NEW ORLEANS — After Minnesota tight end Kyle Rudolph emerged from a purple swarm of celebrating Vikings near the corner of one end zone at the Superdome, 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 on a fade route for 4-yard touchdown pass on third-and-goal in overtime, and the Vikings pulled out a 26-20 victory over the favored New Orleans Saints in the wild-card round of the NFC playoffs on Sunday.
The 31-year-old Cousins lost his only previous playoff start — during the 2015 season with the Washington Redskins — and came up short of a playoff berth in the Vikings' final game last season. He also struggled in a handful of other high-profile matchups in prime time in 2019, but he delivered in Minnesota's first road playoff win since Jan. 9, 2005, when the Vikings beat the rival Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field in the wild-card round.
Yet Cousins eschewed an opportunity to gloat after his pass to Rudolph — and a 43-yarder to Adam Thielen at the New Orleans 2-yard line three plays earlier — helped the Vikings (11-6) advance to play the top-seeded San Francisco 49ers (13-3) in the divisional round next Saturday.
"I'm just happy we won," Cousins said. "It was a great, great game, two good football teams."
New Orleans fans surely begged to differ after seeing the NFC South champions' season end in overtime at home for a second straight year.
The latest disappointing end for the Saints (13-4) came the year after they lost in the NFC championship game to the Los Angeles Rams in a matchup marred by blatant penalties not being called against the Rams 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 though officials 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."
Minnesota running back Dalvin Cook, who made his playoff debut in his third pro season, gained 130 yards from scrimmage and scored two touchdowns after missing the last two regular-season games with a shoulder injury. Cousins finished 19-for-31 passing for 242 yards with the touchdown pass to Rudolph and no interceptions.
"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 two 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 as versatile back Alvin Kamara was held to 21 rushing yards on seven carries. Kamara had eight catches but totaled just 34 receiving yards.
"Both defenses 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 defense forced Brees into two turnovers — the Saints finished the regular season with an NFL record-low eight — and sacked him three times as he finished 26-of-33 for 208 yards with one touchdown and an interception.
Brees' first turnover came on a deep throw downfield for Ted Ginn Jr. late in the first half. Minnesota 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 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, the Chattanooga native who was back from a knee injury that sidelined him for three games, recovered a fumble by Thielen on the game's opening possession. Everson Griffen's sack of Brees on third-and-goal, though, limited the Saints to a field goal.
Hill, the Saints' do-it-all reserve quarterback, 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.