Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder has gone, over the past five games, from being propped up to poised, ineffective to downright incisive.
All in a month-plus stretch with green and gold as the bookends.
Ponder imploded in a winnable game in Green Bay on Dec. 2, taking the rest of his teammates down with him in a 23-14 loss. But Sunday in the Metrodome, Ponder had the best game of his short career in the Vikings' 37-34 victory. Which is why, after walking up to the podium for his news conference Tuesday, Ponder grinned and did his best Jim Mora impersonation:
"Playoffs?!" he squawked into the microphone.
From a comedy of errors to comedy, period.
As the Vikings prepare for Saturday's wild-card game against the Packers, the steps Ponder has made from that Lambeau loss have been small at times but distinct. After that Green Bay debacle -- when Ponder threw two second-half interceptions in the red zone to cost the Vikings a chance at victory -- teammates and coach Leslie Frazier felt compelled to offer the quarterback a figurative hug. Running back Adrian Peterson and defensive tackle Kevin Williams voiced their support. Frazier, anticipating the criticism his quarterback was about to face, pulled him aside before Ponder met the media. You're our quarterback, Frazier said. Next game you'll be the starter.
Since then? Baby steps.
"I think the biggest thing for me is making better decisions," Ponder said. "Obviously I made some bad decisions in that first game [vs. Green Bay]. It's something I knew I had to improve on. I think each week it's gotten better. ... You've got to continue to learn as a quarterback and grow up."
Both Frazier and Ponder say the process hasn't changed. Ponder hasn't changed his study habits or his approach to the job. Ponder insisted again Tuesday that confidence has never been an issue.
And yet something has changed. Some teammates talked Tuesday as if Ponder was a new man since that loss in Green Bay.
"From that point on, he realized if he can take care of the football, then we have a great chance to win," guard Charlie Johnson said. "From that point forward, he's just been really confident in his approach."
Said fullback Jerome Felton: "I think he's starting to take this team over."
The Vikings offense is powered by Peterson, but Ponder has done a better job at the controls. This is not to say that Ponder has proven he is the Answer, but perhaps the questions no longer have a capital Q. After the loss at Green Bay, Vikings coaches scaled back on what they asked of Ponder. But in each week since, Ponder has been given a little more responsibility.
In his past four games, Ponder is 60-for-99 for 630 yards, four TDs and one interception, good for an 88.4 passer rating. In those same games he is 22-for-35 for 247 yards and a TD on third down, a 93.4 rating. His 120.2 passer rating Sunday was the highest of his career.
"Taking care of the things he has to take care of? Showing the type of character that he has to not wilt under the pressure of the quarterback position? That's a credit to Christian," Frazier said.
The next step is to continue the progress, this time in a playoff atmosphere, on the road, in the cold. Ponder said the fact the Vikings have won four consecutive games with their playoff hopes on the line will help. Frazier said having a quarterback playing well and with confidence will help everyone.
"When your quarterback plays as well as he played, in arguably the biggest game of our season, it's very encouraging," Frazier said. "But the thing about our business is you have to continue to put good games together."