Cousins, Vikings helping NFL take its late-game drama to historic levels

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The 102-year-old NFL, whose unchallenged popularity is rooted in its longtime parity, is taking things to another level with more tight games through five weeks than ever before.

Through the 80 games entering Week 6, there have been a record 19 contests (23.8%) with a winning score coming in the final minute of regulation (11) or overtime (eight).

"We've been put in that situation about every game this year," Vikings running back Dalvin Cook said.

Meanwhile, eight times in five weeks a team has trailed by a field goal or less and taken possession inside its 26-yard line with 33 to 130 seconds left in regulation. Three times that team has been the Vikings.

In all eight instances, the offense has beaten the defense down the field to set up a field-goal attempt.

What the heck's up with that, defensive guru Mike Zimmer? Is it harder in today's NFL to stop a team that has 30 seconds to go 40 yards to kick a 50-yard field goal?

"Yeah, I do think it's harder," the Vikings coach said. "You know, when [the offense is] on the ball, the communication [defensively], making sure everyone understands [the situation].

"Sometimes, guys get in a two-minute drill and they're like, 'Let's not give them a touchdown.' … There's a bunch of times when guys get it in their minds that, 'Hey, we don't get beat deep and we win the game.' Consequently … you have a chance to give up some plays."

And that's not good. Not with so many accurate quarterbacks, pristine field conditions and kickers who've never been better from long distance.

Five times in the above-mentioned scenario, the kicker has won with walk-off kicks of 36, 43, 51, 54 and an NFL-record 66 yards. Twice, the kicker has missed from 37 and 56 yards. Once, the kicker made a 53-yarder to tie, but his certain purple-clad team still lost in overtime.

The good news for the Vikings in all of this is Kirk Cousins has set up field goals to win or tie after taking possession at his 5-yard line with 1:48 left, his 23-yard line with 2:09 left and his 18-yard line with 33 seconds left. Kicker Greg Joseph has ended those three regulation periods with a tying 53-yarder in the OT loss at Cincinnati, a losing 37-yard miss at Arizona and a game-winning 54-yard make against the Lions last Sunday at U.S. Bank Stadium.

In those three drives, Cousins has completed 14 of 18 passes for 154 yards with good protection and feeble resistance.

"Just give 8 a clean pocket and he's going to get us down there," Cook said. "No pressure around him, and he did what he needed to do."

Like Tom Brady did in Week 1 against Dallas. Like Aaron Rodgers did in Week 3 against San Francisco. Like Lamar Jackson did despite taking two sacks and completing just one pass to set up Justin Tucker's 66-yarder to beat the Lions.

The other quarterbacks to do what these guys have done are Washington backup Taylor Heinicke and Patriots rookie Mac Jones. Heinicke's kicker made his game-winner when a Dallas penalty gave him a second chance. Jones' kicker clanked a 56-yarder off the upright to keep New England from taking the lead on Brady with 55 seconds left in the G.O.A.T.'s return to Foxborough.

Cousins was asked how high his confidence level was last week considering how commonplace the successful last-minute drive is becoming around the league.

"You just kind of go through it very methodically — thinking about timeouts, thinking about time on the clock, thinking about the specific play call and the coverage they could play and what your answers are versus the different looks they could give you and problems they could present," he said. "And then you've just got to go play and trust your training and your instincts."

Meanwhile, defenses are hanging on for dear life just hoping the QB misfires, that time runs out or the kicker misses.

"It's difficult," Vikings co-defensive coordinator Andre Patterson said. "Nowadays people spread you across the field. And pretty much week to week you have a big-time quarterback that has a couple of big-time receivers.

"In most cases, you don't want to bring the blitz and cut a guy loose down the field. So, you're trying to cover the field, not give up an explosive play, tackle them, keep the clock running and just hope your rush can make something happen to turn the game around."

So far, not so good in that regard for NFL defenses.

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