Fourth-quarter woes show Vikings don't need flawless Kirk Cousins to win

EAGAN, Minn. -- Kirk Cousins' debut for the Minnesota Vikings was a tale of two halves. The first in which he looked dominant, displaying pocket awareness on his way to completing 14-of-20 passes for 165 yards and a touchdown.

The second half was littered with ups and downs. The good: An 11-yard touchdown to Kyle Rudolph midway through the third quarter. The bad: Cousins opened the fourth quarter with a near interception and didn't complete a pass in the final 15 minutes of play.

Cousins going 0-for-7 in the last quarter allowed the San Francisco 49ers to come back in the game. According to ESPN Stats & Information, it was the first time in Cousins' career that he attempted at least one pass in a fourth quarter and failed to have a completion.

Among the biggest takeaways from Cousins' debut is that he doesn't need to play flawless for the Vikings to win. Playing with the backing of the No. 1 defense in the NFL is a luxury Cousins hasn't been afforded until now; one that will pay dividends for the QB as he continues to get his footing in the offense.

Cousins gets introduced to the Vikings-Packers rivalry with his first trip to Lambeau Field on Sunday. The last time he played Green Bay, Cousins had one of the best fourth quarters of his career. In Week 11 of 2016, Cousins was 5-of-6 passing for 145 yards and a touchdown in the fourth quarter, leading the Redskins on three TD drives in the final 15 minutes of a 42-24 victory. His 24.2 yards per attempt in that fourth quarter remains a career high.

Evaluating how well a quarterback performs in the fourth quarter doesn't point to their entire body of work. What it does is provide coaches -- especially defensive-minded ones -- with the knowledge of how conservatively they have to approach things when a win might be on the line and shows how their QB can perform under pressure.

"Some quarterbacks have a reputation of doing them (winning games in the fourth quarter)," Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said. "Some quarterbacks make it so that they don't really have to do it in the fourth quarter, too. A lot of times it's opportunities. A lot of times it's the team around you. There's so many variables, and I know everybody makes a big deal about all of those and it's great reading. But at the end of the day it's trying to win football games."

Cousins wasn't playing from behind in either of the aforementioned fourth quarters, but the stark contrast between the worst fourth quarter and one of the best of his career begs a look at how well he's done at closing out games.

According to Elias, Cousins has 12 game-winning drives in the fourth quarter/overtime throughout his career. Here's a look at each:

  • 2017, Week 2: Redskins win 27-20 at Rams: Cousins led a 10-play, 70-yard drive with 1:49 remaining in the fourth quarter. He went 3-for-3 for 42 yards and a TD.

  • 2016, Week 14: Redskins win 27-22 at Eagles: Cousins was 2-for-4 passing for 39 yards and rushed once for 6 yards in the final 1:53. Chris Thompson broke off a 25-yard run for the go-ahead score.

  • 2016, Week 10: Redskins win 26-20 vs. Vikings: With 9:33 to go in the fourth quarter, Cousins orchestrated a seven-play, 60-yard drive that ended with a 50-yard field goal to give them a 23-20 lead.

  • 2016, Week 4: Redskins win 31-20 vs. Browns: On a drive that started at the end of the third quarter, Cousins picked things up in the fourth, going 4-for-5 for 40 yards and a touchdown on a 10-play, 91-yard drive.

  • 2016, Week 3: Redskins win 29-27 vs. Giants: Only once on a 10-play, 56-yard drive did Cousins drop back, resulting in a 9-yard pass. That drive resulted in a field goal.

  • 2015, Week 14: Redskins win 24-21 at Bears: Another drive that started in the third quarter ended early in the fourth with a field goal. Cousins was 2-for-4 for 39 yards on the winning drive.

  • 2015, Week 7: Redskins win 31-30 vs. Buccaneers: The "You like that?!" game that put Cousins on the map featured an 11-play, 80-yard drive that he led with 24 seconds remaining in the game. Cousins went 9-for-11 for 76 yards and a touchdown.

  • 2015, Week 4: Redskins win 23-20 vs. Eagles: Down to the wire with 26 seconds remaining, Cousins led a 90-yard drive that ended with a touchdown.

  • 2012, Week 14: Redskins win 31-28 in OT vs. Ravens: Cousins relieved an injured Robert Griffin III with 45 seconds left in the fourth quarter. Cousins threw a touchdown and rushed for a 2-point conversion to tie the game at 28. In overtime, the Ravens started with the ball, but the Redskins had a huge punt return to get the ball deep into Baltimore territory, leading to a pair of handoffs and a 34-yard field goal. Despite not throwing or running on the overtime drive, Cousins got credit for the comeback.

Cousins was fifth in the league last year in fourth-quarter pass attempts, and with the Vikings' defense, that number should go down considerably. In any event, the markings of good fourth-quarter performances, whether the game is on the line or Cousins is managing a comfortable lead, boil down to principles of situational football.

"I can pretty much summarize the good fourth-quarter performances probably held some level of good decision-making and good game management to handle whatever was coming at us as the game wound to a close," Cousins said. "That is something I'm always working at is being a good decision-maker and a great manager of game situations. If I do that well, we will win a lot of games and the rest will fall in place."