CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Mike Zimmer finished his postgame news conference and was leaving the interview room when he offered a final thought.
“I’m worn out,” he said.
His quarterback agreed.
“I’m spent,” Kirk Cousins said.
They should be. The Vikings’ season is aging in dog years.
The folks who run the team’s marketing department should strike a deal with an antacid brand. Might as well fully embrace the heartburn they are causing on a weekly basis.
The Vikings have done a masterful job of turning games into the theater of the absurd. Nothing is ever easy. Nothing routine. Good opponents, bad opponents. Doesn’t matter.
Each game follows its own uniquely weird narrative. The latest installment brought the weirdest yet, a 34-28 overtime victory against a Carolina Panthers team that displayed comical incompetence on offense until engineering a seemingly impossible comeback.
For the second week in a row, the Vikings turned a game that should have been a comfortable win into a sweating-bullets finish.
Has a Vikings team of recent memory been this confounding? This simultaneously talented and flawed?
From an 0-2 start to entering the bye week with a 3-3 record, which viewed strictly in black-and-white looks average, not good but not bad.
Said Zimmer: “Could we be better? Yeah. Could we be worse? Yeah. We are what we are.”
Slap that on a bumper sticker.
Sunday’s game was the poster child for their uneven, inconsistent nature. One minute you’re sitting there thinking, “This is a nice win,” and then suddenly the game is in overtime.
“It’s called the NFL,” Zimmer said of the harrowing finishes.
It shouldn’t be this hard, not on a day when the opponent’s offense functioned as if someone combined Christian Ponder and Troy Williamson. The Panthers couldn’t throw or catch. And yet they still made the Vikings work overtime.
Watching Sam Darnold play quarterback should give Vikings fans greater appreciation of their $33 million quarterback.
Whether Zimmer wants to go there or not, his offense should revolve around Cousins now. Dalvin Cook is a wonderful talent, but Cousins and his terrific receiving trio — Justin Jefferson, Adam Thielen and K.J. Osborn — is quite capable of giving the Vikings a modern offense.
Cousins completed nearly 70% of his 48 pass attempts for 373 yards and three touchdowns against one of the NFL’s stingiest defenses.
He was not sacked, he did not throw an interception, and he put more distance between himself and the well-worn stats about his lack of fourth-quarter comebacks that hovered over him for years.
He looks confident in those critical moments. He’s become clutch.
“It’s really come a long way,” Zimmer said. “Since that New Orleans game in the playoffs, he’s done this continually now. That breeds a lot of confidence in him.”
There were moments that sparked hope that coordinator Klint Kubiak, with Zimmer’s blessing, will deviate from a conservative run-run-run mentality.
Fourth quarter, leading 25-17, the Vikings faced third-and-2 from their 25. Typically, a handoff to Cook, right?
Kubiak showed trust in Cousins by calling a deep pass to Jefferson down the sideline. Perfect throw, and Jefferson made a difficult catch look routine for a 26-yard gain.
Cousins’ 27-yard walk-off touchdown pass to Osborn was a beauty, too.
“We got it rolling at times, but there were still series where you are underperforming,” Cousins said.
That’s the maddening part about the performance. The Vikings put up 571 yards and 34 points against a team that could do nothing offensively for most of the game and still needed overtime.
Now comes the toughest stretch on the schedule post-bye, which leaves you wondering (doubting?) if the Vikings are capable of being consistent against better opponents. Or will this wild ride continue week to week?
“Up and down, a bunch of anxiety,” Osborn said of the first six games. “Sometimes we wish we wouldn’t have got ourselves in that situation.”
An emotionally exhausted fan base concurs.