For all those Vikings optimists out there, Friday might well have been the perfect night just 23 days before the start of the regular season.

All those empty seats inside Mall of America Field? Hey, at least the stadium was half-full, right?

And for those who did turn out for a hype-free preseason game against the Buffalo Bills, it's fair to say most left with a feeling this team's glass may be half-full, too.

The Vikings not only built a 10-0 lead at the end of the first quarter of what turned out to be a 36-14 victory, but they did so with style, so many young players flashing the signs of promise that the coaching staff has been advertising since training camp began.

Where do we even start? That is, before rookie linebacker Audie Cole became an instant hero with two interception return touchdowns in the final minutes.

Do we begin with receiver Jerome Simpson, who on the game's fourth play beat rookie Bills cornerback Stephon Gilmore on a short slant, then decided to show off his Olympic-style hurdling skills, leaping over safety Jairus Byrd on his way to a 33-yard pick-up?

Or do you start with Toby Gerhart's continued power and the 30 yards he rushed for on six attempts?

Or is it easiest to circle back to the obvious command shown by second-year quarterback Christian Ponder, who orchestrated an impressive 80-yard touchdown drive to open the game, then tacked on a 50-yard march on the next possession to set up a Blair Walsh field goal?

Ponder finished 10-for-13 for 136 yards, spreading the ball to eight different pass-catchers and finishing that first drive with a simple 1-yard TD toss to fullback Jerome Felton.

"Guys are getting open," Ponder said. "It's making my job easy."

And Walsh, it should be noted, made five field goals Friday -- from 22, 47, 45, 40 and 30 yards -- greatly lessening the worry about the 49-yarder he pushed wide right in the second quarter.

The first-team offense also delivered a trio of clutch conversions on third and fourth down on its first two possessions. There was Ponder's gutsy 3-yard run and headfirst dive on third-and-2 from the Buffalo 4 that kept the touchdown drive alive.

On the next series, Simpson delivered a 6-yard catch on third-and-6, using his balance and long arms to stretch the ball for the first down with Byrd hanging on him.

That came three snaps after Gerhart pushed the pile and moved the chains on a 2-yard run on fourth-and-1.

Yep, there are definite signs this offense has a chance to be efficient, versatile and consistently productive in 2012. On his five preseason possessions now, Ponder has led the Vikings into field-goal range each time.

"Everyone is just so much more comfortable and confident in what they're doing," he said.

As the Vikings continue building momentum toward the regular season, the starting defense also held up Friday. Veterans Jared Allen, Kevin Williams and Antoine Winfield all returned after sitting out the preseason opener in San Francisco. With their help, the Vikings held Buffalo to six total yards and one first down in the first quarter.

All that worry that had surfaced last week after the Vikings allowed 260 rushing yards in their loss to the 49ers suddenly seems misguided. In the first half Friday, Buffalo had only 27 rushing yards on eight attempts.

"Preseason or not, [allowing] 260 yards rushing is unacceptable," Allen said. "So we had to focus on coming out and playing fundamental, Viking football and just finishing our jobs ... Football can get overthought sometimes. Guys need to go out and recognize what their job is on that play. If you do that to the best of your ability and everybody does that, we're going to be successful."

If the early fireworks energized the crowd, the middle-of-the-game tedium only seemed to fuel their spirit with a 25-minute wave breaking out and fans all throughout the Dome creating a blizzard with program pages and other debris thrown into the air.

For a team that lost eight of its 10 games inside this building in 2011, that revelry proved refreshing. Perhaps there are justifiable reasons for this excitement.

"I don't think the coaches could ask for anything more from our players," coach Leslie Frazier said. "We really believe we're starting to come together. And certain guys are emerging for us in leadership roles and really helping us get things in the direction we want to go."

Dan Wiederer •