For the rest of the football establishment, it was a game that was going to invite yawns of indifference. The teams were going nowhere. Their followers had been storming the discount markets for brown paper bags to cover their gloom.
But on Sunday in Charlotte, Cam Newton, the Heisman Trophy winner in college football a year ago and now the Carolina Panthers quarterback, faced Christian Ponder, the Minnesota Vikings new quarterback — and their meeting may have been prophetic.
They could be doing a reprise for the next 10 or 15 years.
On Sunday, Ponder won on points — 24-21, to be exact. It was not scenic. It was won, in fact, in the final moments when the Carolina kicking specialist, Olindo Mare, shanked a “gimme” field goal wide left from 31 yards out after the Vikings’ Ryan Longwell had kicked the tie-breaking field goal moments before, also 31 yards.
Ponder strong again
Ponder’s contributions were significant — one touchdown pass, 18 completions in 28 throws and his poise in times of crisis. Yet they would not have been enough without some other-wordly running by Adrian Peterson and the thrill-a-minute performance of Percy Harvin, aching ribs and all.
Add Jared Allen’s personal vendettas against the Carolina offense (six tackles, one sack, one fumble recovery, miscellaneous scowls and grunts) and a defensive line that minimized Newton’s running threat, forcing him into two fumbles.
But the significance of the game, for both the Vikings and Carolina, was clear and unarguable. Newton and Ponder will meet again. The first-round choice of Newton in the NFL draft, No. 1 overall, was met with widespread derision: He was great in college, but to be a quarterback in the NFL, you have to pass as well as run.
So far this year, he has averaged in the range of 400 yards a game passing and can run with Michael Vick.
On Sunday, the numbers through the air read:
—Newton: 22 completions in 35 attempts, 260 yards, three touchdowns.
—Ponder: 18 completions in 28 attempts, one touchdown, 237 yards.
Close. But there was one other significant set of numbers:
—Adrian Peterson: 21 carries, 86 yards, one touchdown … and five receptions, 76 yards, one touchdown.
But for the Vikings crowd, the large question going in was: Could Ponder play on the road, matched against the richest and most celebrated rookie of 2011, and come close to equaling his performance of a week before?
With Ponder starting his first game, the Vikings took the heavily favored Packers to the wire before losing. It was a game that startled a lot of the NFL’s wise men — the misery-ridden Vikings nearly toppling the Packers in Ponder’s first start as a pro.
Happy Frazier praises Ponder
And now he has his first victory, recognized by his head coach, Leslie Frazier, who was all smiles when he presented Ponder with the game ball. It was significant for all of them. The team now has a young quarterback who fits all of the requirements — not only a quality player technically but an intuitive one who brings a genuine capacity for leadership to a team that has accepted him unconditionally. That ability of a young quarterback to acquire almost instant respect from veterans and young players alike — to say nothing of the coaching staff — is rare.
Frazier expressed his respect when it was over. He understood that amid all of the Vikings travails of the post-Favre era, peace, calm and respect at the quarterback position — plus performance — add up to the one crucial requirement in professional football.
Unless all the early evidence is a tease, Ponder is the guy — savvy for his age, engaging and quickly acceptable to the entire team, gregarious but not a politician. In other words, a man comfortable with himself, decisive when the moment requires it, a quick learner and a genuine, all-in teammate.
Among his other accomplishments in a couple of weeks: He’s prompted a more charitable assessment of offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave by the off-with-their-heads blogocritics. Musgrave now has a mobile quarterback to work with, one not as bashful about throwing deep as his predecessor, Donovan McNabb. In fact, McNabb’s strongest contributions to the team have become his chat sessions with Ponder on the sidelines. Ponder listens, not only courteously but seriously.
Sunday against the Panthers, if Ponder and Newton played to a standoff on the offense, Harvin and Peterson were the difference. Harvin came at the Panther defense as the whirling dervish of the Viking attack. He came as a breakout receiver, as Peterson’s alter ego in the running game, as an end-around threat from the flank and as a part time agitator, once drawing 15 yards for nearly inciting a brawl on the sideline.
But the young man is fearless and always a threat — like Peterson, a driven man with the football. Nobody runs with quite the same mix of speed, moves and audacity. In a critical part of the game, late, with the score tied and the Vikings launching what turned out to be the winning drive, Ponder threw to Harvin on the flank. Cornerback Chris Gamble came at him hard. Harvin started with a head-and-shoulders fake, then spun. Gamble could have handled the fake but caught nothing but grass after Harvin delivered his best around-the-compass 360.
Peterson the difference-maker again
And then there was Adrian, who ultimately was the difference for the Vikings — again.
Harvin had opened the scoring in the first quarter with a 10-yard touchdown run. Jeremy Shockey tied it for Carolina with a short pass from Newton, who then put them ahead with a touchdown throw to Greg Olsen from 39 yards out. But late in the half, after Chad Greenway recovered a fumble induced by Jared Allen’s sack, Ponder and Peterson teamed for a 19-yard touchdown pass. So it was 14-14.
Newton then hit Steve Smith with a 22-yard scoring pass to open the scoring in the third quarter, but the Vikings went on a 72-yard drive in the third quarter that ended with Peterson grinding and hacking into the end zone to tie it at 21-21. It was Harvin and Peterson attacking again in the fourth quarter, setting up Ryan Longwell to give the Vikings the lead with his 31-yard field goal.
Carolina and Newton weren’t finished. Remarkably, Newton hit a 44-yard bomb to Brandon LaFell on fourth down and the Panthers set up for what was going to be the tying field goal from 31 yards out. It fizzled and generated the Vikings’ mob scene a few moments later.
Afterward, Frazier congratulated his team for holding together after all of the misery of the season. They were now 2 and 6 for the season, but today they can act like a new football team with a young quarterback who’d acquired their trust as a legitimate leader, and with enough quality players to build some realistic hope for the rest of the season.
Here was a Percy Harvin, running full bore with his banged-up ribs. You could hear players on the sidelines, the coach said, marveling at his guts and his commitment. “He is an example for everybody else,” Frazier said. “This was a great win for our team.”
Something to build on. For the coach, it must have seemed a deliverance. The mood and scenery of his postgame dirges had changed. The team felt together again.
So never mind the schedule. After the upcoming bye, they hit the road again … against Green Bay … at Lambeau … 7 and 0 … against Aaron Rodgers … under the lights on Monday night Nov. 14.
You’ll remember that the Packer pass defense can be wobbly. On the other hand, that doesn’t usually bother them. So, remember Percy’s ribs and be brave.