MINNEAPOLIS — Christian Ponder was precocious in the first half, persecuted for much of the second. Aaron Rogers was nearly perfect from start to finish.
And that’s the difference between a team that is struggling like the 1-6 Vikings and the Green Bay Packers, who head into a bye week at 7-0, the only undefeated team in the NFL.
The final: A 33-27 Packers victory at Mall of America Field, one in which the Packers trailed by seven points late in the first half before rattling off 23 unanswered points over the next quarter-plus to take control of the game. It was a game that cemented the Packers as the NFC team to beat while entrenching the rookie Ponder as the QB of the Vikings’ future.
For the Packers, though, it’s all about the present tense.
“We’re 7-0, we just completed the second quarter of our season,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. “We’re not going to swing from a rope around here as far as extremes one way or another. To a man, we know we can play better. And that’s what’s exciting.”
The numbers: Ponder, making his first NFL start in place of Donovan McNabb, had an up-and-down, rags or riches performance. His first pass went for 73 yards and his third went for his first NFL TD. He was hot early, slumped with two third-quarter interceptions, bounced back to lead the game’s final two scoring drives. Ponder had 126 passing yards and a passer rating of 111.0 as the Vikings took a 17-13 halftime lead. He finished 13-for-32 for 219 yards, two TDs and two picks, both of which resulted in Packers scores.
But in the end, despite 175 rushing yards from Vikings running back Adrian Peterson, it was Rogers consistently spectacular play that was the difference in the game.
Rogers completed his first 13 pass attempts en route to a 24-for-30 performance for 335 yards, three TDs, no interceptions and a 146.5 passer rating. He hit 10 receivers in the game, three different ones with TD passes.
“I think I was pretty efficient,” Rogers said.
Talk about a role model for Ponder. Of course it helped that Rogers was facing a Vikings secondary depleted by injuries and incidents. Safety Jamarca Sanford and corner Antoine Winfield were out with injury, corner Chris Cookwas out after being arrested early Saturday morning.
Rogers got it going right away, after Ponder had led the game’s first scoring drive, by hitting six receivers in a TD drive that tied the game 7-7.
Then, after the Packers fell behind by seven late in the first half, Rogers calmly stayed the course. He drove the Packers for a field goal as the first half expired. It was just the beginning of a Packers scoring streak. To start the second half, taking advantage of a breakdown in Vikings coverage, Rogers hit receiver Greg Jennings for a 79-yard score on the second play from scrimmage to give Green Bay the lead for good. A 32-yard punt return by Randall Cobb set up another Packers score, giving Green Bay a 27-17 lead.
For the Vikings in general, and for Ponder in particular, it was pretty much what you’d expect from a rookie. The Vikings’ next two possessions ended with Charles Woodson stepping in front of Ponder passes for interceptions. Ponder was 0-for-5 with two interceptions in the third quarter.
“He never got down on himself,” Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said of Ponder. “He showed a lot of poise and composure that you need to play with against a very good defense. He made a lot of plays, which really gives you some hope for the future.”
Abusing the overmatched Minnesota secondary, Rogers hit multiple targets and the Packers moved the ball consistently. Eight plays after Woodson’s interception, Mason Crosby’s field goal made it 30-17 with 3-plus minutes left in the third quarter. Moments later, after Woodson’s second pick, Crosby hit a career-high 58-yarder to make it 33-17 as the third quarter ended. The Packers had scored 23 unanswered points in less than 16 minutes.
“I thought we might throw the ball a little bit more, actually, with Cook and Winfield out,” Rogers said. “But the way the game was flowing in the first half, with us not getting a lot of possessions, kind of hindered us from having a ton of passing attempts. But I think we were pretty efficient throwing it.”
Still, Ponder, the rookie from Florida State, gave Vikings fans at least a little hope for the future. On the first offensive play of the game, from the Vikings’ 27, Ponder play-faked, then rolled left before launching a bomb receiver Michael Jenkins caught at the 25 and advanced to the one. Two plays later, Ponder’s 2-yard pass to Shiancoe gave the Vikings a short-lived 7-0 lead.
“He went about his business,” Packers linebacker Clay Matthews said of Ponder. “I thought he showed some poise out there for a guy who was getting his first start against a very good team. He held it together.”
So Ponder has a future. But the Packers have a pretty rosy present.
“I’ve never been 7-0, so I guess you would have to say this is by far the best team I have been on,” Woodson said.
Game notes: Vikings cornerback Asher Allen started for Chris Cook, who was in jail following his arrest on a charge of domestic abuse early Saturday morning. Cook had been starting for Antoine Winfield, who missed the game with a neck injury. Tyrell Johnson made his first start of the season at safety for Sanford. … Vikings wide receiver Bernard Berrian was deactivated for the second time in three games, with Michael Jenkins starting. Vikings defensive end Jared Allen set a team record with a sack in his ninth straight game.