CHARLOTTE, N.C. - On the final play of his first NFL victory, Christian Ponder knelt, then popped up, and as the clock ticked to zero, he cradled the game ball and wandered through the mosh pit of players, shaking hands.
Guys have gotten more excited about getting audited. "I don't even know what happened to the whole gun-shooting thing," he said later, poking fun at his touchdown celebration the previous week. "Guess I forgot."
What is most striking about Ponder is the casualness with which he makes the difficult look routine. Sunday, his poise and clutch passing helped the Vikings to a 24-21 decision over Carolina at Bank of America Stadium.
During his first road start in the NFL, Ponder completed 18 of 28 passes for a touchdown and no interceptions. On third downs, he completed nine of 10 passes for seven first downs. Last week, 12 of his 13 completions went for first downs or touchdowns; Sunday, 14 of his 18 completions went for first downs or touchdowns.
This is not a recent development. When the Vikings scouted Ponder, they were impressed by his intelligence and maturity, by his ability to make big plays even when lacking superior weapons. During his last season at Florida State, Ponder completed 45 passes on third down, and 41 of them went for first downs or touchdowns.
Sunday, on third-and-10 or more, he completed four of six attempts, overcoming a lack of talent and speed at wide receiver by relying on Adrian Peterson and Percy Harvin. "That's just what the defense gave us," Ponder said.
Last week, Ponder's precision in the fourth quarter threatened Aaron Rodgers and the Super Bowl champion Packers; Sunday, he trumped Cam Newton, the first pick in the 2011 draft, down the stretch. While more spectacular, Newton also lost two fumbles and threw a couple of passes that should have been intercepted, while Ponder played as if he's learned from mistakes he hasn't even made yet.
On his way to the team bus, Vikings coach Leslie Frazier talked about Ponder as if he were found money.
"His attitude coming off the field after plays was tremendous," Frazier said. "He was saying, 'We're going to be all right, things are going to be fine.' There was so much positive energy coming from the quarterback position, and he's a rookie, you know? He wasn't going over and sitting on the bench and being quiet.
"It's positive energy that our players are feeding off of. That quarterback position is so vital when it comes to that. You can have leaders at other positions, but that's the center of your team. If that guy has energy and he's making a lot of plays, all of a sudden guys who aren't in that role, their play shifts up, because of the quarterback."
After the game, Frazier slapped hands and distributed hugs in a loud, relieved locker room, while Ponder dressed quietly, slipping a T-shirt over a nasty welt on his back.
Before Sunday, Peterson had 49 receiving yards. Sunday, with the Vikings intent on avoiding turnovers and noticing the Panthers laying back, Ponder completed five passes to Peterson for 76 yards and a touchdown.
On what might have been the key play of the game, Ponder threw a quick pass to Harvin in the flat to beat a blitz, and Harvin spun away from a tackler to extend what would prove to be the game-winning drive.
"I'm extremely excited about the way Christian has taken over the leadership role on our team, and really not just with our offense but asking guys to kind of follow him," Frazier said. "It just gives you a lot of hope for the future of our team."
Donovan McNabb continues to say he should still be the Vikings' starting quarterback. He must be stuck in obstructed-view seating on the bench.
Ponder has given the Vikings life and their season meaning. While he acted like his first NFL victory was no big deal, his coach knows better.
Jim Souhan can be heard Sundays from 10 a.m. to noon and weekdays at 2 p.m. on 1500ESPN. His Twitter name is SouhanStrib. • firstname.lastname@example.org