Mark Craig has covered the NFL for 23 years, and the Vikings since 2003 for the Star Tribune. He is one of 44 Pro Football Hall of Fame selectors. Follow him at @markcraignfl.
Master Tesfatsion is the Star Tribune’s digital Vikings writer. He is a 2013 graduate of Arizona State and worked for mlb.com before arriving in Minneapolis. Follow him at @masterstrib.
The Vikings may waffle from game to game about who their starting quarterback will be. But coach Leslie Frazier never has been one to pull a quarterback during the game.
Even when he yanked Christian Ponder after a horrible start at Detroit in 2011, Frazier said it was more injury related because Ponder had been hurt the week before.
Asked today about Ponder having to play with Josh Freeman looking over his shoulder, Frazier made it seem like Ponder will finish the game no matter what.
"Christian knows from me that we want him to succeed," Frazier said. "He has no reason to look over his shoulder and say if this happens negative like an interception on Sunday against [Washington] you’re going to be pulled. Or sack-fumble in the end zone, you’re going to b pulled. He doesn’t have to worry about that. He has to worry about playing well. That’s all he has to worry about."
As for whether he starts the following week, well, that will be determined after Thursday night's game.
In other news:
What would you rather do on a Saturday morning than wake up early and read weekly picks and power rankings involving 32 teams that basically are of equal strength and ability to beat, lose to or tie anyone on any given Sunday, Monday, Saturday, Thursday (and some day, when the revenue ceiling needs to be extended to a gazillion bazillion dollars, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday as well)?
CRAIG'S NFL POWER RANKINGS
BEST OF THE BUNCH
1. Broncos (2-0)
Why: Because it’s still the regular season and they still have Peyton Manning.
2. Seahawks (2-0); 3. 49ers (1-1); 4. Saints (2-0); 5. Bears (2-0); 6. Packers (1-1); 7. Texans (2-0); 8. Patriots (2-0); 9. Falcons (1-1); 10. Bengals (1-1); 11. Chargers (1-1) ; 12. Ravens (1-1); 13. Chiefs (3-0) ; 14. Dolphins (2-0); 15. Bills (1-1); 16. Colts (1-1); 17. Titans (1-1); 18. Raiders (1-1); 19. Cowboys (1-1); 22. Rams (1-1); 21. Cardinals (1-1); 22. Lions (1-1); 23. Eagles (1-2); 24. Jets (1-1); 25. Giants (0-2).
26. Vikings: Let’s play the “throw-out” game we hear far too often from some people when they discuss NFL games, which often are contests to see which team messes up the fewest number of times. Throw out that Christian Ponder’s pass that was returned 44 yards for a touchdown and he played well. Throw out those two Jay Cutler passes to Martellus Bennett for 39 yards and a touchdown on the last-minute, game-winning drive and the defense played well. Sorry, Roger Goodell says no mulligans in football. That’s three balls in the woods. You’re hitting seven from the tee and the Vikings are still 26th in the power rankings.
THE REST OF THE REST
27. Redskins (0-2); 28. Panthers (0-2); 29. Buccaneers (0-2); 30. Steelers (0-2); 31. Jaguars (0-2).
WORST OF THE BUNCH
32: Browns (0-2): On paper, the Jaguars are actually worse. But, unlike the Browns, the Jaguars didn’t use that paper to raise as a white flag on the season after two games.
Browns plus-6 at Vikings: Vikings 28, Browns 10
Why: The Browns can’t protect the passer, and that was before they chose to start their inexperienced No. 3 passer and trade their running game to the Colts. The Vikings’ defense should have few problems, although keep an eye on receiver Josh Gordon, who’s coming back from a two-game suspension. If QB Brian Hoyer gets any time at all – doubtful considering it’s only his second start, it’s the Metrodome, where the Vikings’ pass rush is at its best – Gordon could do some damage. Defensively, the Browns aren’t a joke. The front seven on their 3-4 defense will be difficult for the Vikings’ power running game. And that happens QB Christian Ponder will have to play like he did in the second half last week, not like he played when he threw that pick-six in the first half.
Last week: Vikings plus-6 ½ at Bears. The pick: Bears 28, Vikings 14. The final: Bears 31, Vikings 30. Record: 1-1, 0-2 vs. the spread.
Packers plus- 2 ½ at Bengals: Packers 35, Bengals 31.
Why?: Aaron Rodgers and his receivers are on a roll after last week’s rout of the Redskins. Yeah, stopping Cincinnati’s offense will be difficult. Receiver A.J. Green could have another big game, and Cincinnati has two weapons at running back as well. But the guess here is Rodgers will just score his way through any of the team’s defensive difficulties.
Last week: Bengals plus-3 at Bears. The pick: Bengals 24, Bears 21. The final: Bears 24, Bengals 21. Record: 0-1.
Chargers plus-3 at Titans: Chargers by 7.
Buccaneers plus-7 at Patriots: Patriots by 3.
Texans minus-2 ½ at Ravens: Ravens by 3.
Rams plus-4 at Cowboys: Cowboys by 7.
Cardinals plus-7 ½ at Saints: Saints by 3.
Lions plus-1 ½ at Redskins: Redskins by 3.
Giants plus-1 at Panthers: Panthers by 7.
Falcons plus-2 at Dolphins: Falcons by 3.
Colts plus-10 ½ at 49ers: 49ers by 7.
Jaguars plus-19 at Seahawks: Seahawks by 14.
Bills plus-2 at Jets: Jets by 3.
Bears minus-2 ½ at Steelers: Steelers by 3.
Raiders plus-15 at Broncos: Broncos by 10.
Record: Last week: 10-5; 8-7 vs. the spread. Overall: 14-16; 10-19-1 vs. the spread.
Vikings defensive tackle Kevin Williams missed today's practice to tend to a personal matter, but his knee is good to go on Sunday in Chicago, coach Leslie Frazier said after practice.
"[Missing practice] has nothing to do with him physically," Frazier said. "He should be ready to go on Sunday."
Williams, who suffered a severely strained right knee in the third preseason game, missed the season opener at Detroit. The Lions won 34-24 and were able to run well between the tackles with running back Reggie Bush, who averaged 4.3 yards on 21 carries.
Williams was listed as probable. The Vikings listed six other players as probable. The only one with limited participation in today's practice was center John Sullivan (knee). Listed as probable with full participation were: LB Larry Dean (shoulder), LB Erin Henderson (heel), RT Phil Loadholt (knee), S Mistral Raymond (shoulder) and CB Josh Robinson (quadriceps).
For the Bears, CB Charles Tillman (knee) and DE Julius Peppers (illness) were listed as probable. Peppers was limited in practice. Tillman had full participation.
Defensive tackle Kevin Williams walked off the practice field after limited participation and gave a positive report on his first practice since suffering a severely strained right knee in the third preseason game at San Francisco.
"We went out to see how it felt," he said. "And it felt great."
But that's not the end of it. Not yet.
"Questions?" Williams said when asked if there were any questions that he would play on Sunday at Chicago. "I'll tell you tomorrow. Hopefully, it won't be sore tomorrow and we'll go from there."
If Williams gets up Thursday with unusual soreness, the Vikings are likely to back off and not practice him on Thursday. If he's not too sore, the Vikings will ramp up his work when they put the pads on for an afternoon practice. Either way, he'll only be limited in Thursday's practice.
"[Thursday morning] is pretty much the key," Williams said.
Also on today's injury report as being limited were cornerback Josh Robinson (quadriceps), center John Sullivan (knee) and right tackle Phil Loadholt (knee). Those three are expected to play on Sunday.
Two starters -- middle linebacker Erin Henderson (heel) and strong safety Jamarca Sanford (shoulder) -- are on the injury report but had full particpation in today's practice.
Not only did Leslie Frazier reassert his faith in Christian Ponder, the Vikings coach made sure to point out that the rest of his players aren't pointing fingers at the starting quarterback after Sunday's four-turnover performance in a 34-24 season-opening loss at Detroit.
"On Sunday, it was not all about Christian," Frazier said Wednesday as the Vikings amped up their preparation for Sunday's game at Chicago. "He had his mistakes. But the fact is the quarterback position is much more magnified. He just happens to play the position with the most scrutiny. We had other guys, trust me, that when we watched the tape, the scrutiny that needed to be had in those moments, they are well aware that they have to play better. They're not looking only at our quarterback and saying, `If he had done this or that, we would have won that ballgame.' We need to play better across the board."
Those hoping for a quick hook on Ponder can fahgedaboutit, too.
"You don't want to say that you can't get this turned and going in the right direction after just one week," Frazier said. "I just don't think that would be wise."
Frazier also pointed to the team's 4-0 playoff push to end last season -- particularly the playoff-clinching 37-34 win over the Packers -- as proof that Ponder has gotten the job done before.
"That Green Bay game at the end of the year, that was a terrific performance by Christian," Frazier said. "So we've seen him do it on repeated occasions. Consistent play is what we're looking for. We need a good week this week.
"[Ponder's] body of work is somewhat limited. [Sunday] was his second start on opening day and his first on the road [on opening day] a week ago. I have seen him make throws on the run. I have seen him make plays in the pocket, out of the pocket. All you have to do is throw in a tape from last December. There were a number of moments like that. We need consistent good quarterback play for our offense to thrive and for our team to be successful. Christian knows that as well as anybody. There are certain things we can't do. Our margin of error is small. So if we're turning the ball over, it just shrinks our opportunity to win. But I have seen him him make those plays in and out of the pocket."
Frazier, however, did point out that Ponder has to improve his play when things break down around him.
"Not every pocket is going to be clean in the NFL," Frazier said.
Ponder opened his weekly press conference today by saying what 99.9999 percent of all players coming off a loss say to the media. Here's part of the opening statement:
"Well, the good thing about football, especially the NFL, is you got to move on quickly," Ponder said. "Watching the film Monday and Sunday night, a lot of things are easily correctable. We'll get them fixed. We're too good of a team to be making those mistakes. We have to establish the run better. ... And we can't turn the ball over.
"There are things I can do better. That everybody can do better. The running back, the receivers. It's something as an offense, we correct as a whole."
Ponder also subtly dropped in a reference to last year's season-opener in which he directed a long, game-tying drive as time expired against visiting Jacksonville. The Vikings went on to win in overtime.
Asked when he felt the Lions game got away from the Vikings, Ponder said, "The feeling that it got away from us never happened. it was just a couple of bad mistakes. ... We were into it until the very end. We still had time with a couple of minutes left to score two touchdowns. We won a game with 14 seconds left where we had to drive 80 yards or whatever to get a field goal and we did that. So I don't think a game is really ever out of our reach."
In other news, Frazier said everyone is expected to practice today. That includes defensive tackle Kevin Williams, who missed the opener because of a badly strained knee, and center John Sullivan, whose left knee was chopped by Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh during an interception return. Sullivan finished the game. Suh did, too, but his wallet ultimately got lighter by 100 grand when the league fined him on Tuesday.
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