NEW ORLEANS -- Putting an end to the big-game narrative that hung over him throughout his NFL career, quarterback Kirk Cousins led the Minnesota Vikings to their first road playoff victory in 15 years, 26-20 in overtime against the New Orleans Saints on Sunday.
Continuing the trend of close games with big finishes during wild-card weekend, the Vikings punched their ticket to the divisional round when Cousins orchestrated a nine-play, 75-yard drive that ended with a 4-yard touchdown pass to tight end Kyle Rudolph.
"We want to score. They have a Hall of Fame guy on the other sideline and he didn't get to touch the ball in overtime, so we knew that," Rudolph said, referring to Saints quarterback Drew Brees. "We started the preseason here with a touchdown drive to open the game. And we needed another one to win in the playoffs."
Cousins notched his first career win in the postseason by completing 4 of 5 pass attempts for 63 yards and a touchdown on the Vikings' sole overtime drive. Cousins' pass to Rudolph came against a zero blitz on third down. Prior to that throw, the quarterback had only one passing touchdown under pressure all season on 99 attempts.
"I didn't feel under duress," Cousins said. "I know it was Cover 0, but the ball gets out so quick I don't really feel like they got home. It was a great play by Rudy, one-on-one, and he went up and grabbed it and kept his feet in, which is a challenge. He made a great play."
The game-winning touchdown was sparked by a critical third-and-1 conversion by Stefon Diggs for a 10-yard gain, followed by an 11-yard run by Dalvin Cook, who bulldozed through Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore, who then limped off the field. On the next play, Cousins targeted Patrick Robinson, Lattimore's replacement, who was in coverage on Adam Thielen. The Vikings receiver hauled a 43-yard over-the-shoulder catch down to the 2-yard line to set up Rudolph's TD.
"[Cousins] has a lot of trust in his ability, and when he sees the right coverage and they give you the opportunity to take a shot, which they really didn't the whole game because of the type of coverages they were playing, he's a guy that we know -- because of all the reps we've had in the last two years -- that when he does have an opportunity to throw it deep, he's going to give you a chance," Thielen said. "When I lined up, I knew I was getting the ball, and I'm thankful he threw it to me."
Cousins' pass to Thielen traveled 40 air yards, their most on a completion together since the QB arrived in Minnesota, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. Two weeks after he was held without a reception on four targets in a loss to Green Bay, Thielen had seven catches for 129 yards in New Orleans.
"We didn't wanna leave anything in the bag," coach Mike Zimmer said. "We had a chance to go down and score and win, and that's what we were trying to do. It's a play that we've used before; it's a great throw by Kirk, great catch by Adam. You gotta take your shots when you're trying to win a playoff game."
The Saints entered Sunday's game favored to win by a touchdown, but the aggressive approach Minnesota used with its various methods for pressuring Brees -- like sending defensive ends Danielle Hunter and Everson Griffen inside on passing downs -- stifled the quarterback throughout the first three quarters, particularly on third down, where he finished with just 17 passing yards.
Brees marched the Saints back from a 10-point deficit in the final 15 minutes of regulation, completing 13 straight passes to start the fourth quarter for 129 yards and a touchdown. He never had a chance to lead a drive in overtime given the Vikings won the coin toss and scored on their first attempt.
With two of their top playmakers -- Cook and Thielen -- back at full health, the Vikings offense rattled off one of its most impressive victories to date. Cook called Sunday the start of a new season after a shoulder injury suffered in Week 15 kept him sidelined for the final two games of the regular season. The third-year back rushed for 84 yards and a touchdown and had a 19-yard reception in the first half. Though he was held to minus-2 yards rushing in the final two quarters of regulation, Cook ran in a second touchdown in the third quarter.
Ahead of the wild-card round, Cousins had compiled an NFL-worst 0-15 mark as a starter against teams with a .700 win percentage (teams with 12 or more wins, such as the 13-win Saints). His records in big games against some of the NFL's best were as follows:
2-10 against teams that made the playoffs (both wins were against Eagles)
3-11-1 against teams that entered the game with a winning record (0-2-2 in overtime games)
0-9 on Monday Night Football (an NFL worst)
When his team required him to step up in biggest moment, the quarterback came through in a major way. Afterward, Cousins was awarded the game ball from Zimmer and was swarmed by his teammates in celebration. Cousins ended his postgame message by yelling "You like that?!" paying homage to his famous one-line quip after leading Washington to its biggest comeback in franchise history during his first year as a starter.
"It's fun to be able to win, and to feel like you're moving forward," Cousins said. "But my journey has always been one of -- like the book 'The Dreamgiver,' when you climb the mountain, you sit there at the top and you look around, you realize you only have more mountains to climb. And so, being a fourth-round pick and kinda working your way up in the league, now you win a playoff game, you look around, guess what -- there's more mountains to climb.
"You wanna win every playoff game; you wanna get to the Super Bowl someday; you wanna win a world championship. So you just keep chasing the next mountain. And there'll always be people who are gonna criticize you, and that's OK."
The Vikings now head to San Francisco for their divisional round matchup with the 49ers at 4:35 p.m. ET on Saturday. San Francisco opened as a 7-point favorite over Minnesota at Caesars Sportsbook.