MINNEAPOLIS – While Adrian Peterson staked his claim to the NFL's Most Valuable Player award by propelling the Minnesota Vikings to the playoffs and nearly breaking one of the league's most hallowed records, quarterback Christian Ponder may have done something more subtly brilliant:
He became a big-play passer.
In the grand scheme of an athlete's progression, this is akin to going from being single to married. Of course, Ponder just did that, too. New Year's Eve also happens to be the two-week anniversary of Ponder's marriage to ESPN reporter Samantha Steele, an extremely rare in-season ceremony.
In other words, Ponder is in the middle of taking some giant steps, and the array of throws he made in the second half of a 37-34 win over the Green Bay Packers on Sunday were enormously important.
There was a perfect deep throw to Jarius Wright for a 65-yard gain immediately after the Packers had tied the score at 27, seemingly taking control of the momentum. There was the scrambling 3-yard toss Ponder made into traffic that wide receiver Michael Jenkins cradled for a go-ahead touchdown shortly after the completion to Wright. Those were big parts of Ponder's career-best 120.2 quarterback rating, which included three touchdown passes and no interceptions.
But perhaps best of all, there was the 25-yard strike Ponder hit to Jenkins on third-and-11 right after the two-minute warning. That's because, at that moment, there was no more leaning on the strong legs and shoulders of Peterson.
"You can't hand it off right there and really expect to get a first down," Minnesota offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave said. "When we let the clock run down to the two-minute, he came over to me and I said, 'Let's go win this thing.' He looked right back and you could see it in his eyes, 'Yeah, let's do it.' "
You have to think that saying "I do" in the middle of the season is roughly akin to that type of pressure.
"I was nervous about saying, 'I do,' " Ponder said with a chuckle when asked which situation was more nerve-wracking. "Not sure my wife would be happy about that."
Don't worry, she was probably a little freaked out, too.
As for jogging back on the field for that big play, Ponder said he was unfazed.
"For me, one thing that has stuck in my mind through this whole season was something that Michael Jordan always said. When it came down to the last minutes of the game, when the pressure was on, someone asked him what he did differently. He said: 'I stay the same. It's everyone else that changed.' Where 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 third-and-11 on the first drive of the game. It was no different."
[Winners/losers: Bad habits cost Packers a first-round bye]
What was different from earlier in the season was the result. For much of this campaign, Ponder has struggled mightily. During a seven-game stretch from Oct. 21 to Dec. 9, Ponder posted five games with a quarterback rating of below 60.0 and two below 40.0. He had eight interceptions and only six touchdown passes during that time, and plenty of people outside the team's offices were starting to wonder.
"You know that people were talking that way about him, doubting whether he was going to be a franchise quarterback or whatever they thought," Vikings guard Phil Loadholt said. "But Christian is really good about not letting anything affect his confidence. He's the same way no matter what the situation, whether he's playing well or not and you need that for your quarterback."
Instead of shrinking against the criticism, Ponder did the opposite, and he did it in just about every way imaginable. Could you imagine the grief he would have taken if he had played poorly the past two games after getting married? As ridiculously unfair as that might seem, this is same profession where Tony Romo once took heat for going away for a few days to Los Cabos with Jessica Simpson a week before a playoff game.
To NFL fans and plenty of analysts, playoff bliss counts way more than wedded bliss.
Fortunately, Ponder erased any such potential criticism with the greatest game of his career. Of course, it helped that he was piggybacking on the greatest year of Peterson's career.
Peterson continued his mastery of Green Bay with 199 yards rushing (he has a ridiculous 409 yards on the ground in two games against the Packers this season). That put him at 2,097 yards for the season, just eight short of Eric Dickerson's record of 2,105 in 1984.
While there are some voters who will debate Peterson's accomplishments with what Peyton Manning has done in Denver, one thing is clear: Without Peterson, the Vikings would be an also-ran. Peterson has led the Vikings to the playoffs despite not getting much help from Ponder to this point. By comparison, Manning went to a team that was in the playoffs a year ago and was armed with an improving defense.
Peterson called coming up short of Dickerson's mark "bittersweet," but smiled plenty at the prospect of playing Green Bay again on Saturday in the playoffs.
"It is what it is, it wasn't meant to happen," said Peterson, who had knee surgery this time a year ago after severely injuring his knee on Christmas Eve. "Not to say it doesn't hurt because it does. Ultimately, we came in here [Sunday] and accomplished the ultimate goal of getting a win and take our team into the playoffs."
And, as coach Leslie Frazier noted, the Vikings got there with plenty of help from Ponder, a guy who they will ultimately need again if they are to do anything from here. That's why Frazier pulled Ponder aside as they left the field to make note of this game.
"I said, 'Do you realize you just led your team to the playoffs in your second year in the National Football League, and that's a tremendous feat? You are still learning the game, to a degree,' " Frazier said. "He's done everything that we've asked of him. He's a young quarterback who's still making improvement and the key for us is to make sure we're doing the things around him to help our quarterback's success. Our players are doing their part. He's doing his part. Just a tremendous job by Christian Ponder [Sunday]."
Or as defensive end Brian Robison put it, noting both Ponder's play and his nuptials: "Obviously, with the way he's playing the past two games, it's working for him. If he wants to get married again next week, I'm all for it."
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