Upon Further Review: You like that? Vikings eliminate Saints 26-20

Minnesota Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph celebrates a touchdown by Dalvin Cook in the second half of an NFL wild-card playoff football game against the New Orleans Saints. (AP Photo/Brett Duke)
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Kirk Cousins got his moment.

On first-and-10 from the New Orleans 45-yard line in overtime, Cousins, seeing that Saints defensive back Marshon Lattimore was on the sidelines, targeted Adam Thielen on a 43-yard bomb — and connected — to bring the ball inside the 5-yard line.

It was a perfect pass, a perfect catch and a perfect moment for the quarterback that no one gave a chance to win a playoff game, especially on the road facing a future Hall of Fame signal-caller Drew Brees.

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Three plays later, Cousins followed up the biggest pass of his life by lobbing a ball up for tight end Kyle Rudolph in the back corner of the end zone for a game-winning touchdown, knocking New Orleans out of the playoffs.

While Cousins will get the headlines (as he deservedly did here), the Vikings’ 26-20 overtime victory was truly Mike Zimmer’s masterpiece.

Zimmer, who received the vote of confidence of owner Zygi Wilf earlier this week, rewarded the organization by outcoaching Sean Payton all afternoon long. Zimmer’s defense held the Saints to 20 points, the same unit that racked up 34+ points in five of its final six regular-season contests.

His schemes confused Brees, who didn’t look like himself and finished the day throwing for 208 yards, one touchdown and one interception on 26-of-33 passing.

Really, the only threat New Orleans had on offense was quarterback/receiver/scatback/confirmed Vikings killer Taysom Hill. Hill completed his only pass attempt for 50 yards, rushed four times for 50 yards and also caught a 20-yard touchdown pass to bring the Saints within three points in the fourth quarter.

Timely stops, ferocious pressure on Brees and a big win in the time-of-possession battle (36:56 to 27:24) added up to Minnesota’s first postseason road win since 2005.

There was no miracle needed.

Here’s a recap of Sunday’s game (Story | Photos):

PLAYER OF THE GAME

It’s not often that we name two players of the game, but Danielle Hunter and Everson Griffen both need to be equally recognized. They changed the game. Hunter and Griffen posted 1.5 sacks apiece with a combined eight tackles, six quarterback hurries and two tackles for loss.

Every sack was critical. The two teamed up to take down Brees on third down to halt the Saints’ first drive at the 11-yard line. Griffen got to Brees again in the third quarter, sacking him for a loss of 10 that derailed a drive and resulted in a three-and-out. And Hunter had the biggest play of all with four minutes to play. Down three points, the Saints had crept into the Vikings’ red zone. But Hunter rushed Brees and stripped the quarterback of the ball, which was recovered by Jaylen Holmes.

Griffen and Hunter were so effective due to the Vikings’ debuting a new look in the trenches. On passing downs, Zimmer placed Stephen Weatherly and Ifeadi Odenigbo on the field as defensive ends while sliding Griffen and Hunter inside. The Saints’ interior linemen couldn’t handle that speed.

DON’T FORGET ABOUT ME

Dalvin Cook looked fresh right from the start. Cook, who had missed the last two regular-season games due to a shoulder injury, took his first carry of the game for nine yards. He finished his first career postseason game with 28 carries for 94 yards and two touchdowns, becoming the first Vikings running back since Adrian Peterson with multiple scores in a playoff game.

THAT MOMENT

The aforementioned Brees fumble changed the momentum of the game entirely, but we’ll rewind the tape further to show more dominance of the Vikings’ defense.

Minnesota held New Orleans to 137 total yards in the first half (and just 25 in the first quarter), so it was expected for Payton and Brees to come out of the locker room with vengeance.

The Saints received the kick to start the half. After converting one third down on the drive, New Orleans faced a third-and-1 from its 44-yard line. Brees flipped the ball to Kamara, who was running in motion as the ball was snapped. But Vikings linebacker Eric Kendricks was there to bust the play open, and within seconds Kamara was surrounded by a flurry of defenders wearing purple. It went for a loss of six yards.

New Orleans never got its mojo back.

THIS NUMBER

21 — We haven’t mentioned kicker Dan Bailey at all yet. Teams only go as far in the postseason as their kickers will take them, and Bailey has been perfect of late. Bailey nailed both of his field-goal attempts — a 43-yarder and 21-yarder — to extend his streak to 21 straight field goals made.

THEY SAID IT

“I’m thrilled we won a playoff game, and I just do my part. We won the game today because we played great defense, got a turnover, had good special teams, great play-calling and a great plan. We protected and ran the football. We probably had 30-40 rushing attempts. There’s a whole lot of reasons we won the game. Does the quarterback play a role in that? Yes, but it was a team win.” — Kirk Cousins

“You know, they say he cannot win a playoff game, but he has only been in two, so he is 50%, which is better than a lot of people. I thought he played really well today. He took good care of the ball. He made good decisions when they had some heat on us, so he had to make some great decisions. It is good. He has to go out and prove it again next week, like we all have to.” — Mike Zimmer on Cousins

“We are kind of used to being underdogs. I kind of touched on it a little earlier in the week. A lot of the guys on the team are underdogs, coming from where they came from, school, late round, whatever. Guys are used to being behind the eight ball, so it was not a surprise.” — Stefon Diggs

WHAT’S NEXT

Minnesota advances to battle top-seeded San Francisco on Saturday afternoon in the divisional round. The 49ers finished the regular season at 13-3, losing to Seattle, Baltimore and Atlanta. Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, who threw for 3,978 yards, 27 touchdowns and 13 interceptions this season, will make his first career postseason start.