For two seasons, Christian Ponder has wandered the halls at Winter Park, passing photos depicting great moments in Vikings history. The more recent ones show players embracing during momentous victories in the Metrodome.
Sunday, Ponder got the picture. Whatever else happens in his career, he will always know what it means to beat the Packers in a big game in December when the noise in the Dome becomes, for the squeamish, more like a hallucinogen than a sound.
"What a great experience," Ponder said. "What a great game."
Ponder played his best game in his biggest game. Four weeks after throwing two interceptions that doomed his team at Lambeau Field, and after hanging his head at his locker for so long Adrian Peterson and Leslie Frazier felt compelled to revive his spirits, Ponder put the Vikings in the playoffs, leading them to a 37-34 victory in one of the greatest games in Dome history.
In what inadvertently turned into a duel with the great Aaron Rodgers, Ponder completed 16 of 28 passes to eight receivers for 234 yards and tied his career best with three touchdowns. He took one sack and did not throw an interception. His quarterback rating of 120.2 was the highest of his career. He even rushed twice for 16 yards.
Last month in Lambeau, if you had asked Ponder whom he might be quoting at the end of the regular season and he said, "Jordan," you might have thought he meant Jordan Palmer, or Jordan Farmar. Sunday night, Ponder, six days from his first playoff start, dared quote another.
"One thing that stuck in my mind through this whole season was something Michael Jordan always said," Ponder said. "When it came to the last minutes of the game and the pressure was on, someone asked him what he did differently. He said, 'I stay the same, it's everyone else who changes.' In those high-pressure situations, I try to stay calm."
Last year in his last five games he threw seven interceptions. This year in his last five games, he threw three, and none in the past three weeks. Ponder has played well enough for the Vikings to earn the four consecutive victories they needed to make the playoffs and send him back to Wisconsin, this time not for a hasty wedding but for an improbable playoff.
"After the game, I said to him, 'Do you realize that you just took your team to the playoffs in your second year in the league?'" Frazier said. "While you're still learning? I'm so happy for him and our football team."
Ponder made two fourth-quarter throws that held Rodgers at bay. Early in the fourth quarter, after the Packers had kicked a field goal to make it 27-27, the Vikings took over at their 21. With the best running back in the game itching to break the NFL rushing record, the Vikings called for a long pass, which all season has been rarer in the Dome than fresh air.
Jarius Wright, who would be on the practice squad for most teams, broke open deep, down the left numbers, and Ponder hit him on the fingertips. Wright gained 65, and Ponder finished the drive with a daring touchdown pass to Michael Jenkins. It was 34-27 with 7:54 remaining.
Rodgers answered with a 78-yard touchdown drive, tying it with 2:54 remaining. Ponder would have to conjure Jordan's words again.
Starting on the 28, he threw incomplete. Peterson lost a yard. The Vikings faced third-and-11. Ponder conferred with coaches during the two-minute warning. His next throw would likely decide whether he'd return to Lambeau this season.
Handing to Peterson seemed a wise choice, but the call was for a pass. Ponder dropped back. The Packers rushed just three, while their defensive backs retreated into a deep zone. Ponder spotted Jenkins in an open window down the left sideline, and hit him for a 25-yard gain.
Five plays later, Blair Walsh kicked the winning field goal as time expired. Ponder slapped hands with Joe Webb and headed to midfield, where Rodgers was waiting with a hug.
They're not exactly equals, but this time being in Rodgers' vicinity left Ponder with no reason to hang his head.
Jim Souhan can be heard Sundays from 10 a.m. to noon and weekdays at 2 p.m. on 1500-AM. His Twitter name is SouhanStrib. email@example.com