In the biggest game of his young NFL career, Teddy Bridgewater panicked and threw a pass lefthanded.

In the biggest game of his career, he overshot a receiver by 3 yards on his first pass attempt in what should have been an easy touchdown.

In the biggest game of his career, he passed for 99 yards and posted a passer rating of 45.7, both season lows.

In the biggest game of his career, the stage looked awfully big for the Vikings second-year quarterback.

On Sunday, the stage becomes significantly larger.

How will Bridgewater respond?

Honest answer: No clue.

Bridgewater is a complete wild card entering a wild-card matchup against the Seattle Seahawks. Good luck trying to predict the script in his playoff debut with any degree of certainty.

One can reasonably assume the Vikings defense will answer the challenge and give the team a fighting chance at an upset. And that Adrian Peterson will run angrier than the bulls of Pamplona. And that an arctic blast will inspire record consumption of Fireball Cinnamon Whisky in tailgate lots.

But Bridgewater? Dunno.

He could be Good Teddy, under control, firing quick-hitting passes to various receivers while using his scrambling ability to avoid pressure and pick up first downs.

Or he could be Tentative Teddy, hesitant in the pocket, prone to throwaways or passes wide of his target.

Will he play like the confident quarterback who had the best three-game stretch of his career in Weeks 14-16? Or the anxious one who nearly sabotaged the Vikings’ shot at winning a division title in Week 17?

“I don’t know, we will find out this week,” coach Mike Zimmer said when asked if he’s concerned about his quarterback. “I don’t have any concerns about Teddy. I’m sure he will play good this week.”

Anything less than that and the Vikings could get run out of TCF Bank Stadium by the Seahawks for the second time since December.

Seattle linebacker Bruce Irvin described Bridgewater as “so scared” following their first meeting, something Bridgewater later called “a little embarrassing.”

The Vikings can’t afford for Bridgewater to play timid again. He needs to be smart, but not timid. He has to make meaningful plays, especially on third down, to keep that frothing Seahawks defense from focusing solely on Peterson.

Bridgewater doesn’t need to be a hero, but he can’t play like a wallflower, either. A smart game plan offers him high-percentage passes on bootlegs and rollouts. Quick stuff that establishes a rhythm early to build confidence and keep the offense balanced.

That’s when he’s most effective.

The Vikings won at Lambeau Field last week despite their quarterback. That won’t cut it.

Nobody expects him to outduel Russell Wilson, in the midst of a historic stretch of quarterback play. But if the gap between the two Sunday is wider that the Pacific Ocean, the Vikings are doomed.

Fair or not, Bridgewater’s performance will shape, alter or enhance the perception of him and his future as a franchise quarterback.

One game shouldn’t set in stone the narrative of any player — especially a player only 23 years old — but playoffs often sharpen opinions of quarterbacks. See: Dalton, Andy.

In a perfect world, Bridgewater will get many cracks at the postseason in his career. The hope is that he continues to develop and improve and that there will be fewer questions about how he’ll handle big moments in the future.

The uncertainty that exists now stems from his so-so sophomore season. Frankly, it’s been a weird season for Bridgewater, a difficult one to define, because his play has been all over the map.

His defenders pin blame on his offensive line, which is average at its best, abysmal at its worst.

His critics point to his sidearm mechanics and lack of arm strength as reasons for their low opinion.

A fair evaluation understands a confluence of factors have contributed to Bridgewater’s uneven play. His line doesn’t protect well, the reliance on seven-step drops proved counterproductive and Bridgewater has struggled at times.

The evaluation is more nuanced than a narrow assignment of blame.

Bridgewater can establish a new narrative by how he plays Sunday. He’s facing the NFL’s best defense and bone-aching temperatures. This presents the toughest challenge of his career.

But it also brings a prove-it opportunity, a chance to prove that he can rise above the mess he made last week and own a big stage and big moment.

If he throws another lefthanded pass, the only thing that will comfort Vikings fans is the Fireball in their flasks.

 

Chip Scoggins chip.scoggins@startribune.com