

Unlike Garoppolo -- who was also uneven and threw an interception that could've turned the game if the Vikings had been able to capitalize on his mistake -- Cousins doesn't have a genius offensive mind in his ear. He's not the one who decides to run the ball ineffectively on first down and second-and-long time and time again. 

His offensive line can't pass block, which was problematic against a defensive front featuring the likes of Joey Bosa, DeForest Buckner, Arik Armstead, and Dee Ford. It meant the 49ers weren't forced to bring extra pressure. They could afford to drop seven men into coverage.

"They didn't need to blitz much," Zimmer said. "They got good pressure with four guys. Pressure affects quarterbacks typically."

As previously mentioned, Thielen quit on his route on what ended up being the game-changing play. 

"Just trying to get it to Adam there on the inside as he breaks across the corner's face," Cousins said.

"It was completely my fault," Thielen said. "I didn't cross the face and obviously (Cousins) trusted me to win on that route and make a play on the ball. I didn't do that."

The second Vikings giveaway came on special teams with Cousins on the sidelines as a helpless spectator. 

It's not all Cousins' fault. It's worth repeating. It's not all Cousins' fault. He shouldn't be scapegoated. The Vikings have far bigger issues they need to address in the offseason. Put another way, there are a ton of quarterback-needy teams that would kill for Cousins. One happens to reside in the Vikings' own division. But it's also true that Cousins is now two years into his three-year contract and he's yet to prove he was worthy of the deal -- or an extension. 

"I don't know what his contract situation is," Zimmer said. "I'll worry about that down the road. Today's not the day to discuss it."

Barring a new deal before the 2020 season, one more year remains for Cousins to live up to his contract. Given just how talented the Vikings are at the skill positions and on the defensive side of the ball -- and how good Cousins almost always is over the course of a 16-game regular season -- he should get another chance next January. The Vikings should be back in next year's postseason. This is a good football team.

"I believe strongly in our organization, our coaches, our players, our locker room. Today we fell short," Cousins said. "There will be 31 teams that will feel that way. And you know that going in, when you strap it up in April and get going again, that 31 teams are going to feel like they fell short and weren't good enough. 

"Today, we had to face that reality."

There's still time for Cousins to rewrite the narrative. But fair or not, time is running out before the narrative of his career becomes the reality of his career.

CBS Sports Writer

Sean Wagner-McGough joined CBS Sports in 2015 after graduating from UC Berkeley. A native of Seattle, Sean now resides in the Bay Area. He spends his spare time defending Jay Cutler on Twitter. Full Bio

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