Unlike some of their other recent playoff exits, the New Orleans Saints’ 26-20 loss to the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday lacked a singular moment of heartbreak. Sure, the game featured a slew of costly turnovers and questionable calls, but it won’t get its own quirky nickname like 2011’s “Beast Quake” or 2018’s “Minneapolis Miracle.” Nor will the league change any rules in response to the loss like they did after last season’s NFC championship game. Nope, Sunday’s wild-card game was just your average, run-of-the-mill home playoff defeat in overtime. It probably won’t even get its own dedicated Wikipedia page.
If you have to pick a single crushing moment for the Saints, the most likely choice is Kirk Cousins’ 43-yard bomb to Adam Thielen in overtime. The pass put the Vikings in position to win and helped spruce up Cousins’ reputation (for at least one weekend).
The Saints were heavy favorites heading into Sunday, and one imagines much of that had to do with Cousins. The Vikings quarterback put up some great numbers during the regular season (3603 yards, 26 touchdowns, 6 interceptions) and has been something of a statistical darling, but Cousins’ well-known weakness has always been “big games.” Before Sunday, Cousins had never beaten a team that finished the season with a winning percentage above .700. His career record in primetime was 7–15, and he’s never won on Monday Night Football. Keen-eyed clock and calendar owners will point out that the Saints game was during the afternoon and on a Sunday, but this was a big game no matter how you slice it, and Cousins earned his first playoff win when he found Kyle Rudolph in the end zone on a fade route.
For a brief moment it seemed as if the referees were going to review the catch to see if Rudolph committed offensive pass interference. They didn’t, and the team that suffered the worst pass interference no-call in history during last year’s playoffs was once again made to wait for a flag that would never be thrown. It would’ve been an excruciating bit of symmetry had Rudolph’s push-off been more flagrant—and if the Saints hadn’t put themselves in a position to lose to Kirk Cousins in the first place.
While the Vikings quarterback came up big when it mattered most, Drew Brees played like, well, Kirk Cousins (the one who gets made fun of for crapping himself in big games). The future Hall of Famer committed two costly turnovers. The first was an interception on an underthrown deep ball to Ted Ginn Jr. before halftime; the second was a back-breaking fumble in Vikings territory late in the fourth quarter. It was his first fumble of the season.
Brees is less than two weeks away from his 41st birthday, and both those plays can be blamed on waning athleticism. The perils of age appeared even more obvious when juxtaposed against Taysom Hill, the Saints’ reserve quarterback/receiver/fullback/punt-blocker/can opener/corkscrew/tweezers. New Orleans head coach Sean Payton used Hill all over the field on Sunday, and the utility man threw a deep ball, rushed four times for four first downs, filled in as lead blocker on a rushing touchdown, and caught a pass in the end zone for himself.
He was a one-man momentum machine, though the Saints’ greatest ever player kept mucking up the gears. Brees’ interception came on the possession following Hill’s successful deep ball, and his fumble happened immediately after Hill rushed for 28 yards to put the Saints deep in Minnesota territory.
The Saints would get the ball back in regulation, but Payton inexplicably used one of his two remaining timeouts before the two-minute warning (rather than both or neither), so New Orleans didn’t get the benefit of an added break during its final drive. They were forced to kick a game-tying field goal rather than go for the win, and Wil Lutz’s 49-yarder merely rolled out the red carpet for Kirk Cousins to transform into purple Joe Montana during overtime.
If there’s to be any consolation for Saints fans, it’s that their misery wasn’t all that memorable compared to miseries of recent past. Just pray that “The Kirk Cousins Game” doesn’t stick.
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