The Minnesota Vikings held their fate in their hands with one final play to stay alive against the New York Giants.
This was the type of spot the Vikings have found themselves in all season long, entering Sunday with an 11-0 mark in one-score games. For all the guff Kirk Cousins takes, he also led the NFL in game-winning drives this season with eight.
In the first Giants-Vikings meeting this season, Cousins led the Vikings down the field twice in the final four-plus minutes -- the first time for the game-tying score, the second for the game-winning field goal. The stage was set in Sunday's Super Wild Card Weekend meeting for Cousins and the Vikings to go down the field again.
With 1:44 remaining and the Vikings trailing by seven, they faced a fourth-and-8 from the Minnesota 48-yard line with no timeouts remaining. Cousins took a quick drop, surveyed and fired to T.J. Hockenson, who had been the Vikings' most-trusted target all game.
The problem? Hockenson ran a choice route that was at least 5 yards short of the first-down sticks when the ball arrived. The Giants' Xavier McKinney, who was in pretty tight man coverage, knocked Hockenson back and stopped him well short of the first down.
Giants ball. Ball game. 31-24 win.
"They were just able to make a play," Vikings head coach Kevin O'Connell said after the game.
So what exactly happened on the play? Why was Hockenson running such a short route in that situation and why was he Cousins' read?
"Yeah, it was just a shell read there," Cousins said. "I saw single-high (coverage) and tried to work Justin (Jefferson) and didn't feel good about putting it up to Justin. And when I went to progress, I just felt like I was about to get sacked. I felt I had to put the ball in play. I couldn't go down with a sack.
"So I just kicked it out to T.J., and I had thrown short of the sticks on a few occasions in the game and going back a few weeks. I just felt like throwing short of the sticks isn't the end of the world, and it was obviously tight coverage. But I felt like I was going to go down and take a sack and put it out."
Cousins has been accused of being overly conservative and too in love with check downs at times. But he was correct in that the Giants' Dexter Lawrence -- who had a monster game -- was bearing down on the quarterback, hitting Cousins right after he let go of the fateful pass. The pressure came right up the A-gap, too, likely speeding up Cousins' clock and limiting his options.
It's hard to blame Cousins if he was concerned about Lawrence closing fast again. He was credited with four QB hits and had a team-high eight pressures, with five coming when Lawrence was lined up as a zero-technique nose tackle. He's been one of the most dominant interior rushers in the NFL this season and gave the Vikings fits in the Week 16 meeting, too.
O'Connell said that the pocket "may or may have not been collapsed" and that Cousins wanted to give someone a chance to make a play.
"On that fourth down, (we were) just trying to get some eligibles vertical and the ball ended up going underneath," O'Connell said. "But the intent was to try to … (have) a chance to win the football game (by) pushing the ball downfield. Just didn't open up for Kirk, and that's on me. …
"(Cousins) knew it was fourth down, and he wanted to make sure he put the ball in play. He wanted to make sure he gave someone a chance and they made a play."
But the more O'Connell spoke, the more it sounded like he was surprised that Cousins made the decision he did. O'Connell has been there less than a year, but he seems to have the concept of "Minnesota nice" down cold.
"The intent as a play-caller, you're not going to call a primary concept where it's short of the sticks to gain," O'Connell said. "Looking back on it, maybe I could have been more (clear and said), 'Hey, this is where you want the ball to be.'"
In the end, O'Connell took the blame for the play call and said it will "keep him up at night."
Cousins, who called Sunday the toughest loss of his career, said he really regretted not connecting with K.J. Osborn on third-and-8.
There's also the bigger-picture matter of Jefferson, who had seven catches but for only 47 yards. Worse still, Cousins didn't target him in the entire fourth quarter. Jefferson's final catch was a 4-yard reception with 3:11 left in the third quarter.
Cousins had a terrific statistical game, completing 31 of 39 passes for 273 yards and two touchdowns. He also ran for a 1-yard TD and didn't commit a turnover. Yet it will be that final play that will stick in many peoples' minds. So was it his fault or O'Connell's? That debate might also linger much of the offseason.