LANDOVER, MD. — The Vikings were down 10 points with 14:14 to go, and the fans who'd once used Kirk Cousins' three-word catchphrase as a rallying cry had repurposed it as a taunt.
After the Commanders went up 17-7 on Dax Milne's 6-yard touchdown catch, the Washington fans at FedEx Field alternated between chanting "You like that!" — Cousins' famous exclamation after a 2015 comeback victory — and yelling the name of Taylor Heinicke, the former Vikings quarterback who'd become one of Cousins' successors in Washington and was now on the verge of beating him.
The crowd was still yelling on a third-and-7 on the next series, when Cousins took a shotgun snap with Daron Payne bearing down on him and fired downfield toward Justin Jefferson as Payne hit him in the midsection. Cousins laid on the grass to rest, assuming Jefferson had scored. By the time he realized former Gopher Benjamin St-Juste had tackled Jefferson at the 12 after a 47-yard gain, the Vikings' medical staff had rushed out to check on Cousins.
"I was like, 'Oh, OK — I need to get up!' So I started jogging, and they said, 'You need to come out [for one play],'" Cousins said. "Once I caught my breath, I was good."
The throw was Cousins' signature moment in the Vikings' 20-17 comeback win over the team that drafted him, developed him and ultimately let him leave after back-to-back seasons on the franchise tag. The quarterback claimed the victory held no extra significance for him; the sight of the FedEx Field players' parking lot, where he'd talked with coaches and family over his first six NFL seasons, left him emotional with gratitude as the Vikings pulled in.
"I'm just so grateful I got to play here and play for the coaches I did," Cousins said. "They believed in me before I believed in myself. It took my career to a different level than it probably would have gone."
The win over the Commanders, like most of the Vikings' victories this season, fell well short of being an emphatic statement. Washington's athletic defensive front hit Cousins 11 times. The Vikings gained only 64 yards on 19 carries before three negative runs to bleed the clock in the final two minutes. The Vikings had only four first-down plays that gained more than 4 yards. Adam Thielen missed a pair of chances for big catches; Cousins had one pass go through Jefferson's hands and bypassed several chances for big downfield plays.
But with the Vikings down 10 points, coach Kevin O'Connell told his players on the sideline, "We're going to win this game by three." If the victory lacked style, the substance was what mattered.
"To win on the road, and to find a way means a lot," Cousins said. "A special win. Hard-fought game. I think the way they rushed us, the way they hit us, it's one of those games where you feel that toughness as you walk off the field. You feel so great to win."
The Vikings scored 13 points in the fourth quarter, improving to 7-1 before a tough stretch of their schedule and extending their NFC North lead to 4½ games over the Packers and Bears, who both lost on Sunday.
The game appeared it could swing away from the Vikings on Curtis Samuel's 49-yard touchdown catch that gave Washington an 10-7 lead early in the third quarter, when a collision with back judge Steve Patrick cost Camryn Bynum a chance at an interception.
But the Vikings put together three scoring drives in the fourth quarter to win. The 47-yard pass to Jefferson set up a 25-yard Greg Joseph field goal. Harrison Smith intercepted Heinicke on the ensuing possession to set up Cousins' 12-yard touchdown pass to Dalvin Cook that tied the score 17-17 with 7:46 left.
After Danielle Hunter sacked Heinicke for the second time to force a punt, the Vikings drove into field-goal range, getting an extra chance to bleed the clock when John Ridgeway's roughing penalty for knocking down long snapper Andrew DePaola on Joseph's field-goal attempt gave the Vikings a first down with 1:52 to go.
Joseph hit a 28-yard field goal with 12 seconds left, and the Vikings escaped.
"I know one thing for sure: We can have confidence to go try to win a football game however it's going," O'Connell said. "You've got to treat each one of them as their own, but I do think when you're able to overcome [a double-digit deficit] and win on the road, that only helps us in the back of our minds, knowing football games are going to go a lot of different ways."
Cousins completed all five of his passes on the Vikings' opening drive, four to Jefferson, who hauled in a leaping catch in tight coverage for his first receiving touchdown since Week 1.
Up 7-3 late in the first half, the Vikings drove into Commanders territory after Cousins ripped a 36-yard throw to Thielen on a deep over route. On the next play from the Washington 21, Cousins threw incomplete for Cook when Thielen and K.J. Osborn appeared open. After a delay of game, Cousins gave Jefferson a chance against St-Juste, but the cornerback leapt to deflect the ball and Danny Johnson hauled in the deflection for an interception that denied the Vikings a chance to score.
"That was what we were looking for right there: one-on-one in that situation," O'Connell said. "We still had our one timeout, so if we didn't get that look, we had the ability to put the ball in play and maybe get a little closer and use our timeout. My one point in some discussions afterward was, 'Hey, let's make sure we understand as we watch that, that's not a Hail Mary.' That's a one-on-one to one of the best receivers in football. Those are tough plays, bang-bang plays and we're going to keep giving Justin those one-on-one chances."
Then, after a 45-yard Antonio Gibson kickoff return to open the third quarter, Heinicke fired deep for Samuel, a throw that appeared might be intercepted by any one of three Vikings defenders in coverage.
But back judge Patrick, who appeared to be trying to vacate the middle of the field, collided with Bynum, taking the safety out of the play as Samuel stepped over him to catch the pass. Harrison Smith and Patrick Peterson's momentum carried them out of Samuel's way, and he rolled into the end zone.
"A couple times a year in this league, stuff like that happens," O'Connell said. "I think as the coach of the team it happens to, it's very hard to react in the moment, especially when I felt like that had a good chance to be an interception. … I'm just proud of our team for overcoming it."
Cousins broke down the Vikings' postgame huddle with the "You like that!" shout his teammates had been calling for. "Those three words," he said, "will follow me the rest of my career and maybe my life."
On Sunday, he was the one who could yell them last.