NEW ORLEANS — After tight end Kyle Rudolph emerged from a purple swarm of celebrating Vikings near the corner of the end zone, he took an opportunity to mock those who doubted quarterback Kirk Cousins' ability to come through in the clutch.
“I'm just glad Kirk can't win big games, apparently," Rudolph said. "We proved that one wrong today.”
Cousins hit Rudolph with a 4-yard fade on third-and-goal in overtime, and the Minnesota Vikings pulled out a 26-20 victory over the favoured Saints in the wild-card round of the NFC playoffs on Sunday.
Cousins lost his only previous playoff start in 2015 with Washington, came up short of a playoff berth on the final regular-season game a year ago and struggled in a handful of other high-profile regular-season night games.
Yet Cousins eschewed an opportunity to gloat after his pass to Rudolph — and a 43-yarder to Adam Thielen at the Saints 2-yard line three plays earlier — helped the Vikings (11-6) advance to play top seed San Francisco in the divisional round of the playoffs on Saturday. It was Minnesota's first road playoff win since Jan. 9, 2005, when the Vikings beat the rival Packers at Lambeau Field in the wild-card round.
“I'm just happy we won," Cousins said. “It was a great, great game, two good football teams.”
Saints fans begged to differ after seeing New Orleans' season end in overtime in the Superdome for a second straight year.
The latest disappointing end for the Saints (13-4) came nearly a year after New Orleans lost in the NFC championship game to the Los Angeles Rams in a game marred by missed Rams penalties late in regulation. This time, replays on video boards showed a possible push-off by Rudolph against defensive back P.J. Williams moments before he jumped to snag the winning catch.
NFL president of officiating Al Riveron said the league reviewed numerous replay angles, and while they saw contact by both players, “none of that contact rises to the level of a foul.”
Saints coach Sean Payton said the Vikings “deserved to win.”
Dalvin Cook gained 130 yards from scrimmage and scored two touchdowns after missing the last two regular-season games with a shoulder injury. Cousins finished with 242 yards and one TD passing.
“Being a fourth-round pick and kind of working your way up in the league – now you win a playoff game. Guess what? You look around and you realize there’s more mountains to climb,” Cousins said. “You just keep chasing the next mountain and there will always be people who are going to criticize you — and that’s OK.”
New Orleans trailed by 10 at the start of the fourth quarter but forced overtime with Drew Brees' 20-yard touchdown pass to Taysom Hill and Wil Lutz's 49-yard field goal with 2 seconds left.
“They made more plays than we did,” Payton said. “They ran the ball better than we did."
Hill was the Saints' leading rusher with 50 yards and Alvin Kamara was held to 21 yards rushing on seven carries.
“Both defences played well,” Payton added. “Shoot, here you are in overtime and they made a few plays right there at the end that obviously were significant.”
Minnesota's defence forced Brees into two turnovers — one game after the Saints had finished the regular season with an NFL record-low eight. Brees also was sacked three times and finished 26 of 33 for 208 yards, one TD and an interception.
Brees' first turnover came on a deep throw downfield for Ted Ginn Jr. late in the first half. Safety Anthony Harris corralled the ball as he fell to the turf and then returned it 30 yards across midfield. That led to Cook's first touchdown on a 5-yard run that gave the Vikings a 13-10 lead.
The Saints were threatening with less than five minutes remaining in the fourth quarter when Danielle Hunter sacked Brees, who lost the ball. It was recovered by defensive tackle Jalyn Holmes on the Minnesota 36.
Brees said the fumble began with a “miscommunication” with a receiver, whom he didn't name.
“The ball should have been out of my hands and all of a sudden that wasn’t the route that was run, so now I’m just trying to throw the ball into the dirt to avoid a sack," Brees said. "Right as my hand’s going back (Hunter) just kind of gets a piece of my arm and that ball comes out. So I’m really disappointed in that. That never should have happened.”
Saints safety Vonn Bell, back from a knee injury that sidelined him three games, helped set up the opening scoring chance of the game when he recovered Thielen's fumble. But Everson Griffen's sack of Brees on third-and-goal limited Minnesota's damage to a field goal.
Hill, the Saints' do-it-all reserve QB, was instrumental in the first touchdown drive of the game. He rushed for a first down before completing a 50-yard pass to rookie Deonte Harris and then, while lined up as a tight end, delivered a block that helped Kamara score on a 4-yard run around the right end to make it 10-3.
Harris' 54-yard kickoff return and Brees' 20-yard pass to Michael Thomas in the final seconds of the first half gave New Orleans a chance to tie it, but Lutz's 43-yard field-goal attempt went wide right.
In the third quarter, Hill's apparent first-down run on a fake punt was nullified by tight end Josh Hill's false start.
Brees also lamented a false start penalty that triggered a 10-second runoff shortly before Lutz's game-tying kick at the end of regulation. If not for the penalty, the Saints would have had a second-and-10 from the Minnesota 26 with 21 seconds left. Instead, the ball went back 5 yards and there were 11 seconds remaining.
"That was costly,” Brees said, noting that without the penalty, the Saints might have taken a couple of more shots at the end zone for a late go-ahead score.
Vikings: Tight end Tyler Conklin was carted from the sideline to the locker room in the first half. ... Right tackle Brian O'Neill walked off with an apparent leg injury in the third quarter but returned.
Saints: Linebacker Kiko Alonso limped off the field with what the Saints said was a knee injury in the second quarter and did not return. ... Left guard Andrus Peat limped to the sideline with an apparent right leg injury in the fourth quarter but returned.
Vikings: Prepare for next weekend's trip to San Francisco to face a 49ers team that, like the Saints, went 13-3 in the regular season.
Saints: Head into the off-season with contract work ahead on key personnel, including Brees, who turns 41 on Jan. 15, and Kamara, who could opt to hold out for an extension as he enters the final season of his rookie deal.
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Brett Martel, The Associated Press