Here was Christian Ponder at the beginning of the week, handed the football one more time by his shaky coaches, perhaps for the last time. That’s how Thursday’s game against Washington was projected at the start. The Vikings’ prospects were so bleak (and so were Ponders’) that they might as well have scheduled the game in a crematorium instead of the Metrodome.
But they played. And Ponder was a genuine hero. At the finish it was 34-27 for the Vikings over Washington last night. But almost nothing about the result and how it came down made much sense.
For the Vikings, injuries had reached the point where the offensive linemen and defensive backfield needed to be formally reintroduced to each other because a half-dozen of the regulars were not healthy enough to play. For Washington, it stood a few yards from the Vikings’ end zone in the closing moments, throwing one incomplete pass after another, unable to use the pass-run versatility of Robert Griffin III because they had exhausted their timeouts.
And remarkably, there stood Vikings Coach Leslie Frazier calling timeouts because, if Washington scored, he wanted his team to get one or two final cracks at a score before the game went into overtime. Plus, he said afterward, his defense was pretty well gassed from the wild tempo of the waning seconds.
The Vikings played well under those tense conditions. The game’s finish was so bizarre there were thousands in the crowd who are still wondering today how Washington could get so close to tying game in the final moments without actually doing it.
And, yes, Ponder ran the Vikings’ offense professionally and well until late in the game. With the Vikings driving for what they hoped would be a clinching touchdown, Ponder tried to run the ball from close to Washington’s end zone but was hit a yard short of the goal line and got up holding his non-throwing left arm.
Matt Cassel replaced him and Adrian Peterson scored on the next play to give the Vikings a 28-27 lead. And here was Washington with its glamorous Griffin running the offense with his mixed passing and running potential. He’d hit touchdown passes to Jordan Reed and Logan Paulsen to build a 24-14 Washington lead that stretched to 27-14 with Kai Forbath’s field goal. But from there it was Ponder to John Carlson from 28 yards out for a touchdown, Peterson scored from close and Blair Walsh hit a couple of field goals. The final Washington rally died when Griffin’s time and luck ran out.
For Ponder, call it a kind of liberation. He had this hour of triumph, coming after the coarse and daily panning he has absorbed for the last two months. It’s come equally from regiments of professional critics and invisible bloggers. Kids in second-year algebra take a swipe at him. He’s heard it every day, after the games, before the games and in the dead of night on his car radio.
Thursday night he delivered his rebuttal. It came with the Vikings facing a critical shortage of manpower, their offensive line put together with hymns and Scotch Tape and and their defensive backs in even worse shape. Frazier’s job tangled by a thread after seven losses in eight games, the last four consecutive.
Touchdown passes to Cordarrelle Patterson in the first half and a critical one to Carlson in the late going of the second half fueled the Vikings’ comeback. Ponder hit 17 completions in 21 attempts before launching himself to edge of the Washington goal line — a play that knocked him out of the game with an apparent dislocation of his left shoulder — and Cassel replaced him for remainder of the game.
Griffin’s frantic drive in the closing seconds produced immediate controversy over decisions from the Vikings’ bench. In the midst of ticking final seconds, the Vikings called two timeouts.
It did look, well, counter-intuitive. Washington had exhausted its timeouts and here was the Vikings’ bench accommodating them. But Washington’s final shots fizzled.
A relieved Frazier explained the strategy after the game: “I thought our defense needed to get it together. It was giving up ground and looked unsettled.”
He certainly was right about that.
There was one more thing to think about, he said. If Washington scored, the Vikings needed time for some last-gasp scoring chance of its own.
Evidently not all of his bench-side players were convinced. For whatever reason, some of his players, both on the field and on the sidelines, seemed startled. The frequently theatric Greg Jennings was seen making an apparent appeal for divine help, evidently so he could understand the strategy.
But in the end, the Vikings held their ground.
The predictable post-game hero of choice for the platoon of ex-jocks of the National Football League television network that aired the game was the soon-to-be immortalized Adrian Peterson, who performed his heroics often enough Thursday to keep the game close. He gained 75 yards to add to all of the astronomical numbers he is piling up in his quest to become the greatest of them all.
So it’s Seattle next, one of the best, and the Vikings are now 2-7. No stadium produces as much noise as they do in Seattle. Be ready.