One quarterback left the field with his helmet on, wearing it more for refuge than protection, moving like his cleats were made of lead.

The other quarterback left much later, after hugging everyone in sight and conducting television interviews, his helmet off, grin radiating, fans screaming his name.

The first quarterback threw for 381 yards and three touchdowns, setting a franchise rookie record for passing yards in a game.

The second quarterback won.

Sunday, Tebowing beat Pondering, and by the end of the day Tim Tebow's successes and Christian Ponder's failures no longer seemed so mysterious.

Tebow, the Broncos' lightning rod, is 6-1 as an NFL starter. Ponder, the Vikings' rookie, is 1-5. Both quarterbacked proud college teams in Florida. Both run like halfbacks. Both were first-round draft choices taken earlier than most analysts expected, and both were asked this season to resurrect losing teams.

Ponder is the more accurate and prolific passer. Sunday, with star running back Adrian Peterson and veteran receiver Michael Jenkins injured, he shredded Denver's defense.

Tebow's throwing motion is long and awkward. He's as likely to run the option as he is to complete a touch pass, and he'd probably lose a 40-yard dash to Ponder. Somehow, though, through a combination of luck, timing, clutch play and his counterpart's mistakes, Tebow made the difference in the Broncos' 35-32 victory at Mall of America Field.

Ponder completed 29 of 47 passes for 381 yards and three touchdowns.

Tebow attempted just 15 passes, completing 10 for 202 yards and two touchdowns.

The difference between them wasn't mystical. The difference was that Ponder gave the Broncos 10 points with two unsightly interceptions, and cost his team at least three points with a fumble, while Tebow, facing an inept secondary that often left receivers uncovered, did not commit a single turnover.

In seven starts, in an offensive scheme that seems designed to play safe, Tebow has thrown one interception. In six starts, running an offense often in need of miracles, Ponder has thrown eight.

"Everyone talks about how rookies are going to have their ups and downs, and obviously so, but I don't want to go through ups and downs," Ponder said. "I just want to go through ups. And I'm hard on myself, I'm my hardest critic, and I'm going to go back and try to keep learning from those mistakes. I've had way too many turnovers."

Ponder's first turnover of the day was an interception returned for a touchdown. His second was a fumble when the Vikings were in field-goal range. His third decided the game.

Tebow had driven the Broncos 59 yards for the tying field goal with 1:33 remaining in the game. Ponder took over on his own 20. He dropped back, looked for the prolific Percy Harvin on the left sideline, and threw a pass directly to Broncos cornerback André Goodman.

Goodman returned it to the Vikings 15, the Vikings' coaches foolishly let the Broncos run the clock down instead of allowing them to score so Minnesota could have one last drive, and the game ended on a 23-yard field goal.

Ponder walked slowly to the middle of the field, spoke with Tebow, then skulked toward the locker room.

"We shook hands and wished each other well," Ponder said. "It's hard to argue -- the guy wins games. He had the game-winning drive there."

Only because of an assist from Ponder.

"I think the negatives are always what you learn the most from," Ponder said. "I learned that you can't stick a corner route into Cover-2 the way you did in college.

"Stats are stats. They don't win ballgames. I'd much rather have a win and throw for 10 yards."

There's a term for that these days. It's called "Tebowing."

If you were building an NFL team -- and that's what the Vikings find themselves trying to do -- you should prefer Ponder to Tebow.

Sunday, though, it was Tebow who was running off the field, hearing fans screaming his name.

Jim Souhan can be heard Sundays from 10 a.m. to noon and weekdays at 2 p.m. on 1500ESPN. His Twitter name is Souhan-Strib. •