Signs of Christian Ponder's confidence made a welcomed return for the Minnesota Vikings, in the pocket during a win and at the podium for his postgame interview.
The keys to success for the second-year quarterback are minimizing sacks and turnovers and spreading around the ball to a variety of receivers. If Ponder is cracking self-deprecating jokes and firing off other one-liners -- like quick, sharp passes under pressure -- at his news conference afterward, that's usually further evidence that Ponder helped fuel a Vikings win.
''I want to thank my girlfriend, because she obviously has such a big impact on how I play,'' Ponder said after Minnesota beat Detroit 34-24 to move to 6-4 entering its bye week.
He's in a relationship with ESPN college sports reporter Samantha Steele, a romantic link revealed about a month ago. Since Ponder's performance crash over the previous three games started around the time his dating life was publicized, some frustrated fans blamed him for being distracted. The truth is their connection was struck before the season, though, and Ponder was overwhelmed by the Arizona, Tampa Bay and Seattle defenses.
So Ponder badly needed a win Sunday as much as anyone else on the Vikings. Several veterans praised his play unprompted, well aware of the mounting doubts about the 2011 first-round draft pick from Florida State's ability to be the long-term solution at the sport's most important position.
''Ponder had a good day,'' linebacker Chad Greenway said after redirecting a question about Adrian Peterson, whose 171 yards rushing helped take the load off his teammate. ''You really don't want to lose focus of that. He made some really nice conversions on third down and threw some tough balls, so I'm proud of the way he stepped up after some tough weeks.''
Tough weeks remain. The Vikings return Nov. 25 at NFC North-leading Chicago then go to Green Bay on Dec. 2. Both of those teams come to Minnesota in the last month, too, and they visit AFC-leading Houston on Dec. 23.
For now, the Vikings can enjoy the 20th start of Ponder's career a little longer. He completed 24 of 32 passes for 221 yards and two touchdowns, took one sack and didn't turn the ball over. He was 7 for 7 on third downs during scoring drives, too, including a 54-yard completion to Jarius Wright that set up a touchdown and a third-and-6 throw to tight end Kyle Rudolph that went for a score.
''That's the No. 7 that we knew we had in our locker room and we've seen since we started in April,'' Rudolph said, referring to Ponder's jersey number. ''Christian just came out and let his talent take over. He just came out and threw it.''
The absence of do-it-all wide receiver Percy Harvin due to a sprained left ankle removed Ponder's favorite target. So he looked for Rudolph often. He hit Devin Aromashodu for a 31-yard gain on a slant pattern to set up a third-quarter field goal. He delivered the ball to Wright in stride on third-and-10 during Minnesota's first drive, the kind of defense-stretching long pass there's been a dearth of by the Vikings this year.
''The way he practiced throughout the week, particularly on Friday, he was really on fire,'' coach Leslie Frazier said, acknowledging the importance of a deep completion for Ponder early in the game to settle in.
Peterson said he saw ''a blessing in disguise'' for Ponder from Harvin's injury.
''Christian kind of forced into giving it to him sometimes. So with him being out, other guys stepped up. He was able to get back there and just go through his reads and progressions and find the guys that were open,'' Peterson said.
Nine Vikings caught passes.
''Ten,'' Ponder said, making sure to include himself, for the 15-yard loss he took on the batted ball by Lions defensive end Cliff Avril that landed in his arms well behind the line of scrimmage.
The Vikings spent extra time last week refining their passing game, be it the protection schemes on the line, the routes run by their receivers or the plays called by offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave. The most important change, though, fell on Ponder, to survey the field for his second or third options in situations when the first guy is covered.
''No matter who writes what, it's not going to be as disappointing to read as what I say to myself,'' Ponder said. ''It doesn't bother me, because it comes with the territory. The criticism is justified with the play on the field. I know I can play better, and today was OK. There's still a ton of room to keep improving.''
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