Hartman: Ponder on the mark as crunch time hits

  • Article by: SID HARTMAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 31, 2012 - 8:57 AM

The quarterback found his wide receivers when he had to, and they came up big for him at the end.

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Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder

Photo: Jim Mone, Associated Press

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For Christian Ponder, it will be a pass completion the Vikings quarterback will never forget, the throw that -- along with Adrian Peterson's closing 26-yard run -- set up the winning field goal that gave his team a victory over the Packers and put it into the playoffs.

The situation was this: The score was 34-34 at the two-minute warning, the Vikings had third-and-11 on their own 27, and the threat of having to punt and give Green Bay the ball back and a chance to win was looming over their heads.

At that point, Ponder completed certainly one of the most important passes of his life, a 25-yard throw to Michael Jenkins down the left sideline for a first down. They followed that with three Peterson runs -- the first two getting them into long field-goal territory for Blair Walsh, the third a big run that set up a 29-yard kick as time expired to win the game.

The Vikings were able to keep the ball out of the hands of great Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who -- considering the way he was going, with six scores in Green Bay's final seven possessions -- certainly would have put his team in position to kick a winning field goal.

Peterson was the big star of the game, rushing 34 times for 199 yards, just 9 yards short of breaking Eric Dickerson's record. But Ponder's hot day -- his 120.2 quarterback rating was the best of his NFL career -- had a lot to do with setting up the great runs by his superstar back.

Ponder, who for the fourth game in a row had led the Vikings to a score on their first possession, threw for 234 yards and three touchdowns Sunday. He paid tribute to the wide receivers, a position on the team that had been criticized by many time and time again for being a big weakness.

Obviously, the group isn't the same without the injured Percy Harvin. But what has helped the receivers' production has been the play of fourth-round draft choice Jarius Wright, who once again came up big late in the season.

Wright not only caught an 8-yard pass for a touchdown in the second quarter, but he also had a huge 65-yard catch in the fourth quarter after the Packers had tied the score the first time, setting up a go-ahead touchdown.

In the earlier Vikings loss at Green Bay, Ponder's two red-zone interceptions had played a big part in the loss. But Sunday the Vikings didn't turn the ball over once.

"It was a team victory," Ponder said. "All of the receivers were great. And what can you say about Adrian Peterson?"

Ponder said his play-action passes were so successful because the Packers' top goal was to stop Peterson.

"We saw a lot of blitzes up the middle and a lot of safeties down in the box to stop the run," Ponder said. "We knew that. It set up the play-action. A quarterback's best friend is the running game, and Adrian Peterson is a good one."

Ponder was asked if it has sunk in that the team is in the playoffs. "Not yet," he said. "I'm proud of it. But like I said before, we are not done. You are not going to be happy if you are sitting home next week."

Ponder has been the subject of a lot of criticism during some of his tough times this season, but he seemed to find himself over the final four games.

"You have to be mentally tough and have thick skin to play the position," Ponder said. "But everyone knows that and they kind of go into the position knowing that, and it comes with the territory. We [quarterbacks] do get a lot of credit when we win, and it's the opposite the other way.

"But I think as a quarterback you have to understand that you can never get too high or too low. Externally things are going to change, but I think what matters most is how we deal with things internally within the organization. It's a tough position. I enjoy it."

And he never enjoyed it more than Sunday.

Short of record

Peterson said it was a bittersweet feeling when he realized he was just short of breaking the NFL record.

"The first thing that came to my mind when I heard that I was 9 yards short was that, 'It is what it is. It wasn't meant to happen.' Not to say it doesn't hurt, because it does," Peterson said. "Ultimately, we came here tonight and accomplished the ultimate goal of getting a win and taking our team into the playoffs."

Asked if he knew any time during the game what his numbers were, Peterson answered: "I never knew. I wasn't worried about it. I told myself to come to this game and focus on one thing, winning and doing my job and to contribute to the running and passing game. If it happened it would come to me, but I didn't want to focus on it at all. I went out and played my game and accomplished what we wanted to. We're in now. We are in the playoffs. We get to fight another week."

Walsh big contributor

Walsh has to be one of the big stories in Vikings team history. Not many rookies have come in and done what the sixth-round draft pick has done.

Sunday, in addition to the winning field goal, he also kicked field goals of 54 and 37 yards besides booming the kickoffs into the end zone almost eery time.

Walsh said the winning field goal, the one that put the Vikings in the playoffs, was just another one for him, and he didn't feel any different when he went on the field to try it.

"No, I just go out there and try another kick," he said. "I knew what it was. I am not going to ignore it and fight what the kick means, but you have to go out there and try to have fun with it. There is definitely less pressure when the game is tied [rather than trailing], but there is still a lot of pressure because you have to make it."

The story has been told before: Vikings coaches had scouting reports on the great junior year Walsh had at Georgia, but he slipped as a senior, making only 21 of 35 attempts. But that didn't keep the Vikings from drafting him and giving him the kicking job over veteran Ryan Longwell.

All he did as a rookie was make 35 of 38 field goals, set an NFL record by making 10 attempts from at least 50 yards and get selected to the Pro Bowl.

Walsh said he didn't have any idea he would have this great of a season when he was drafted.

"When I came in, all I wanted to be is dependable for the team, and I think I have done that so far," he said. "Now is when it really counts that we are in the playoffs."

Sid Hartman can be heard weekdays on 830-AM at 6:40, 7:40 and 8:40 a.m. and Sundays at 9:30 a.m. • shartman@startribune.com

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