MINNEAPOLIS -- Midway through the third quarter Sunday, Christian Ponder dropped back to pass. The Minnesota Vikings' quarterback took a few steps to his right and, seeing no open receivers, lobbed the ball out of bounds.
Immediately, a crowd of 61,068 at the Metrodome erupted in one of the loudest Bronx cheers I've ever heard in the usually friendly Midwest. A few minutes later, the crowd let out a pre-snap groan merely because the Vikings shifted into an empty backfield, thus guaranteeing a passing play.
It was that kind of day for Ponder, whose utterly forgettable game included two interceptions and 58 yards on eight completions. But I feel torn on the significance of Ponder's performance after reflecting on the Vikings' 21-14 victory over the Arizona Cardinals.
Has Ponder's three-game slump cast doubt on whether this team can compete for the playoffs? Or have the Vikings established themselves as a team good enough to overcome a slump at the game's most important position? The Vikings, after all, are 2-1 even as Ponder has committed seven turnovers in his past three starts.
Sunday, the Vikings got a touchdown and seven sacks from their defense along with 153 rushing yards from tailback Adrian Peterson. Ponder's outing prevented the Vikings from putting this game away -- he completed only one pass for 5 yards after halftime -- but it didn't scuttle the outcome.
"It's good to be disappointed when you're 5-2," Ponder said during a news conference in which he appeared alternately annoyed by his play and grateful to his teammates. Coach Leslie Frazier, of course, waved away questions about the long-term implications of a passing game that produced 58 yards, saying: "We got stifled in that second half but Christian is going to be fine."
We spent time earlier this season discussing Ponder's efficiency in the modest schemes the Vikings were game-planning for him. Sunday, I think they might have realized the advantage of a limited reliance on the quarterback. While Ponder flailed away, Peterson galloped through the Cardinals' defense that entered the game allowing an average of 3.9 yards per carry and routinely stacked an extra man (or two) at the line of scrimmage.
No matter. Peterson rumbled 27 yards on his third attempt, carrying safety Adrian Wilson and safety James Sanders the final 10 yards. He had six carries of at least eight yards and three of 17 or more yards.
Meanwhile, the Vikings' defense battered Cardinals quarterback John Skelton after safety Harrison Smith returned an interception 31 yards for a touchdown just 57 seconds into the third quarter. Smith staked the Vikings to a 21-7 lead and opened the door for their pass rushers to get after Skelton. Their season-high sack total came without a single blitz in the game, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
Defensive end Brian Robison recorded a career-high three sacks while defensive end Jared Allen added two more. Cornerback Antoine Winfield got credit for a sack by upending Skelton on a failed fourth-down run in the third quarter.
"Obviously," Peterson said, "Christian didn't play as well as he would have liked and as we would have liked today. But you have those games. That's why we are a team. The defense did a great job and we were able to run the clock out. Those things go hand-in-hand. I feel like we'll be OK."
On the other hand, the mistakes Ponder made Sunday came on what should have been simple plays. Flushed from the pocket in the second quarter, he threw high and behind tight end Kyle Rudolph. Ponder said afterward that he should not have thrown across his body but admitted: "As a quarterback, I can make that throw. That's an easy throw to make."
At this level, you want your quarterback to complete a pass to an open receiver who is standing 2 yards past the line of scrimmage, as Rudolph was. And it's also fair to expect him to throw the ball away on the play that led to his second interception just before halftime. Ponder said he was trying to get the ball out of bounds but his arm was hit just before he released the ball. In the end, however, he floated a pass that defensive end Sam Acho corralled to give the Cardinals a field goal opportunity.
The Vikings have asked less of Ponder this season than perhaps any NFL team has of its starting quarterback. Entering Sunday, his average pass was traveling a league-low 5.6 yards past the line of scrimmage. The next-lowest average was the 7.1 yards of Houston's Matt Schaub.
Ponder executed that approach to near-perfection in the Vikings' first four games before stumbling. But if any team is equipped for underwhelming performances from its quarterback, it might be this one. Peterson has at least 79 yards in six of seven games, and the defense has held opponents to fewer than 24 points in all but one game. As Frazier has stated many times, this is a team built to run the ball and play good defense above all else.
"The way we have tried to structure our team and the philosophy lends itself to win games like this," Frazier said. "When you are not completing a lot of balls down the field in a league where so many say that's the way you have to win, to be able to play good defense, to be able to have good special teams. ... For our running back ... to know they are going to be in eight-man fronts, nine-man fronts at times, and be able to rush for 153 yards, that's the formula for success if you're in a tough situation throwing the football."
I can't argue with that. We've now seen the Vikings soundly defeat the Tennessee Titans and hold off the Cardinals during this three-game stretch. They're 5-2 with a quarterback who hasn't always played winning football. They've found other ways to win games, and isn't that kind of the point?