GREEN BAY—The Packers had their chances last Sunday to make Christian Ponder's greatest game as a pro not so great. Making those chances count on Saturday night could be the difference between advancing in the playoffs or having their season end.
It was obvious, statistically and otherwise, how much better Ponder played in his second meeting with the Packers this season than in his first.
At Lambeau Field on Dec. 2, Ponder didn't complete a pass in either the second or third quarter. Most critically, he threw two ill-advised red-zone passes that were intercepted by safety Morgan Burnett and Ponder finished with an abysmal 41.9 passer rating.
Last Sunday at the Metrodome was a different story. Ponder was efficient from the get-go, threw three TD passes without a pick and posted a career-best 120.2 rating.
The Packers let him off the hook a few times, however.
Late in the second quarter, while absorbing a crushing hit from a blitzing Burnett, Ponder floated a pass high over the middle into a crowd of people. Green Bay's Casey Hayward and A.J. Hawk had the best shot at it, but they collided in mid-air and the deflection was caught by Minnesota's Jarius Wright for a 17-yard gain into Green Bay territory. Replays showed the ball hit the ground, but the Packers were out of timeouts and couldn't challenge the play, and the Vikings went on to score a touchdown and take a 20-7 lead.
Then on the Vikings' first possession of the third quarter, Ponder tried to hit tight end Kyle Rudolph on third-and-four, and Hayward jumped the short route. With only one hand on the ball, however, Hayward couldn't haul it in, and another chance for a turnover at midfield was missed.
Finally, safety M.D. Jennings appeared to have a diving interception in his arms in the end zone in the fourth quarter, but the ball slipped through and into Michael Jenkins' hands for a three-yard TD.
"We had some opportunities we let slip by, but he played a great game," said Hayward, who led the Packers in the regular season with six interceptions. "You can't take anything away from him."
Had the Packers been able to get just one of those turnovers, there's no telling how the rest of the game might have unfolded. Ironically, after the second missed opportunity, the Packers proceeded to commit the only turnover of the game on an Aaron Rodgers fumble, setting up a TD for Minnesota.
The other lament in the second meeting with Ponder was the defense on third down, particularly third-and-longs. In the first quarter alone, Ponder converted third downs of seven, 11 and seven yards with pass completions, and a nine-yard scramble on third-and-10 set up a fourth-down conversion by Adrian Peterson.
Those all contributed to Minnesota's early 13-0 lead, yet, the Packers had prime opportunities to short-circuit any one of those first three drives.
"If you don't get off the field on third down, it's hard to win, even with your offense putting up points like we did," Hayward said. "When it's third-and-long, we definitely have to do a better job in the back end."
Ponder didn't face much pressure on some of those third downs, which helped his cause. The Packers may have been reluctant to blitz too much because the previous week against Houston, Ponder repeatedly used his scrambling to move the chains.
He didn't hurt the Packers much with his feet last week, rushing for only 16 yards. He had an eight-yard scramble on the opening drive to get the Vikings into position for a 54-yard field goal, and he had another eight-yard scramble later in the first quarter on first down.
He never took off running again the rest of the game. That fine line between bringing pressure and being wary of Ponder's legs could be another element that tips the scales on Saturday night, especially on third downs.
"Obviously, it's the position we want to be in, we just have to find a way to get off the field," cornerback Tramon Williams said.
"They made a few tweaks, adjustments to their offense the second time around, and caught us by surprise. They did a better job of game planning and executing, but now we feel we've seen everything and we feel we should execute also." Additional coverage - Jan. 3