LANDOVER, Md. (AP) — Kirk Cousins looks back fondly on his time in Washington, no occasion more than the day after Christmas in 2015 when he and his teammates clinched the NFC East title and a trip to the playoffs and were greeted by celebrating fans back at their practice facility.
“We came back from the game, pulled into the facility at 2 a.m., 3 a.m. — the bus couldn’t move because it was just packed with fans,” Cousins recalled. “I’ll never forget that.”
Cousins returns to play the team he spent his first six NFL seasons with for the first time as a visiting quarterback Sunday when he leads the 6-1 Minnesota Vikings into Washington to face the Commanders. Much has changed even beyond the name in the four-plus years since Cousins departed in free agency, as he has stabilized the most important position in football for Minnesota while the Commanders still have uncertainty there and have lost much of the fan fervor that Cousins experienced.
When Cousins trots onto the field Sunday at FedEx Field, the crowd could be half purple — a combination of Vikings faithful enjoying the team's best start since 2009 and growing apathy in Washington built up over many losing seasons and frustration with ownership, which could soon change with Dan and Tanya Snyder hiring a firm to look into selling the team.
One game is not a referendum on Cousins or the decision by Washington's previous regime not to commit to him as a franchise QB, but he and the Vikings are atop the NFC North thanks to a five-game winning streak and are on track to return to the playoffs.
“This is a very good football team that’s coming in here: They’re riding high,” Commanders coach Ron Rivera said, his own team on a three-game streak to get back to .500 on the season at 4-4. “It is a good chance for us to see where we are. It really is. And this is what you want to measure yourself against.”
Measuring the quarterbacks, Cousins has thrown for eight touchdowns and just two interceptions during this streak, while Washington has gotten a boost from Taylor Heinicke filling in for injured Carson Wentz and winning each of the past two games as the starter.
“I just think he’s an incredibly smart player,” Vikings coach Kevin O'Connell said of Heinicke. “Scrappy, tough. He’s willing to stand in that pocket in the face of rush and keep his eyes downfield and find the open man.”
Cousins isn't the only one going down memory lane this week. O'Connell spent three years as an assistant in Washington, starting as quarterbacks coach in 2017, adding passing game coordinator duties in 2018 and becoming offensive coordinator in 2019. He said Cousins helped him grow as a coach when they were together for a season.
“He challenged me as a coach,” O'Connell said. “I felt like that was a start of what’s really made a special relationship here and made me that excited to come to work every day because I get to work with him and be around him kind of putting this offense together side by side with him.”
Heinicke, on the other hand, started his NFL journey with Minnesota, signing as an undrafted free agent out of Old Dominion in 2015. Now-Commanders offensive coordinator Scott Turner was the Vikings' QB coach during Heinicke's time there in ’15 and ’16.
“There’s still a couple of players that I know from that team: Harrison Smith, Dalvin Cook, (Adam) Thielen,” Heinicke said. “I was actually throwing to Thielen in the preseason. I got to throw to (Stefon) Diggs and Thielen, so it'll be cool, full circle, to play those guys on Sunday.”
The addition of Za’Darius Smith to Minnesota’s defense has been one of the best free-agent signings of this NFL season, with a league-high-tying 8 1/2 sacks for the 30-year-old outside linebacker who was released by division rival Green Bay in March.
Smith, the NFC Defensive Player of the Month for October, was credited with 22 pressures in four games by the NFL's Next Gen Stats, behind only Seattle’s Uchenna Nwosu (23) for the most in the league in October.
“He’s had a great year — everything we hoped for ‘Z’ and then some,” O’Connell said.
ADDITION BY SUBTRACTION
The Commanders' winning streak has coincided with improved defense and in the absence of cornerback William Jackson, who was benched for performance reasons while also dealing with a back injury. Washington traded Jackson to Pittsburgh in a swap of late-round future draft picks after things didn't work out and will move forward with cornerbacks Kendall Fuller, Benjamin St-Juste and Rachad Wildgoose.
“Benjamin’s done a tremendous job,” Rivera said. “Wildgoose has got an opportunity to play at the nickel with Danny Johnson getting an opportunity to be elevated and back up at the nickel position. So we kind of like the idea of what we’re trying to do in terms of fitting guys to what we do as opposed to just looking at that skillset and saying that’s it.”
RED ZONE SHOWDOWN
The Vikings have scored touchdowns on 11 of their last 12 possessions that crossed the 20-yard line, including all five red-zone trips against Arizona on Sunday. They’re up to fifth in the league in red zone touchdown rate for the season (66.7%), and the acquisition of tight end T.J. Hockenson — who has 15 touchdowns in 47 career games — ought to only help.
O’Connell’s play-calling has given the Vikings plenty of confidence near the goal line. Cook, Alexander Mattison and Cousins rushed for scores last week, and Johnny Mundt and K.J. Osborn caught passes in the end zone.
“Especially being in the league for quite a little bit, you kind of know when things are going to hit,” Cook said.
Washington has made a handful of notable stops deep in its own territory during the winning streak and is now tied for eighth in the league in red zone defense.
AP Pro Football Writer Dave Campbell in Minneapolis contributed to this report.
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