Below is the original article, published before the Vikings announced that Ponder would be inactive for Saturday’s wild card game against the Packers with an elbow injury. Joe Webb will start for Minnesota.
The roll call of playoff-bound quarterbacks usually reads like a fantasy football wish list, and this year is no different.
Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers are the crème de la crème. Joe Flacco and Matt Ryan are established studs. And three members of the vaunted 2012 draft class — Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson — made the postseason in their first season.
Then there’s Christian Ponder. You know, the guy married to ESPN’s Samantha Steele.
Ponder — the Florida State product now in his second year with the Vikings — has gotten more ink for his dating habits than his quarterbacking acumen this year. He struggled as a rookie and wasn’t much better in his sophomore season.
But when the stakes have been the highest, Ponder has been his best. With no margin of error, Ponder has directed the Vikings to wins in each of their final four games, getting Minnesota in the playoffs for the first time since Brett Favre was under center.
Minnesota (10-6) visits Green Bay (11-5) in the wild card round Saturday night.
“I think the biggest thing for me was making better decisions,” said Ponder, who has completed 61 percent of his passes during Minnesota’s four-game winning streak.
“Balancing being conservative, making good decisions and taking chances, that’s something you need to continue to learn as a quarterback and growing up. I think that’s the biggest difference for me.”
Ponder has not been the second coming of Fran Tarkenton, but down the stretch, he has played Robin to Adrian Peterson’s Batman. On a reconstructed knee, Peterson rushed for 2,097 yards this season — just nine shy of Eric Dickerson’s NFL record.
But Peterson alone would not have been enough. The Vikings needed passable play from their passing game. And lately, they have had it. After throwing 25 interceptions in his first 24 NFL games, Ponder has not been picked off in his past 90 attempts.
And in Sunday’s season finale against the Packers, Ponder was spectacular, tossing a career-high three touchdowns in Minnesota’s 37-34 victory.
With the score tied and less than three minutes to play, Ponder found Michael Jenkins for 25 yards on third-and-11, extending a drive that would end with Blair Walsh’s deciding field goal.
“It’s hard to imagine that his confidence would be any higher than it is after the ball game he just had,”Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said. “It was such a huge game for our team and our organization, and to play as well as he did, you would imagine that would be something that would propel him going forward. I think it will.”
For the Vikings’ sake, it better. Ponder needs that and more if he wants to beat the Packers twice in six days — this time at Lambeau Field.
It will be the 103rd meeting between the longtime NFC foes, but the first in the playoffs since 2005, whenVikings quarterback Daunte Culpepper (remember him, Dolphins fans?) threw four touchdown passes in the win.
This time, the Packers are favored by a touchdown, due largely to the perceived gulf separating the teams’ quarterbacks.
The Vikings have Ponder, with his zero postseason appearances and a 77.1 career quarterback rating.
The Packers have Rodgers, with league and Super Bowl MVP trophies already in his display case.
Plus Green Bay has motivation beyond simply surrendering a first-round bye with Sunday’s loss in Minneapolis. The Packers (with Joe Philbin as their offensive coordinator) went 15-1 in 2011 but flamed out in the divisional round of the playoffs, losing at home to the eventual champion Giants.
“I just think there’s a lot of good leadership in this locker room,” Rodgers said. “We’re a team that’s starting to get a little bit older, (and) our young guys have stepped up a little bit.”
After a rocky start, people are beginning to say the same about their young quarterback in the Twin Cities.
“When we were going through some of those tough moments, (there were) all of those questions about whether he should be in there,” Frazier said. “If it is something you believe in from my perspective as the head coach, you can’t be swayed by outside opinions.
“To his credit, he’s responded and is playing well for us, we need that from the quarterback position.”