Ponder thrives for Vikings in 36-14 win over Bills
MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Christian Ponder isn't a rookie anymore. In his second preseason with Minnesota, he looks a lot more polished than that.
Ponder threw a first-quarter touchdown pass in a sharp three-possession appearance and the Vikings breezed to a 36-14 victory Friday night over the Buffalo Bills, who saw a decent performance from backup quarterback candidate Vince Young but not much else.
“Guys are getting open and making my job easy,” said Ponder, who connected with eight receivers and went 10 for 13 for 136 yards and no turnovers.
Rookie Blair Walsh made five of his six field goal attempts for the Vikings (No. 29 in the AP Pro32 rankings), who got 64 yards rushing on two scrambles by backup quarterback Joe Webb.
Young's competitor for the No. 2 spot behind Ryan Fitzpatrick is former Vikings draft pick Tyler Thigpen, who threw an interception late in the fourth quarter that was returned 20 yards for a touchdown by rookie linebacker Audie Cole.
On the next play from scrimmage, Cole picked off Brad Smith's pass and ran that one 30 yards for a score. Seemingly the whole defense surrounded Cole in the end zone in celebration.
“I don't touch the ball usually, so I just tried to make some moves out there,” Cole said.
The 29-year-old Young, drafted third overall by Tennessee in 2006, is trying to revive his career again after a number of problems on and off the field.
Though the Bills have committed financially to Fitzpatrick, giving him a $59 million contract extension last season, he's had a sporadic career. So the backup job is important. Young went 8 for 14 for 123 yards and no turnovers for the Bills (No. 19 in the AP Pro32), including a 64-yard strike to T.J. Graham to open the second half. That set up a short touchdown run by Tashard Choice, who left the game with an unspecified injury.
“Vince came out a little bit ahead tonight,” Bills coach Chan Gailey said.
Young wasn't so sure.
“I still don't feel comfortable and where I want to be at,” he said. “You never know what's going to happen.”
Owning the NFL's longest active streak of 12 straight seasons missing the playoffs, the Bills have a promising offense, perhaps poised to end that skid. Their performance last week against Washington was weak, so this was a little better. Fitzpatrick finished 8 for 11 for 58 yards and no turnovers over four possessions.
The game could not have gone better for Minnesota's first-team offense, which is eagerly waiting the return of running back Adrian Peterson from reconstructive surgery on his left knee.
“Christian did an awesome job in there. He was so poised, and I'm so proud of him. He just took leaps and bounds this game,” newcomer Jerome Simpson said.
Simpson did that, too. Literally.
Ponder was sacked by Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams on the opening drive, but he was 3 for 3 for 56 yards, including a 33-yard completion to Simpson, who hurdled over Bills free safety Jairus Byrd like he was on the Olympic track team.
“It's something I really can't even explain. It just comes natural to me. When it's time for me to juke, that's when I juke. And when it's time for me to jump, that's when I jump,” Simpson said.
Ponder hit fullback Jerome Felton from 1 yard out for the score and guided the Vikings to the 4 on the following possession. Ponder's last series ended at the Buffalo 31, where Walsh missed his only kick, wide right. In five series over two preseason games, the first team offense hasn't punted yet. Ponder is 14 for 22 for 216 yards and no turnovers.
Williams, a Pro Bowl pick in 2010, is coming off surgery on his left foot. The pass rush he applied was one of the few positive signs for Buffalo's starting defense, which gave up a franchise-worst 5,938 yards last year as a 5-2 record in October became 6-10 by the end. Williams and his unrelated namesake two spots down the defensive line, free agent prize Mario Williams, are being counted on to help bring this group back to life.
The Vikings didn't punt until the third quarter when the lineup was all backups, and they gained 261 yards by halftime.
After giving up 260 yards rushing in San Francisco last week, the Vikings were better on defense, too. Mistral Raymond, fighting for the starting free safety spot, made consecutive tackles of Fred Jackson — the first one went for a 2-yard loss — to force a punt by the Bills on their first possession.
With roughly half starters and half backups in for the Vikings midway through the second quarter, Fitzpatrick and the Bills’ first team got on the board with a five-play drive capped by a 31-yard touchdown reception by Donald Jones.
Young's pass was the highlight of a drab third quarter, when the crowd became bored enough it conducted an extended, extreme version of the wave as fans began tossing their programs in the air when their turn came to rise. By the end, the pages were ripped into confetti-like pieces. Finally, a warning about thrown objects was issued over the loudspeakers in the fourth quarter.