What a difference a week can make.
Seven days after laying an egg out in San Francisco, the Minnesota Vikings looked exceptional in all phases while whipping the Buffalo Bills 36-14 at Mall of America Field on Friday night in Minneapolis.
The big news all week out of Vikings camp was the return of Adrian Peterson, and while he didn't play Friday night, he was all smiles on the sidelines as he watched his teammates put on a show on both sides of the ball.
Quarterback Christian Ponder looked smooth and polished in his quarter of play, leading Minnesota down the field in all three of the drives he was on the field.
The Vikings broke open a close game in the fourth quarter and might have found a new star in the process as rookie linebacker Audie Cole intercepted two passes and took them both back for touchdowns leading the purple to a three touchdown victory.
Here are ten things we learned from Friday night's game.
The Vikings can talk about getting better through the draft and getting better on defense and adding depth at crucial positions all they want. The truth of the matter is that the short term future of this football team rides more on the shoulders of Christian Ponder than anyone else.
The second-year quarterback had an up and down rookie season, but showed enough potential in his good moments to have the team and its fans excited about year two. Ponder had a full offseason with OTAs and mini-camps under his belt and the coaches have raved about his improvement.
Friday night, Ponder proved to everyone that he has taken huge steps forward as we inch towards the beginning of his second season. Ponder completed 10 of 13 passes for 136 yards and a touchdown and looked poised and confident in the process.
He clearly is up for the leadership role put on any starting quarterback in the NFL and his self confidence was evident as he was making strong throws in the window of opportunity given him by his blockers. Ponder's best throw of the night was a 35 yard completion to Michael Jenkins down the sidelines. It was a back shoulder throw that Ponder delivered perfectly, putting it in a spot where only the taller Jenkins could make a play on it.
It was just the second preseason game of the season, but Vikings fans can be thrilled that their starting quarterback looks to have taken huge steps forward from his rookie season.
Eyebrows were raised when the Vikings selected a kicker in the sixth round of last spring's draft. Now, eyebrows are raised whenever a kicker is drafted, but certainly when a team has a stalwart veteran kicker on its roster.
The Vikings pulled the trigger anyway, taking Blair Walsh out of Georgia on the third day of the draft. They raised even more eyebrows when they released veteran Ryan Longwell soon after.
Two weeks into the preseason and it's pretty safe to say that not a lot of sixth-round picks will have the impact that Walsh will have on the Vikings.
Walsh was sensational Friday night, making five out of six field goals, three of them over 40 yards, and showed off his enormous leg on kickoffs. Walsh missed one field-goal attempt after a poor snap, but bounced back to nail his last four. His kickoffs were either touchbacks or pinned the Bills inside their 20-yard line.
It was actually good to see Walsh miss a field goal in this game, as we got to see how he would react to it. Give him an A+ as he showed no crisis in confidence the rest of the night, drilling his field goals and all of his kickoffs.
The Vikings have taken their share of heat for drafting Toby Gerhart in the second round of the 2010 draft. It seemed like a luxury for a team with so many holes to take a backup for star Adrian Peterson that high in the draft.
Gerhart looked a little overmatched as a rookie, but took huge strides forward last season. With Peterson rehabilitating his injured knee, Gerhart has been the main back for all of the offseason and into the preseason.
He's grown into the part and now has Vikings fans thrilled that he's around to lug the ball while Peterson is out. Like Ponder, Gerhart looks much more confident and is playing in attack mode more than just trying to do his job.
Gerhart had six carries for 30 yards Friday night, highlighted by a 16-yard run deep into Buffalo territory. Toby isn't going to give you the highlight runs that Peterson will, but he's proving to be the perfect complement to Peterson and a guy more than capable of shouldering the load while Peterson is out.
You aren't alone if you watched the Vikings easy win over the Bills Friday night and thought to yourself, "Who is number 41, making all those plays?" Mistral Raymond, part of the much maligned secondary from last season, looked as good as he ever has in purple and took a large step forward in grabbing one of the starting safety spots.
Raymond was a revelation on Friday night, coming up huge in the Bills first series, making three big hits on Fred Jackson to stop the dangerous back from making big plays.
On the first one, Jackson caught a dump off pass from Ryan Fitzpatrick and Raymond took him on one on one and stopped him cold on what could have developed into a huge gain. Raymond then stuffed Jackson on a running play, putting the wood to him behind the line of scrimmage on a play that was shocking to anyone who watched the Vikings secondary flounder all of last season. Raymond was all over Jackson again on a third down pass play, burying him after a gain of just a yard.
Raymond was quick to spots and then did something when he got there, something the Vikings were dying for out of their secondary last year. He looked like a guy who was playing his ass off trying to win a starting spot. Good for him and the position is now his to lose.
Welcome to the big time Audie Cole.
The rookie seventh-round selection out of North Carolina State had a night he'll never forget Friday, intercepting back to back Bills passes and taking them both back for touchdowns. It was the kind of performance that puts a seventh rounder not only on the roster, but in the conversation for considerable playing time.
At 6'4", 240 pounds and long blonde hair, Cole certainly looks the part of an NFL linebacker. He doesn't blow anyone away in shorts and shoulder pads, but he's shown without a doubt in two weeks that he's a playmaker, a guy who just gets better once you start actually keeping score.
After making a big sack in his first NFL game a week ago, Cole took it to another level Friday night, first picking off a Tyler Thigpen pass in the flat and returning it 20 yards for a touchdown. On the Bills very next play from scrimmage, Cole basically showed an instant replay, picking off Brad Smith in the same flat and taking it back 30 yards for another touchdown.
Linebacker is a spot that the Vikings need help at and Cole could certainly be the man they were looking for. The Vikings fan base has been desperate for the team to find some late-round gems in the draft, and in Walsh and Cole, it looks like the Vikings have done exactly that.
The Vikings will be without wide receiver Jerome Simpson for the first three weeks of the regular season, as the free agent signee will have to serve a suspension for a drug arrest.
Simpson showed what kind of sizzle he can bring to the field Friday night against the Bills, catching three balls for 43 yards, including a highlight-reel, 33-yard reception where he hurdled over a would be tackler, reminiscent of his famous flip touchdown from a year ago for the Bengals.
Simpson is the kind of deep-threat, big-play guy the Vikings having been trying to get to complement Percy Harvin in the slot. Simpson is a blazer who can stretch defenses and keep the secondary honest at all times. His hands have been a question mark in the past, but as he gets more reps with the Vikings, he seems to be gaining more and more confidence and it's showing up on the field.
The Vikings will still be looking for someone to step up and make plays in the three weeks Simpson is gone, but they will certainly welcome him back with open arms come week four.
The Vikings and the rest of the NFL watched the New England Patriots utilize two tight ends like it's never been done before with a large dose of envy in 2011. The Vikings went out and paid big money for free-agent tight end John Carlson in the offseason, hoping to match him up with Kyle Rudolph to give the Vikings a two-headed monster that might resemble the dynamic duo in Foxboro.
While Carlson has been injured and Rudolph has played sparingly, the Vikings have flexed some impressive depth at the position with both Allen Reisner and Mickey Shuler showing some skill Friday night.
Add hybrid rookie Rhett Ellison to the mix and Christian Ponder is blessed with plenty of great options to throw to. Rudolph will be the best of the bunch and the one who could become a star, but the Vikings will have no worries when any of those mentioned are on the field.
While there might not be enough spots to go around for all of them to make the team, the Vikings would be hard pressed to let go of any of them. A nice problem to have.
To Harrison Smith, the play was probably no big deal, something he's done dozens of times. To Vikings fans who suffered through the 2011 season, seeing a safety blitz and actually make something happen was a revelation.
The Bills faced 3rd and 15 from their own territory and the Vikings sent their rookie safety on a blitz. Smith closed fast on Fitzpatrick and easily batted down his pass, forcing the Bills to have to punt the ball away.
It was a pretty simple play and the kind of thing Smith did for four years at Notre Dame. But for Vikings fans it was more than that. It was an attack play made by a member of their secondary. That just didn't happen last season.
The Vikings traded up into the first round to get Smith; a heady, skilled safety who can hit and make plays all over the field. He'll be a huge upgrade to anything the Vikings have had on the back line since Darren Sharper.
Jasper Brinkley has been given every opportunity to take the staring middle linebacker job.
It's still his, but it's safe to say the Vikings brass is still looking at resumes. Brinkley is basically entering his second year in the league after missing all of 2011. He's been okay so far, but certainly not spectacular.
Free agent signee Marvin Mitchell is breathing down his neck and it's becoming quite clear the Vikings might need to find a way to get rookie Audie Cole on the field more often than not.
Brinkley seems to be playing on pause, like he's afraid to do anything wrong. Middle linebacker is a tough position to play, but those who've excelled there are the ones who throw caution to the wind and play with abandon. The Vikings might want to tell Brinkley to stop worrying so much about his assignments and lanes and to just make plays.
His job might depend on it.
There he was again Friday night, Vikings backup quarterback Joe Webb bringing the crowd off its feet as he ran wild against the Buffalo Bills second-string defenders.
On 3rd and 8 during his first series in the game, Webb dropped back and then took off on a 41-yard scamper that led to a Vikings field goal. Two series later and Webb took off again, scrambling for 23 yards deep into Bills territory to set up another field goal.
Webb was once again mediocre throwing the ball, making some decent throws along with some poor ones. Webb is a perfect change-of-pace guy that can put defenses on their heels with his running ability, a guy who excels once the pocket breaks down. He can make big plays and add a jolt to the offense.
He needs to continue to work on passing out of the pocket to ever be considered for extended playing time. Until then, he sure is a nice guy to have coming off the bench.