MINNEAPOLIS — From his on-field performance to his off-field romance, Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder has received plenty of criticism lately.
Twice in the last three weeks, Ponder failed to reach 100 yards passing as Minnesota fell to 5-4 entering Sunday’s game against the Detroit Lions. To make matters worse, Ponder also received heat from fans about his newly public relationship with ESPN sideline reporter Samantha Steele. Some Vikings fans felt the second-year quarterback’s decline in performance was directly linked to his new girlfriend.
Against Detroit, Ponder silenced all of those critics, at least for one game. He completed 24 of 32 passes for 221 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions as the Vikings beat the Lions 34-24 to improve to 6-4 entering the bye week.
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Ponder gave plenty of the credit for Sunday’s win to his Vikings teammates, but he jokingly gave Steele a special shout-out after the game, too.
“I want to thank my girlfriend,” Ponder said, “because obviously she has a big impact on how I play.”
In all seriousness, Sunday was a big game for Ponder as he regained his confidence following last week’s loss to Seattle. In that game, Ponder was 11-for-22 for just 63 yards, no touchdowns and an interception. Two weeks earlier, Ponder finished just 8-for-17 for 58 yards in a Vikings win against Arizona.
On Sunday at Mall of American Field, Ponder set the tone early on his second pass attempt of the game. With the ball just shy of midfield, Ponder fired deep to rookie receiver Jarius Wright, who was playing in his first NFL game. The duo connected for a 54-yard completion that gave the Vikings the ball on the 1-yard line — and gave Ponder plenty of confidence early on.
“It was definitely a momentum boost to get a big pass like that and score right away and get up on them early,” said Vikings left tackle Matt Kalil. “The thing about (Ponder), he did not have a good game last week. But he never put his head down, continued to work hard and showed tremendous leadership out there. He got us all pumped up before the game and he played a great game.”
Before the long completion to Wright, Ponder’s first attempt of the game was a short pass to fullback Jerome Felton, which went for five yards to open Minnesota’s first drive of the game. It was by no means a long or difficult pass, but starting off 1-for-1 helped Ponder slowly build up his confidence.
“We tried to come up with something we thought would guarantee us a completion to get (Ponder) off to a fast start,” said Vikings coach Leslie Frazier. “We had that open formation that we used at the beginning of the game and got the completion. . . . A good start for him, a good start for our team.”
Ponder completed passes to nine different receivers Sunday. Actually, 10, if you count the one Ponder threw to himself. One of his first-half passes was batted right back to him, and he caught it for a 15-yard loss on 1st-and-10 from the Detroit 25-yard line.
With star wide receiver Percy Harvin inactive, tight end Kyle Rudolph was Ponder’s top target on Sunday. Rudolph caught seven passes for 64 yards and a 20-yard touchdown that put Minnesota up 24-10 early in the fourth quarter. Wright had three catches for 65 yards — 54 of which came on his first catch of the game — and a 3-yard touchdown on the Vikings’ opening drive.
“We spread it around a lot,” Ponder said. “Jarius Wright, he stepped up big in the absence of Percy and made some great plays. Obviously we want Percy back, but he did a great job.”
Thanks to the win and his bounce-back game, Ponder was no doubt looser in his postgame presser — his nod to his girlfriend and his subsequent tweet in which he thanked her demonstrated that. Ponder’s teammates also felt their quarterback was more relaxed on the field Sunday than he had in previous weeks.
“You could tell he was more confident,” said running back Adrian Peterson, who had 171 yards on 27 carries, including a 61-yard touchdown. “He was out just playing ball, playing loose. That’s what we need from him.”
Added Rudolph: “Christian just came out and let his talent take over. He just came out and threw it. He knew that the tight ends, wide receivers and the backs out of the backfield were going to make plays for him.”
Thanks in part to Ponder, Minnesota now enters its bye week with a 6-4 record and a win instead of 5-5 and a three-game losing streak. Sunday was the first game since Week 4 without an interception for Ponder. He was patient against the Lions defense, moving through his progressions and finding the open receivers.
By limiting his mistakes and capitalizing on a few big plays, Ponder silenced the critics that have doubted him for several weeks.
“No one puts more pressure on me than myself,” Ponder said. “I get disappointed with the way I’ve played. I know I can play better. No matter who writes what, it’s not going to be as disappointing to read as what I say to myself.
“It doesn’t bother me. It comes with the territory. Criticism is justified for the play on the field. I know I can play better. Today was OK. There’s still room for improvement.”