Scars from last year’s loss to Cowboys seem to have faded for Cousins, Vikings

Carlos Gonzalez, Star Tribune/Star Tribune/TNS

It's no secret Mike Zimmer didn't care for Kirk Cousins, and vice versa. One of the prominent head-butting moments that acerbated their rocky relationship came behind the scenes last Halloween night.

The Vikings were at home playing the Dallas Cowboys, who return to U.S. Bank Stadium on Sunday.

The Cowboys last year were without quarterback Dak Prescott. That meant then-little known backup Cooper Rush would be making his NFL starting debut.

The Vikings were 3-3, riding a two-game winning streak, coming off a bye and favored to win.

They lost 20-16, the fourth of their eight one-score losses a year ago.

Zimmer's defense would take the brunt of the blame. It allowed Rush to throw for 325 yards and two touchdowns, including the game-winner to cap a 75-yard drive with 51 seconds left.

Zimmer, the former Cowboys assistant whose emotional ties to Dallas and owner Jerry Jones never faded, was upset that his defense had been upstaged by his former boss and a no-name quarterback. But a good chunk of Zim's ire was directed at Cousins for playing too conservatively, for not taking his shots down the field, and then asserting to Zimmer after the game his belief the Vikings would beat the Cowboys without Prescott if Cousins simply avoided turnovers.

The Vikings didn't turn the ball over. The Cowboys turned it over twice, but the Vikings responded each time by going three-and-out while possessing the ball for only 1:36. Zim wasn't happy.

Cousins and the Vikings offense also had an anemic 10-minute stretch in the second half that angered Zim. It went like this:

Vikings ball, 3:50 left in the third. A three-and-out gains 4 yards and consumes just 1:39 in a game the Vikings lead 13-10. Dalvin Cook opens the drive with an 8-yard run. On second-and-2, Cousins has Adam Thielen running wide open beyond the first-down marker and time to throw but inexplicably checks down to C.J. Ham for a 4-yard loss. On third-and-6, Cousins checks down again on an incompletion to Cook. Cowboys drive for the tying field goal. It's 13-13.Vikings ball, :04 left in the third. A three-and-out gained 6 yards and consumed 1:25. Cousins checks down to Ham for another loss on first down and then throws to K.J. Osborn way short of the sticks for a 4-yard gain on third-and-8.Cowboys fumble. Rush is stripped of the ball by Xavier Woods. Vikings recover.Vikings ball at their 48, 9:56 left. Cousins is flagged for intentional grounding on first down, and the Vikings go three-and-out.

After the Cowboys punted on the ensuing drive, the Vikings offense finally came alive. It had first-and-goal at the 4, but Cousins never threw into the end zone, checking down for a 2-yard loss to Alexander Mattison on second down and then throwing underneath to Thielen for a short gain on third-and-goal from the 11.

The Vikings did take a 16-13 lead on a 24-yard field goal, but Rush would win it with a touchdown drive that started with 2:51 left.

The Vikings got the ball back in time for five passes. Cousins targeted tight end Tyler Conklin twice and Justin Jefferson zero times. Jefferson finished with two catches for 21 yards on four targets.

"Definitely a frustrating game," Jefferson said Thursday.

My, my, how things have changed between visits from the Cowboys. The Vikings are 8-1, the hottest team in the league with seven consecutive one-score victories. Zimmer is out of the NFL. Kevin O'Connell, his replacement, is young, offensive-minded, a great fit for Cousins and a Coach of the Year candidate.

Cousins' stats are worse, his turnovers are up, but he's also playing some of his best football, winning football, in large part because he's taking more chances and trusting his outstanding weapons. Especially Jefferson, who has become the talk of the league because Cousins is now taking his shots and giving Jefferson the kind of chances he didn't get the last time Cowboys were in town.