Christian Ponder couldn't sleep. He awoke in the Vikings' team hotel at 5:30 Sunday morning, then again at 6:15, while contemplating his first NFL start.
He'd be leading a losing team against the Super Bowl champs, would be dueling with one of the best quarterbacks in the game while trying to rally teammates who the previous week played with all of the enthusiasm of guys in orange jumpsuits picking up roadside trash.
Technically, Ponder failed as a quarterback on Sunday. The Vikings lost 33-27 to Aaron Rodgers and the Packers. Ponder threw 19 incompletions in his 32 attempts, and during a horrific third quarter Packers cornerback Charles Woodson caught two more of Ponder's passes than his receivers did.
Emotionally, Ponder gave the Vikings exactly what they needed at the most important position in sports: guts, talent, leadership and life. In what is already a lost season, Ponder's arrival is about the only development that can make every remaining game matter.
For the first time since 2009, a Vikings quarterback seemed to energize his team. For the first time this season, a Vikings quarterback made big plays in the fourth quarter. For the first time this season, the Vikings could look at the quarterback position with justified optimism.
"He never got down on himself," coach Leslie Frazier said. "He continued to make the plays that needed to be made. He showed a lot of the poise and composure that you need to play with against a very good defense, which really gives you some hope for the future."
Maybe Ponder couldn't sleep because he had a premonition of his first play as a Vikings starter. Knowing the Packers secondary plays aggressively, offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave called for receiver Michael Jenkins to make a double move. Ponder found him wide open down the left sideline for an apparent 73-yard touchdown.
Ponder sprinted the length of the field, firing imaginary six-shooters, before jumping into Jenkins' arms. Replays showed Jenkins was down at the 1. Ponder later hit Visanthe Shiancoe for the touchdown, but ... six-shooters?
Ponder laughed. "I'm trying things out," he said. "We'll see what will stick."
Ponder seems to already have mastered a key element of the job. He knows how to handle himself in a news conference. He immediately took the blame for the loss. "I made some mistakes personally," he said. "I put this one on me."
His teammates might have been glad to in the third quarter, as Ponder went 0-for-5 with two interceptions while the Packers outscored the Vikings 20-0 to take a 33-17 lead. Once again the Vikings were collapsing in the second half, and once again it was their quarterback leading them into the abyss.
Then something unexpected happened. The rookie making his first start against the world champs took over the game, at least briefly.
After another brilliant Adrian Peterson run and a field goal made it 33-20, the Vikings got the ball back on their 7-yard line with 12:30 remaining. The Packers knew Ponder would have to throw the ball. They had the rookie right where they wanted him, with his back against the goal line and feeling desperate.
Ponder scrambled for 3. He whipped a pass to Shiancoe for 22 yards. He ran up the middle for 12. He scrambled for 7 more, but the run was wiped out by a holding call. Facing third-and-13, Ponder sprinted right under pressure and threw a bullet back to the middle of the field, where Greg Camarillo caught it for 16 yards.
On the next play, Ponder hit a well-covered Jenkins for a 24-yard touchdown. Suddenly it was 33-27.
In the middle of the fourth quarter of a tight game against a superior team, Ponder converted five straight third downs, all of 6 yards or longer. He didn't win the game, but he may have swayed a few hearts and minds.
"I knew going into this game that we were going against the Super Bowl champions," Ponder said. "But I don't think I ever had any big-eyed moments or anything. I enjoyed the game completely."
For a first start, it was a good start.
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