Winning 'makes it easier' but Vikings' Kirk Cousins is his own worst critic

MINNEAPOLIS -- Throughout the best NFL season he has been a part of since he came into the league in 2012, Kirk Cousins keeps saying the strangest thing: He insists he's not playing well. The mantra began in September and it reached an apex Thursday night after the Minnesota Vikings quarterback finished one of the most efficient games ever against a New England Patriots defense under coach Bill Belichick.

Cousins completed 30 of 37 passes for 299 yards three touchdowns, and compiling a season-high 84.8 Total Quarterback Rating in a 33-26 win. Then he opened a window into his unique mix of anguish and relief during a postgame meeting with reporters.

"It's funny because we're winning, so I feel like talking to you guys has been a lot easier this year," he said. "But I'm not playing any better. If anything, I'm coming to these press conferences trying to smile, having to work to smile, because I'm thinking to myself, 'Man, I've got to play better.' I appreciate winning because it does make this a little easier."

The Vikings are 9-2 (.818 win percentage), the best record for any NFL team Cousins has been on through 11 games. His cumulative season statistics are nowhere near his career high through 12 weeks (he had a career-high 68.5 QBR through 11 games in 2016 with Washington), and he did throw a bad interception in the first quarter Thursday night -- a floater off his back foot that led to a Patriots field goal. But Cousins also made a series of on-the-money throws -- the type he has made to win games all season -- including a 36-yard dime to receiver Justin Jefferson in the fourth quarter that set up a 15-yard toss to receiver Adam Thielen for the touchdown that gave the Vikings the lead for good.

In the end, the Vikings' 81.6% team completion percentage was the second-highest ever against a Belichick-led Patriots defense. But when asked if he truly thought he should have played better, Cousins rattled off a list of imperfect throws. One was to receiver K.J. Osborn that fell a bit short, and another toward Jefferson that was off the mark and could have been intercepted.

"This is the way I am, man," he said. "I'm kind of hard on myself. I go back there and think of all the ways I need to be better."

In truth, the 2022 season isn't close to the best of Cousins' career from an individual standpoint. His 49.8 QBR this season is actually the worst it's ever been through 12 weeks of the season. His nine interceptions are the second-worst, as is his 65% completion rate. But the throws he has made to win games are what his teammates and coaches want him to focus on.

Cousins, whose teams are now 11-18 when playing in prime time, was asked if he would ever allow himself to say he had played a great game.

"No," he said. "I don't know. I probably drive myself crazy, my family crazy being this way. It's s just the way I am wired. I'm an improver. 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."

The Vikings didn't beat the Patriots solely on the strength of Cousins' arm. Kene Nwangwu's 97-yard kickoff return in the third quarter provided a big emotional swing. Their pass protection improved dramatically one week after Cousins was buried by seven sacks in a 40-3 loss to the Dallas Cowboys. Their own pass rush came alive in the fourth quarter to sack Patriots quarterback Mac Jones twice, and the NFL's replay review system reversed a third-quarter touchdown pass to Patriots tight end Hunter Henry, forcing a Patriots field goal.

And, to be sure, Cousins isn't the first professional athlete who has refused or deflected credit. But Cousins revealed that his attempt derives from a deeply held personal fixation -- all at a time when coaches and teammates are trying to pump him up.

Cousins divulged that Thielen pulled him aside before Thursday's game and "shared an encouraging word." Thielen didn't specifically address that conversation in speaking with reporters Thursday night, but he said it is important for Cousins not to feel like he's "carrying the weight of the team on him.

"I think that's something that we continually try to talk to him about," Thielen added. "Just go out there and play football. You're a dang-good football player and you prove that week in and week out. You show how tough you are. You show how prepared you are. When he does that -- and he did it tonight -- he's one of the best in the league."

Jefferson, meanwhile, lauded Cousins' growing confidence in throwing him the kind of "50-50" balls that have led him to score three red-zone touchdowns in the past four games, as well as haul in deeper passes of 37 and 36 yards Thursday night.

"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 footballs. I just love going up and making a play."

Cousins has been genuinely moved by such encouragement, as well as the unwavering confidence coach Kevin O'Connell has displayed since joining the organization in February. Rarely sentimental in public, Cousins expressed appreciation Thursday night for their universal encouragement to push him past his mistakes.

"Kevin [O'Connell] 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 that they have had my back after these interceptions, support me all week long, support me pregame in the locker room. ... At times it almost brings me to tears the way these guys support me and have my back. It really adds to the fun of playing and working together."