The Vikings' chances of making the playoffs rest squarely on the shoulders of quarterback Christian Ponder.
In the 2011 draft, the Minnesota Vikings found themselves in a difficult situation. They desperately needed a quarterback following a 6-10 season and a last-place finish to the 2010 season. The Vikings had the 12th pick in the draft, but by that time, the top three quarterbacks were off the board.
The dilemma: reach a bit with the selection of Christian Ponder, projected as late first-round or early second-round pick, or wait until the second round to select a quarterback.
The Vikings took the only course of action they reasonably could without causing a riotous outrage from their fanbase, and now they find themselves in a position to contend for a playoff spot. In order for that to happen, they will need to see some improvements from their second-year quarterback, especially in the interception department.
Ponder's numbers after 10 games are not that different from those of Donovan McNabb, who he replaced after six games last season.
The Vikings are currently only a game back of the Packers and Bears in the NFC North with a 6-4 record. With four of their final six games against division rivals, the Vikings' playoff fate is squarely under their control.
Before we get too carried away, the Vikings could quite possibly be underdogs in each of their remaining games, with road games at St. Louis and Houston along with the home-and-away series with the Bears and Packers.
In order for the Vikings to take the next step, they will need Ponder to make some strides and lead them through the toughest portion of their schedule.
Ponder started the season well. In the first four games, he led the Vikings to a 3-1 record, throwing four touchdowns without an interception. His passer rating in those games was 97.7. His best all-around game came against the 49ers when he led the Vikings to a 24-13 victory, throwing two touchdowns and running for a third.
Everything looked good in that game.
Ponder does a great job of setting his feet and making the downfield throw, stepping through the ball.
He hits his favorite target, Percy Harvin, in stride, putting the ball where only Harvin can catch it.
The result is 24-yard gain. In this game, Ponder led the Vikings on three touchdown-scoring drives of 80 yards or greater.
After this victory, plenty of people were jumping onto the Vikings bandwagon. B/R's Lead NFL Writer, Matt Miller, even had the Vikings ranked ninth in the NFL following their Week 5 win over the Titans.
Then, the Vikings lost three of the next five games. All eight of Ponder's interceptions came in those games, while throwing only six touchdowns. His passer rating in those games was only 69.9.
Things seemed to fall apart around Ponder as his confidence seemed to falter. His decision making once flushed from the pocket seems to be his weakness, especially when rolling to his left.
One play from the blowout loss to the Buccaneers highlights some of problems Ponder was having.
On this play, Ponder rolls out of the pocket. He's in the open field with no pressure on him. Harvin is wide-open at the 29-yard line.
For some reason, instead of taking the time to set his feet and step into his throw, he jumps in the air, throwing the ball off his back foot.
Not only is his form bad, but so is his decision making.
Instead of hitting a wide-open Harvin, he attempts to get the ball to Jerome Simpson, forcing the ball into double coverage and almost throwing another interception.
The Vikings were blown out at home by Tampa Bay 36-17—a game they were favored to win by a touchdown.
This problem was evident in his first interception of the season against the Titans in the Vikings' 30-7 win. Again, it illustrates Ponder's problem when flushed out of the pocket.
Under pressure, Ponder is flushed out of the pocket, rolling to his left.
Again looking downfield, he is unable to get his feet under him when he attempts to make the throw downfield. Deep in Tennessee territory, with an open Toby Gerhart in front of him, Ponder decides to force the ball downfield.
Surrounded by four defenders, Ponder throws the ball behind tight end Kyle Rudolph, resulting in his first interception at the 2-yard line. It was the first interception in 145 pass attempts for Ponder.
Fortunately, in this game, the Vikings didn't need the points to hold off the Titans.
Against the Cardinals in Week 7, Ponder had yet another interception when flushed from the pocket.
Again, the play starts with the Vikings in the shotgun.
In this instance, Ponder holds onto to the ball too long, almost four seconds, and the pressure eventually forces him from the pocket—again to his left.
Trying to make something out of a broken play, Ponder attempts to hit Adrian Peterson. He is hit as he releases the ball, floating a pass that is intercepted by Sam Acho of the Cardinals.
Again, fortunately for the Vikings, this did not cost them the game.
Looking ahead to the Vikings' final six games, Ponder must make better decisions in these situations in order for the Vikings to have any chance of making the playoffs.
Instead of forcing the pass, he would better serve his team by throwing the ball away and either giving Blair Walsh a chance to kick a field goal or allowing Chris Kluwe to punt the ball deep into the opposition's territory, allowing the defense to play on a longer field.
The Vikings will need every point they can get in order to keep pace with the high-powered Green Bay offense or the tough Chicago defense.