Ponder’s play will determine Vikings’ fate

GREEN BAY, Wis. — Adrian Peterson was the best player for the Minnesota Vikings all season. There is no debating that. But as great as the team’s star running back was, he needed some help from quarterback Christian Ponder in order to get the Vikings into the playoffs.
Throughout most of the season, Peterson didn’t get that help. In his second NFL season, Ponder mostly struggled and, at many points, looked like the type of quarterback who wouldn’t last long as a starter.
But following a horrendous performance from Ponder in Green Bay on Dec. 2 that dropped Minnesota to a 6-6 record, he slowly started to get the hang of things. That improvement was capped off with a victory over the Packers in Week 17 in which Ponder had a season-high three touchdown passes and did not throw an interception.
“He played a lot better,” Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. “He played a very efficient game. He did a nice job. We know he’s a very mobile guy. He can make plays on the move and pulled the ball down and ran with it a couple times. You just have to be aware of that when you’re playing against the Vikings.”
When Peterson had only 86 rushing yards in a Week 16 road win over the playoff-bound Houston Texans, Ponder provided the best evidence of the season he is capable of carrying the offense. In that game, Ponder again did not have an interception and showed his running ability with seven carries for 48 yards.
“I’m not surprised by the way Christian Ponder played,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. “He played an excellent game against us. We’ve had two contests against us this year, and he clearly played better in the second one. He played very well.”
It would be very generous to describe Ponder as being in the top half of NFL quarterbacks. He finished the regular season ranked 21st in passer rating, 23rd in touchdown passes and 25th in passing yards. But when working with a running back like Peterson, whose MVP-caliber season has entered him into the discussion of being an all-time great at his position, Ponder simply has to be serviceable and not make costly mistakes.
Ponder failed to do that when the Vikings were last at Lambeau Field one month ago. Minnesota was very competitive in that game and arguably the better team in most areas, but Ponder’s two interceptions were too much for the Vikings to overcome.
“If anything, we want (Ponder) in the mix,” linebacker Clay Matthews said. “We want to take ‘28′ (Peterson) out of the mix, and that’s the game plan. I think they handed him the ball a career high last week. (We’ll be better off) if we can eliminate those carries and force Ponder to beat us.”
No Packers player this week seemed to believe the key to stopping Minnesota’s offense is to stop Ponder. Of course not. The logical answer is that the focus is on Peterson and that an unproven quarterback making his first postseason start needs to prove himself in a big game like what Saturday night’s will be.
But Green Bay showed in Week 13 that the Vikings can be defeated even when Peterson runs for 210 yards on 21 carries. The difference in the Packers winning the first meeting and Minnesota winning the second game was an efficient performance from Ponder.
“They made a few tweaks, adjustments to their offense the second time around, caught us by surprise in the run game and in the pass game,” cornerback Tramon Williams said. “They did a better job of game planning and executing. Now, we feel that we’ve seen everything, so we should come out and execute also.”
Even Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers noticed a different Ponder in the game last weekend in Minnesota.
“He made some big-time throws,” Rodgers said.
Peterson is elite and is good enough to make the Vikings a respectable team all by himself. But as Detroit Lions legendary running back Barry Sanders can attest, being a one-man show can take a team only so far.
It will be up to Ponder to give Peterson enough help for the Vikings to have a chance to beat the Packers in the playoffs this weekend.

Follow Paul Imig on Twitter.