Christian Ponder will make his 26th start as an NFL quarterback on Sunday. On the importance scale, none of the previous 25 comes within a country mile in terms of significance and high-stakes pressure.
But Ponder's body of work to date makes any attempt at predicting his response a Mayan-like exercise. We have no idea how he will perform.
He could be brilliant, or a liability. He could be efficient, or largely a nonfactor. He could manage the game, or manage to infuriate fans.
On the eve of the most important game of his career, it's still difficult to conceptualize what Ponder can become as a starting quarterback. But he has a chance to reshape the perception of him and his future by how he performs against the Green Bay Packers with a playoff berth on the line.
Ponder can allay concerns of a restless fan base if he rises to the occasion, plays with confidence and doesn't make critical mistakes in leading his team to victory against its bitter rival.
He can't whitewash all his struggles and mistakes from the ledger. And he won't win over all his detractors. One game is not enough evidence to accomplish that. But the Ponder fan club will grow exponentially in the Vikings' best-case scenario.
Of course, if the opposite happens and he doesn't play well or he suffers a repeat of his Lambeau meltdown four weeks ago, good luck to Rick Spielman and Leslie Frazier selling Ponder's future as their franchise quarterback to an angry mob. They might find themselves on a lonely island in that discussion.
So yeah, no pressure, Christian.
"I think everyone judges me a lot every Sunday," he said. "We'll see what happens on this Sunday, but obviously this is a big game for this organization and for my career."
The Vikings have supported Ponder publicly at every turn, especially at his lowest moments. Frazier has resisted calls for a change or in-game benching by repeatedly indicating he's never even considered that option, although it might benefit Ponder if they signed a veteran to push him next season. It's also unfair to dump everything on Ponder's lap without acknowledging his substandard collection of receivers.
Ponder remains their guy now and presumably going forward, regardless of what transpires on the field Sunday. They believe they've identified a run-focused model that works, and it's one that, frankly, doesn't require Ponder to do a whole lot other than manage the game and, above all, not screw things up.
It's hard to envision that formula working over the long term because the Vikings can't bank on Adrian Peterson providing historic seasons every year. Eventually, they need a more balanced marriage between run and pass, but the blueprint has worked well enough to put them on the cusp of the playoffs.
This scenario felt like pure fantasy after Ponder almost single-handedly cost his team a victory in Green Bay with two maddening interceptions on a day when Peterson rushed for 210 yards. Ponder's teammates rallied around him in the locker room, but the lesson resonated that day. The model can succeed, even against better competition, if Ponder is simply efficient.
The bar is not set very high in that regard, but the Vikings are pleased with Ponder's production over the course of a three-game winning streak since that Green Bay debacle: 44-for-71 passing for 396 yards with one touchdown and one interception.
Pedestrian numbers for sure, but Ponder kept drives alive against Houston last week by consistently converting third-down opportunities. Offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave also has crafted game plans that maximize his quarterback's mobility.
Here's the rub, though: What if the game goes off script and the Packers bottle up Peterson this time? What if the Packers take a sizable lead and the Vikings are forced to lean on Ponder's passing to play catch-up? Ponder hasn't passed for more than 200 yards or thrown at least two touchdown passes in a game since Nov. 11.
"I'm not going to try to put extra pressure on myself," Ponder said.
Frazier also tried to downplay big-picture implications hinged to Ponder's performance.
"The best thing he can do is lead us to a win," Frazier said.
The opportunity is there for Ponder to redefine his roller-coaster season. He's been universally praised and universally ridiculed. He's seen his bandwagon empty faster than an elementary classroom on the last day of school. We're still not sold on Ponder as a long-term answer at quarterback, but his 26th career start could significantly alter the perception of him and his future.
"I'm in charge of how people scrutinize me," Ponder said. "Obviously, if I play well, it's a good thing, and if I play bad, it's bad thing. I can control all that with how I play on the field."
Chip Scoggins • firstname.lastname@example.org