EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder came through with the best game of his two-year career Sunday with his team needing a win to advance to the playoffs.
Ponder's play has progressed since walking off Lambeau Field on Dec. 2, when he threw two costly interceptions, and has given Minnesota's offense the balance needed to make a run to the postseason. In the season's waning weeks, the embattled Ponder and the Vikings' much-maligned receiving corps helped rescue each other in time to keep Minnesota's season afloat.
With leading receiver Percy Harvin missing the season's final seven games, Ponder and the Vikings were left with a group of receivers who didn't scare opposing defenses. The names Michael Jenkins, Jerome Simpson, Jarius Wright and others were left to fill the void left by the playmaking Harvin. Predictably, the passing game struggled without its top target.
Then, with the season on the line, Ponder and Jenkins, Simpson and Wright found the connection they had been searching for.
"It sure seems that way," offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave said. "We've been working after practice, before practice. When the defense has their periods we try curbside our guys and steal a few extra reps to get the work in so we can be more in sync."
The receivers have been more in line with Ponder in the past few weeks, especially at crucial times. As much as Minnesota's offense has relied on Adrian Peterson's standout season, Ponder and the passing game's success, particularly on third downs, had as much to do with the late-season push. Minnesota earned the final wild-card spot by beating the Green Bay Packers, 37-34, last week, drawing a first-round playoff rematch Saturday night in Green Bay.
Ponder was 16 of 28 for 234 yards passing and three touchdowns Sunday and finished with a 120.2 quarterback rating, the highest single-game mark he's posted in his 27 career games. Wright (five catches for 90 yards) came up with a big 65-yard catch and had a touchdown. Jenkins (three catches for 37 yards) hooked up with a scrambling Ponder for an improvisational touchdown and added a big third-down reception down the sideline that led to the eventual game-winning kick. Simpson had three catches for 39 yards, making two big third-down receptions as Ponder was 8 of 11 on third downs for six conversions.
"As the season goes on you kind of find that chemistry, and we had our lumps, but I think these past couple weeks we got better," Ponder said. "I think Jerome's got his confidence up. We knew eventually that he was going to break out. Especially on third downs, he's come alive. He's had some great catches, running great routes, and Jenkins is coming up in big ways and a bunch of other guys. Jarius, everyone has seen him step up. Guys are stepping up at the right time. We need to continue to do that."
Wright, more than anyone, has been responsible for filling the Harvin void. The rookie receiver, who was drafted in the fourth round but didn't see any game action until Harvin was injured, has increasingly earned more playing time and more of Harvin's roles.
On his touchdown catch Sunday, Wright was lined up as a fullback and snuck out of the backfield to the left, where he was wide open for the score. Ponder said there wasn't an adjustment period after losing Harvin, but Wright's growth and the timing with receivers has improved in recent weeks.
"I think it was a combination of not having Percy out there, which we really focused on in the passing game and also Jerome Simpson coming back from his injury that took place," Musgrave said. "(Ponder's) continued to work through that and has gotten better each and every week. We know about Mike Jenkins. He's reliable. We know where he's going to be or be at the right depth. And, of course, the emergence of Jarius; we hit on a big one initially perhaps versus Detroit, but the little quick timing passes have taken a while for us to get on the same page."
Wright said it was a matter of the timing and connections hitting in game conditions.
"It looks more in sync to y'all because y'all not in here practicing," Wright said. "Y'all only get to see so much. But we feel like we've always been in sync. We just had to finally get it together, finally put everything together."
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