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Christian Ponder is trying hard, but can Leslie Frazier keep the faith?

Meanwhile, the Vikings’ restless fans seem divided over who should be evicted first: the quarterback or the coach.

Leslie Frazier
REUTERS/Robert SorboLeslie Frazier

Call it an act of pure humanitarianism, the National Football League’s directive to the Minnesota Vikings to leave town this week.

The NFL annually schedules league games in London as a possible expansion site. They couldn’t have foreseen the dismal saga of the favored-Vikings’ 31-27 loss at the Metrodome Sunday to the Cleveland Browns, a team so glum about its future in the 2013 season that it began the week by trading its best running back.       

Sunday’s defeat, the Vikings’ third straight to open the season, plunged the team’s jeering ticket buyers and restless army of bloggers into the deepest rungs of fury and futility. There seemed a rough division over who should be evicted first, quarterback Christian Ponder or Leslie Frazier, the coach, who left the game as dumbfounded as the crowd.

The Vikings gave up scores to the Browns on fake field-goal and fake-punt plays straight out of the 1920s. Their offensive line, a key to Adrian Peterson’s record season of a year ago, virtually caved.

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It was in fact the unkindest cut, a humiliation in view of their home-field advantage. Add to that all of their incentives, and the semi-comedy of the Browns’ revolving door of quarterbacks. The Vikings’ winless beginning means  that as they head today for next Sunday”s game in London against the Pittsburgh  Steelers, they find themselves  all but mathematically removed from the post-season playoffs. Theoretically they can still get there. It’s been done.

The chances that it can happen for the Vikings?

Call them a little worse. With each defeat and the realization that he’s on trial with the crowds and critics, if not the coach, Ponder has played himself into a bleak discomfort  zone. He is clearly conscious of interceptions, poised to run if necessary on each drop back, aware of his unpopularity with the home crowds and the growing disdain of the critics. On Sunday he scored two touchdowns himself, running. But it’s not what he’s paid to do.

It’s a hard gig to deal with. This is a bright, tough and in some ways gifted young football player, popular with his teammates, one who served with enough efficiency to support Peterson’s heroics in the Vikings’ four-game sweep in last December’s closing weeks to lift the team into the playoffs.

Is Frazier growing weary?

Right now the question is this: Is Frazier growing weary of it, increasingly, with his own job at stake? He insisted after Sunday’s loss that Ponder is still his starting quarterback. Frazier has a kind of disposition that would make him less than terrified by threat of losing his job. But the more pertinent question for the coach: Should  he, about now, be losing his confidence in Ponder as a quarterback adequate to bring the Vikings back into the hunt?

It’s a legitimate question. It was more than that Sunday when thousands in the crowd began chanting “Cassel, Cassel. ” It was  a rowdy reminder and taunt to Frasier that the  Vikings’ No. 2 quarterback, Matt Cassel, played well and effectively for New England for the bulk of the season several years ago in relief of  the injured Tom Brady. But the Patriots were a playoff team, in their prime. Except for one season, Cassel has basically played a replacement role since leaving the Patriots.

So it will be the Vikings and Ponder against Pittsburgh and Ben Roethlisberger  Sunday at high noon (Minnesota time). You want some consolation? Pittsburgh’s in no better shape than the Vikings. The Steelers lost Sunday night to the  Chicago Bears and Minnesota’s own Marc Trestman, the Chicago coach, making next Sunday’s classic in London a battle of the winless.

Despite their floundering, the Vikings  do have strengths, chiefly Peterson as the best running back of the era, a  threat any quarterback would pray for. Their receiving corps is stronger. The defense, especially pass defense, so-so. On Sunday Peterson ran with his usual intensity, carried 25 times but gained only 88 yards, grinding, grinding and grinding, primarily because the Browns weren’t especially terrified by Ponder. That and the increasing confidence with which the Browns attacked a Vikings secondary weakened by the loss during the game of  Chris Cook, Jamarca Sanford and A.J. Jefferson. In the NFL, the team with the superior passing game usually wins. The Browns gained 409 yards that way, the Vikings 329. It showed in the final result.   

Eager to run

The irony was that the Vikings presented a Ponder not only willing but eager to run in the face of pressure, and sometimes doing it effectively. Peterson  scored early from two yards out. Bryon Hoyer — a young stopgap quarterback,  somehow ignored in the pre-game masterminding — tied the score on a  47-yard pass to Josh Gordon and then gave Cleveland the lead with another touchdown strike of 19 yards to Jordan Cameron. Ponder  matched that on one of his scrambles from six yards out to tie score at 14-14.

Hoyer didn’t seem all that awed by the Viking pass rush, which is not as strong this year with Jared Allen so far unable to establish the same terrifying presence has he has for so many years. Billy Cundiff pulled Cleveland back into the lead  17-14 with a 38-yard field goal. Then Cleveland got tricky. The Browns lined up for a field goal but the holder, Spencer Lanning, turned up with the ball and threw an 11-yard touchdown pass to Cameron for a 24-14 second-quarter lead that the Vikings’ Blair Walsh cut to  24-17 at  halftime. Ponder, running sometimes with  a swashbuckling verve and other times in desperation, tied it at 24-24 in the third quarter with an eight-yard touchdown run, and Walsh gave the Vikings a 27-24 lead with 10 minutes remaining.

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And here down the stretch in the final minutes were the much-reviled Cleveland Browns, whose ownership a few days ago traded the prime choice of the NFL draft a year ago, running back Trent Richardson, to the Indianapolis Colts. This is the same Richardson who, scorned by his critics, scored the first touchdown Sunday night in the shocking 27-7 victory by the Colts and quarterback Andrew Luck over the San Francisco 49ers and their QB, Colin Kaepernick, in San Francisco.     

But in Minneapolis Sunday, the Browns weren’t missing Richardson very much and vectored in on the Vikings’ end in zone, trailing 27-24. The Cleveland team is no patsy despite the loss of that expensive running back and a playing with a virtually unknown quarterback, Hoyer. So in the final minute the stopgap quarterback threw his third touchdown pass of the game. It went to Cameron, who had slipped behind the Vikings’ defensive-back ace, Harrison Smith, with 51 seconds left.

The Vikings fought the clock in the final seconds trying for a miracle finish. But miracles are in short supply in the National Football League. Dependable quarterbacks rank higher. Young Ponder is trying hard. His coach is trying hard to  support hm.

The accounting might  come soon, in London of all places, where Vikings meet a Pittsburgh team that hasn’t won a game itself. It does have a quarterback, name of Ben Roethlisberger.

We’ll see how long Leslie Frazier can keep the faith.