Ponder playoff bound in his second year

MINNEAPOLIS — Minnesota Vikings coach Leslie Frazier, basking in Sunday’s playoff-clinching win against the Green Bay Packers, made sure he delivered a very important message to his embattled quarterback following Sunday’s 37-34 win.

He approached second-year starter Christian Ponder. “Do you realize you just led your team to the playoffs in your second year in the National Football League,” Frazier said in relaying his message to his young quarterback, who’s received a lot of criticism over the second half of the season.

And Ponder, who had done more caddying than leading since being a big part of Minnesota’s surprising 4-1 start this year, did just that. Ponder, even with running back Adrian Peterson going for 199 yards rushing, came up with the key plays in Sunday’s win. Ponder was efficient in helping the Vikings reel off three wins to put them in Sunday’s must-win situation at home against Green Bay. He was more than efficient in his biggest game as a pro Sunday.

Ponder, finishing off his first full year as Minnesota’s starter, was 16 of 28 for 234 yards passing and three touchdowns. He avoided turnovers that had been so costly during the Vikings’ midseason slump and finished with a 120.2 quarterback rating, the highest single-game mark he’s posted in his 27 career games and 26 starts.

“That’s a tremendous feat,” Frazier said of his second-year starter guiding the team into the playoffs. “You are still learning the game, to a degree. He’s done everything that we’ve asked of him. He’s a young quarterback who’s still making improvements and the key for us is to make sure we’re doing the things around him to help our quarterback have success. Our players are doing their part. He’s doing his part.”

Sunday it was a group of receivers, equally under fire, helping Ponder. Rookie Jarius Wright had his biggest game since his debut and his 65-yard catch while getting behind Green Bay’s defense was a momentum-grabber. He finished with three catches for 90 yards and a touchdown. Michael Jenkins came back from a drop in the end zones to catch one touchdown and come up with a key third-down grab.

And Jerome Simpson, the offseason spectacle that had underwhelmed all year, came up with two key third-down catches. With Peterson carrying his load, Ponder did his part to keep Minnesota’s offense moving with one big third-down completion after another, doing his part to duel with Green Bay’s MVP quarterback Aaron Rodgers on the other side.

The Vikings were 6 of 12 on third downs Sunday, with Ponder going 8 of 11 on third downs for six third-down conversions. Ponder played with more poise in the past three games as Minnesota won out to earn a postseason berth. Facing third-and 11 with 2:00 left, Ponder found Jenkins along the sideline for a key conversion on the final drive. Afterward, he related to a saying from former NBA star Michael Jordan when asked about the play.

“When it came down to the last minutes of the game, when the pressure was one, someone asked him what he did differently,” Ponder recalled. “He said, ‘I stay the same. It’s everyone else that changed.’ When there’s those high-pressure situations, I try to stay calm and treat it like any other down. “When I was a younger player, I let all that pressure get to me. I’m out there having fun. That third-and-11 situation, obviously we had to convert on that to be able to win the game. I treated it like it was a third-and-11 on the first drive of the game. It was no different.”

And now Ponder will try his hand at the biggest stage, the playoffs when Minnesota faces Green Bay next weekend at Lambeau Field.

“I’m definitely proud of it, but like I said before, we’re not done,” Ponder said after the game. “Yeah, you’re happy that you’re in the playoffs, but you’re not going to be happy if you’re sitting at home come the next week.”

And with a renewed Ponder able to complement Peterson, the Vikings’ surprising season might just have a shot at continuing a bit longer.

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