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McFeely: Roast Cousins if you must (and you will) but Vikings defense is the story

Minnesota's defense looked aging and slow in a 31-24 playoff loss to the New York Giants on Sunday.

NFL: NFC Wild Card Round-New York Giants at Minnesota Vikings
Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins (8) passes the ball while New York Giants defensive end Leonard Williams (99) pursues during the first quarter of an NFL wild card game on Sunday, Jan. 15, 2023, at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.
Jeffrey Becker / USA Today Sports
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MINNEAPOLIS — Kirk Cousins will take the heat for throwing a three-yard pass on fourth-and-eight with the season on the line and that's probably fair. Picking T.J. Hockenson over Justin Jefferson to save the day soiled an otherwise good day from the Minnesota Vikings quarterback.

"I just didn't feel good about putting it up to Justin and then when I went to progress, I just felt like I was going to get sacked and I have to put the ball in play," Cousins said after the New York Giants bounced the Vikings from the NFL playoffs 31-24. "And I can't go down with a sack, so I just tried to kick it out to T.J."

Most would argue Jefferson in double-coverage is a better bet than wishing a tight end not named George Kittle could unearth five yards out of thin air, but Kirk is going to Kirk.

Hockenson was tackled five yards short of the first down on Minnesota's final offensive play of the 2022 season and that was that.

Those betting on Jefferson, by the way, include J.J. himself.

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"They doubled me, but I felt like I would've been able to make an attempt at the ball if he threw it," Jefferson said in an otherwise silent Minnesota locker room after the game.

There would be no Minneapolis Miracle on this Sunday evening, despite the madhouse inside U.S. Bank Stadium. A 13-4 regular season that spawned the theory that several horseshoes were planted in secure places for Cousins and his teammates led to an ending that every tortured Minnesota sports fan expected.

NFL: NFC Wild Card Round-New York Giants at Minnesota Vikings
Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Justin Jefferson (18) makes a catch while being defended by New York Giants cornerback Adoree' Jackson in the first quarter Sunday, Jan. 15, 2023, at U.S. Bank Stadium. Jefferson had seven catches for 47 yards, kept mostly in check by the Giants' defense.
Matt Krohn / USA Today Sports

That is to say, disappointment.

Meh. It's not worth it, friends. Even had they won, the Vikings would've traveled next to San Francisco to play the 49ers and an offense that might've put up 40 points on this Minnesota defense. Even with Brock Purdy at the controls.

The Vikings were good, not great, even if they were a whole heckuva lot of fun.

You want the story of this game and the season for the Vikings? Look no farther than the defense, which was exposed again. Head coach Kevin O'Connell talked after the game about evaluating every aspect of the team and while he wouldn't take the bait and point specifically at his defense, his work has to start there.

It'll surely start with defensive coordinator Ed Donatell, who didn't get a rousing postgame stamp of approval from O'Connell.

This happens when you allow the Giants to score on five of their first six possessions, minus a kneel-down at the end of the first half, and make Daniel Jones look like Steve Young. The Vikings couldn't get off the field on third down and were often not close to doing so.

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The Vikings defense is slow and aging, yes, but the coordinator is going to have to pay the price.

"I think Ed tried to do the best he could this year across the board, installing the scheme we had kind of manifested together and hoped it would come to life," O'Connell said. "He worked his absolute tail off and his commitment to trying to make adjustments and improve was there every week, all season long."

NFL: NFC Wild Card Round-New York Giants at Minnesota Vikings
Jan 15, 2023; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; <br/>Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins passes the ball while being tackled by New York Giants defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence in the second quarter Sunday, Jan. 15, 2023, at U.S. Bank Stadium. Cousins passed for 273 yards and two touchdowns in the season-ending loss.
Jeffrey Becker / USA Today Sports

You can manifest and hope all you want, but if the linebackers can't cover crossing routes and the defensive line can't get within two area codes of the quarterback it's all moot.

The Vikings need, what, about eight new players on defense? Veteran safety Harrison Smith looked finished. Linebackers Eric Kendricks and Jordan Hicks looked slow. Even Danielle Hunter, who had a sack, was mostly as disruptive as a butterfly.

New York was able to turn 10-yard plays into 25-yard plays by getting mismatches with Minnesota's linebackers. Hendricks and Hicks couldn't run with the Giants.

"I think there were some issues with explosive big plays again tonight," O'Connell said. "They schematically did some things to maybe take advantage of some things we were doing.

"But across the board, you know, we're going to take a look at everything. That's my job. I'm responsible for all three phases of our football team and we'll definitely take a deep dive into it and find a way."

But the NFL, man. For the first two-and-a-half quarters, saying the Giants were going through the Vikings' defense like a hot knife through butter was an insult to butter. On their first five possessions, which included a brief drive to end the first half, the Giants had 326 yards and 24 points.

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NFL: NFC Wild Card Round-New York Giants at Minnesota Vikings
New York Giants quarterback Daniel Jones runs with the ball against the Minnesota Vikings in the second quarter Sunday, Jan. 15, 2023, of an NFC Wild Card game at U.S. Bank Stadium. Jones threw for 301 yards and two touchdowns and also rushed for 78 yards in the Giants' 31-24 win.
Matt Krohn / USA Today Sports

Included was a 20-play drive that consumed 85 yards and 10:52 of the clock. It lasted longer than a Grateful Dead song.

Yet trailing 31-24 with 7:47 left in the fourth quarter, the Vikings got two chances with the ball. The second time because — wait for the irony — their defense forced a punt.

The team that set an all-time mark by going 11-0 in one-score games this season had a chance.

"There was always belief," Cousins said. "Even at halftime or when we were down 17-7, there was always a belief. I guess that's why it hurts is because you expect to find a way, especially the way this team has won all year. You expect to find a way."

Roast Cousins if you must. And you will. But the important changes are coming on defense. As they must.

Mike McFeely is a columnist for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead. He began working for The Forum in the 1980s while he was a student studying journalism at Minnesota State University Moorhead. He's been with The Forum full time since 1990, minus a six-year hiatus when he hosted a local radio talk-show.
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