Though it's yet to translate into sustained success, there's energized the Carolina Panthers. The Minnesota Vikings are counting on Christian Ponder to provide a similar kind of spark, and the early returns suggest that could be a possibility.
Ponder will make his second career NFL start when the young quarterback leads the struggling Vikings into Bank of America Stadium for Sunday's clash with a Panthers team in search of its first-ever winning streak of the Newton era.
With the Vikings losing five of their first six contests of this season and having continued problems moving the football through the air, head coach Leslie Frazier made the decision to bench declining veteran Donovan McNabb in favor of Ponder, the team's first-round selection in this past April's draft, prior to last Sunday's matchup against defending Super Bowl champion Green Bay at the Metrodome.
The end result may have been the same, with the Vikings dealt a 33-27 defeat to the still-unbeaten Packers, but Ponder did show promise in his starting debut. The 23-year-old connected with wide receiver Michael Jenkins for a 72-yard gain on his first pass of the afternoon and helped Minnesota compile a season-best 435 total yards.
Ponder finished the game with 219 passing yards and two touchdowns, though he was intercepted twice and completed just 13-of-32 attempts.
"He played with a lot of heart," said Jenkins. "He made plays with his arm and his feet. He kept drives alive and he played great for his first start."
Newton has played great virtually every time out during his dazzling 2011 campaign, with the Rookie of the Year candidate one of only four quarterbacks to average over 300 passing yards this season and having a hand in 15 (8 passing, 7 rushing) of the Panthers' 18 touchdowns on the year.
In spite of Newton's immediate success, the rebuilding Panthers also entered last week's slate having dropped five of their first six outings. However, the team was able to put a three-game skid to an end with this past Sunday's 33-20 triumph over visiting Washington, with its charismatic young field general leading the way by accounting for 315 total yards (256 passing, 59 rushing) and a pair of touchdowns.
The win helped take the sting out of several near misses for Carolina, as all but one of its five defeats have come by seven points or less.
"We've been so close and these wins are hard to come by, so when you get one and actually get over the hump and get things done, it feels great," noted Panthers linebacker James Anderson.
The mood in the Minnesota locker room has been less harmonious, with the latest loss capping off a troubling weekend for the organization. One day prior to the Vikings' clash with the Packers, cornerback Chris Cook was arrested and jailed on suspicion of felony domestic assault, and the team announced on Tuesday the second-year defender would be suspended indefinitely without pay while it further investigates the incident.
The Vikings made more headlines on Tuesday with their decision to release underachieving wide receiver Bernard Berrian, who drew his share of controversy as well for engaging in a well-publicized Twitter spat with a Minnesota state representative and disabled Iraq war veteran a few weeks back.
The Vikings have a 5-4 edge all-time on Carolina and had won two straight in the series prior to a 26-7 loss in Charlotte during the 2009 season. Minnesota was also defeated in its only other visit to Bank of America Stadium, a 38-13 ousting by the Panthers in 2005, but did top Carolina at the Metrodome in both 2006 (16-13 in overtime) and 2008 (20-10).
Minnesota's Leslie Frazier and Carolina's Ron Rivera have never faced one another, or their counterpart's respective team, in a head-coaching capacity, but the first-year sideline bosses do have an extensive shared history. The two were teammates in Chicago from 1984-85 and each members of the Bears' famed "46" defense in 1985 that led that team to a victory in Super Bowl XX. Frazier and Rivera also served as assistants on Andy Reid's staff in Philadelphia from 1999-2002, with the former then the Eagles' defensive backs coach and the latter in charge of the linebackers.
WHEN THE VIKINGS HAVE THE BALL
The insertion of Ponder (318 passing yards, 2 TD, 2 INT) at the controls of the offense also provided a boost to Vikings star running back Adrian Peterson (712 rushing yards, 8 TD, 11 receptions), as the NFL's current leading rusher ripped off a season-best 175 yards and a touchdown on 24 carries against Green Bay with the Packers forced to respect the rookie quarterback's arm. Minnesota piled up 218 yards in all on the ground last week in one of its most balanced showings of the year and enters Sunday's tilt third in the league in rushing yards (153.0 ypg). Ponder also seemed to develop a rapport with Jenkins (27 receptions, 3 TD), with the ex-Falcons wideout posting the first 100-yard effort of his eight-career with last week's three-catch, 111-yard outburst, while tight end Visanthe Shiancoe (20 receptions, 2 TD) was heavily involved in the game plan as well by making a team-best four receptions for 45 yards on eight targets. The Vikings weren't able to get elusive wide receiver Percy Harvin (27 receptions) untracked in the Week 7 loss, however, and the versatile third-year pro continues to have his snaps limited by a nagging rib injury. Peterson may come into this week's game a bit hobbled as well, having missed some practice time with a sore ankle.
Assuming Peterson is at close to full strength, the four-time All-Pro will be a most difficult task for a Carolina defense that's been quite submissive against the run. The Panthers rank 29th overall in that category (133.4 ypg) and surrendered 175 rushing yards to the Redskins a week ago, and no team in the NFL has given up more runs of 20 yards or more (10) or touchdowns on the ground (9) than Carolina. Strongside starter James Anderson (59 tackles, 1 sack) and middle man Dan Connor (42 tackles) combined for 22 tackles last Sunday and are the new headliners of a depleted linebacker corps that lost stalwarts Jon Beason and Thomas Davis to season-ending injuries earlier in the year, while ends Charles Johnson (22 tackles, 6 sacks) and Greg Hardy (26 tackles, 3 sacks) lead a pass rush that was able to sack Washington's John Beck three times in Week 7. The Panthers have also had their issues in coverage, with opposing signal-callers having averaged a healthy 8.3 yards per pass (30th overall) on a secondary that's also come up with just four interceptions in seven games.
WHEN THE PANTHERS HAVE THE BALL
Rivera and offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski haven't brought along Newton (2103 passing yards, 8 TD, 9 INT), and the rookie has responded with more than a few outstanding performances during his brief time as a pro. The reigning Heisman Trophy recipient notched three 300-yard passing games in his initial four starts as the catalyst of a greatly-improved Carolina attack that's compiled the fifth-most total yards (416.6 ypg) in the league, and Newton's ability to evade pressure and scramble out of the pocket has made him doubly dangerous to defend. The rookie sensation will once again be looking in the direction of big-play receiver Steve Smith (39 receptions, 818 yards, 3 TD), who's averaging a terrific 21 yards per catch on the year and torched a good Washington defense for 143 yards on seven grabs last week, with veterans Greg Olsen (26 receptions, 3 TD) and Jeremy Shockey (22 receptions) also quality targets in Chudzinski's two-tight system. The Panthers field a formidable rushing tandem as well in the backfield duo of DeAngelo Williams (337 rushing yards, 1 TD, 8 receptions) and Jonathan Stewart (278 rushing yards, 2 TD, 21 receptions), with the two averaging nearly five yards per carry between them.
The Vikings could be in some trouble when it comes to slowing down Newton and Carolina's potent passing attack, as the secondary will be without its most talented cornerback in Cook (20 tackles, 4 PD) and possibly its most experienced one as well, with 13-year vet Antoine Winfield (35 tackles, 1 INT) still dealing with a strained neck that's kept him out of the last three games. He's questionable to play on Sunday, but starting strong safety Jamarca Sanford (27 tackles, 2 INT, 4 PD) looks to be on track to return from a concussion that sidelined him last week. Either way, Minnesota will be relying heavily on getting consistent pressure from its excellent combo of ends Jared Allen (29 tackles, 1 INT) and Brian Robison (17 tackles, 4.5 sacks) in an attempt to force Newton into some hurried mistakes. Allen has been the league's most dominant edge rusher in the early going, with the energetic lineman having totaled an astounding 11 1/2 sacks through the first seven weeks and amassing at least one in a club-record nine straight games dating back to last season. Despite his accomplishments, Minnesota still has permitted the fourth-most passing yards in the NFL (274.9 ypg) thus far. The run defense, anchored by Pro Bowl tackle Kevin Williams (7 tackles) and outside linebacker Chad Greenway (52 tackles) has been generally stout, having held opponents to just 87.9 rushing yards per game (4th overall).
KEYS TO THE GAME
In essence, this contest will come down to which of these hot-shot rookie quarterbacks outplays the other and keeps his mistakes to a minimum. For all the great things Newton has done this year, he's been susceptible to turnovers at times, and it's no coincidence that Carolina's two wins have come in games in which he didn't throw an interception. While Ponder's first start was indeed encouraging, the new Minnesota field general will still need to complete better than 41 percent of his passes and cut down on his picks for his team to come out on top.
Peterson. The Vikings will want to ride their bell-cow running back as much as possible on Sunday, and they'll do just that if Carolina's normally-porous run defense can't prove capable of keeping Peterson in check. If Minnesota can put up at least 150 rushing yards and control time of possession, it stands a very reasonable chance of giving Ponder his first career victory.
Minnesota's pass rush. The Vikings are tied for the NFL lead with 21 sacks and clearly have the ability to pressure the sometimes-careless Newton into a pivotal error or two. The matchup between Allen and Carolina's Jordan Gross, one of the game's premier left tackles, will be one to watch. Gross has only allowed one sack this season, but no one's been able to shut down the relentless Allen for quite some time.
There are two variables that seem to work in Carolina's favor in this matchup. First, the Vikings have been a poor road team for quite some time, coming into the game having lost in 12 of their last 14 visits to enemy venues and sporting an 0-3 mark as the guest this season. The second factor is Newton, who'll actually be the veteran of these two quarterbacks for the first time in his very promising career. He's also the better one, and shouldn't have too much trouble dissecting a Minnesota secondary that's been weakened by injuries and off-field issues as long as he's careful with the football.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Panthers 30, Vikings 24