EAGAN, Minn. -- Kirk Cousins still remembers the first time he stepped into the lion’s den.
In his first season as the unquestioned starter with the Washington Redskins back in 2015, Cousins had a date with Tom Brady and the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Mass. He was less-than-impressive in a 27-10 loss, finishing 22 of 40 for 217 yards, a touchdown and an interception.
A self-proclaimed “great question-asker” when picking the brains of opposing players, Cousins made it a point to seek out Brady after the game, even if it was only for a few seconds.
“At what point did it start clicking?” Cousins asked.
“It’s still clicking,” Brady responded. “It’s still a process.”
That stuck with Cousins, and he still looks back fondly on that “three-second” exchange as the Vikings prep to take on the Patriots on Sunday, Dec. 2, with kickoff set for 3:25 p.m.
“I’ve always taken that with me,” Cousins said. “Every day I come out here, I pick up something new, I sharpen a skill. It will always be that way until the day I retire.”
Those types of stories exemplify the mystique of Tom Brady: A fierce competitor gets his doors blown off and immediately seeks out the man most responsible for the setback.
“I don’t even know where to begin with what I can learn from a guy like him,” Cousins said. “He won his first Super Bowl when I was in seventh grade, so I’ve been watching for a long time. He’s the ultimate competitor. The game matters to him so much. You can see it in the way he conducts his business.”
As far as Cousins is concerned, there aren’t enough superlatives to describe Brady’s greatness. He tried his best and ended up settling on one-word to encapsulate all of it.
“He’s a winner,” Cousins said. “And I think he’s really set the bar for all of us who’ve come after him, and really who came before as well. They call him the GOAT for a reason.”
GOAT as in Greatest Of All Time, a claim certainly debatable, but not unreasonable. Brady, 41, has played in eight Super Bowls and won five, both records for a quarterback. He ranks in the Top 5 of nearly every NFL career passing category. Since his second season in 2001, Brady has led New England to the playoffs 15 times in 17 years, and the Patriots (8-3) seem bound for the postseason again.
But as much as the Vikings claim to respect Brady, they are adamant that they don’t fear him.
“We aren’t going to get caught up in that,” running back Dalvin Cook said. “Everybody can go into the whole thing of New England this or New England that. We respect Tom. We respect the Patriots. We respect everything they’ve got going. It’s more about us at this point and about how we’re playing football and about the little things that we’re doing. We’ve just got to go in and focus on us.”
Still, it seems everyone on the roster feels a little extra motivation before going toe-to-toe with Brady, the 41-year-old legend who started his unlikely career nearly two decades ago as a sixth-round pick in the 2000 NFL Draft.
“I’ve been watching him for a long time,” wide receiver Adam Thielen said. “You could say he’s another guy that made me want to play the game. His story, coming from where he came from, people not believing in him, it’s pretty cool what he’s been able to do. Obviously, I have tons of respect for him.”
“He’s the GOAT,” defensive end Everson Griffen added. “You’ve got to give respect where respect is due. He’s the GOAT. He’s got five Super Bowl rings. They are always in the playoffs. He’s a large part of the team’s winning. He’s the GOAT. We have to go out there and play our best game to beat one of the best.”
Perhaps the most impressive thing about Brady has been his longevity. He might as well be Benjamin Button as it really seems like he’s aging backwards at this point. Just look at the clip of him running - that word is being used generously - the 40-yard dash at the 2000 NFL Combine and compare it to the GQ spreads he regularly appears in nowadays.
His transformation has been remarkable, though not surprising considering the meticulous way Brady takes care of his body. He is consistently lauded for his healthy habits and has even created a personal lifestyle brand dubbed “The TB12 Method,” which focuses on a vegan diet, sleep, and plyometrics training.
“You see it coming from one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time (and) say, ‘Maybe there’s something to this,’” Cousins said. “It’s no accident that he’s played as well, as long as he has. It matters to him, and he’s been intentional about the process to be able to do that.”
That might explain why Brady is still firing on all cylinders despite the fact he’s currently the oldest position player in the league. Vikings cornerback Holton Hill was 4 years old when Brady started his first game.
“He’s one of the best,” said Hill, the Vikings’ youngest player at 21. “I always watched him growing up. It’ll be good to go up against him. I’m going to be playing against one of the greatest players of all time. That’s exciting.”
Still, if there was ever a time that Brady has looked mortal, it’s this season. He’s currently on pace for his worst statistical output in five seasons as he enters Sunday’s game: 262 of 402 for 3,031 yards and 19 touchdowns. To put that in perspective, he finished last season 385 of 581 for 4,577 yards and 32 touchdowns.
That means nothing to Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer.
“I don’t know that he’s changed all that much,” Zimmer said, complimenting the way Brady gets the most out of whoever is on the field. “I think like (Patriots coach Bill) Belichick said about (Aaron) Rodgers, I’m glad he’s not in our division.”
To slow Brady, the Vikings likely will have to play their best game of the season.
“He’s seen it all,” defensive end Stephen Weatherly said. “You can’t really bring anything new to the table. You’ve just got to execute at an extremely high level. I’m excited. I’m getting a chance to step on the field with a first ballot hall of famer. I get to see what I’ve got going up against the best of the best.
“I see this as an amazing opportunity and I’m going to try to take advantage of whatever chance I get to step on the field with him.”
That seems to be the general mindset in the Vikings’ locker room. As daunting a task as it will be, nobody is backing down from the challenge to best the GOAT.
“His career speaks for itself,” linebacker Anthony Barr said. “We know what he’s capable of. It’s not like we’re scared, though. We know we’re good, too. We have to play him. He has to play us. It goes both ways.”