The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Vikings were supposed to be an NFC heavyweight with Kirk Cousins. So far, they’re not.

Placeholder while article actions load

The numbers were good. With Kirk Cousins, they generally are. But there was the costly mistake, whether or not it was really his fault, and there was a disappointing outcome. It was all too familiar.

So it went Sunday night for Cousins and the Minnesota Vikings. Cousins threw for 359 yards and two touchdowns in a 31-for-41 passing performance. But he also had an interception returned for a touchdown as the Vikings lost to the New Orleans Saints, 30-20, and in effect lost contact with the Saints and Los Angeles Rams in the race for NFC supremacy.

When the Vikings handed out a guaranteed $84 million in a three-year deal to Cousins in free agency in March, it was generally assumed that they’d ensured themselves of being a top NFC contender this season. After all, they’d been that last season with Case Keenum at quarterback. It was, in truth, a Super Bowl-or-bust move. Adding a three-time 4,000-yard passer to a team that good around him? This was supposed to be seamless and simple.

It has been anything but that. Cousins has, in many ways, been the same quarterback that he was with the Washington Redskins. He has played well. He has posted eye-catching stats. But his errors have come at bad times, and the team that he leads does not resemble a Super Bowl contender.

Was it Cousins’s fault Sunday night? Probably not. Vikings wide receiver Stefon Diggs cut off his pattern and stopped running on a key third-quarter play as Cousins moved out of the pocket to his right while under pressure. Cousins’s pass went directly to Saints cornerback P.J. Williams, who made the easy interception and raced 45 yards to the end zone for the touchdown and a 27-13 lead. The Vikings never seriously threatened to get back into the game.

It was the second game-changing turnover the Vikings committed Sunday night. They led, 13-10, in the first half and were driving for more points when wide receiver Adam Thielen lost a fumble after a catch. The Saints converted that turnover into a one-yard touchdown dive by tailback Alvin Kamara in the final minute of the first half, and they had the lead for good.

It was that sort of night for the Saints, combining good football with good fortune. Quarterback Drew Brees threw his first interception of the season and had only 120 passing yards. But the Saints did just enough on offense, played good defense and took advantage of the turnovers they generated.

They won in the place in which they suffered their miraculous playoff defeat last season and they improved this season’s record to 6-1 with their sixth straight win. They are clearly the NFC’s second-best team, behind the unbeaten Rams. And who in the conference appears capable of challenging the Rams and Saints? The Redskins? The Carolina Panthers? That seems unlikely in each case. For now, at least, the Rams and Saints have lapped the NFC field.

The Vikings were supposed to be in that conversation. The passing game, with Cousins throwing to Thielen and Diggs, was supposed to be next to unstoppable. The running game was supposed to be good enough. The defense was supposed to be overpowering.

The defense has been okay but not great. The running game has not been productive. Cousins, Thielen and Diggs have, mostly, done their parts. Thielen had his eighth straight 100-yard receiving game Sunday night, matching Calvin Johnson’s NFL record. Diggs also was a 100-yard receiver against the Saints. Cousins must have been doing something right.

But the things that he does wrong always seems to be ill-timed. That was the case again Sunday. And the Vikings, as a result, are nowhere close to being the team that they expected to be this season.

More NFL coverage:

The Packers played well, but the Rams are just too good (and lucky)

Cam Newton may be overlooked, but he’s still one of the NFL’s best

For JuJu Smith-Schuster, video games are a hobby — and maybe a post-NFL career

In unprecedented midseason move, NFL fires official who missed key false start