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Vikings QB Ponder has quietly moved past struggles

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Vikings QB Ponder has quietly moved past struggles

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. (AP) The most glaringly bad performance by Christian Ponder in a season marked by costly mistakes and curious decisions had just concluded, and the skepticism about his viability as Minnesota's quarterback was as prevalent as ever.

As for Vikings coach Leslie Frazier, well, his faith in Ponder was never clearer.

After Ponder threw two devastating interceptions in the third quarter at Green Bay that day, one in the end zone with Minnesota leading 14-10 and the other at the Packers 13-yard line with the Vikings trailing 20-14, the playoffs appeared improbable. They were 6-6 and facing a difficult four-game segment at the end of the schedule. Ponder's future as the starter looked tenuous.

So Frazier, anticipating the swirl of speculation and criticism from the analysts and the fans, sought out Ponder in the locker room at Lambeau Field to assure him the team was still behind him. Adrian Peterson gave him a pep talk, too.

``I don't want you to walk in there with any doubt about your future here as our starting quarterback,'' Frazier told Ponder before his postgame news conference. ``Next ballgame, you're going to be our starter.''

The Vikings finished with four straight wins to secure a wild card spot, and though Peterson and the defense had a lot to do with the rally they wouldn't have qualified for the postseason without improvement by Ponder. Yes, the Vikings are Peterson's team, but Ponder is ultimately the one most responsible for their progress.

``Obviously a lot has changed. I think the biggest thing for me was making better decisions,'' Ponder said. ``Obviously I made some bad decisions in that first game. It's something that I knew I had to improve upon. I think each week it's gotten better.''

First, he had to eliminate those turnovers. In victories over Chicago and at St. Louis, Ponder's efficiency improved, and his last interception of the year came Dec. 9 against the Bears. The Vikings were more conservative than usual with the pass, though, asking Ponder to do even less. Safe, short throws were about all he tried. Part of that, of course, was Peterson running wild.

The next week, though, Ponder was a more assertive passer in that 23-6 victory at Houston. The Texans were the only team to contain Peterson since October, limiting him to 86 yards on 25 rushes, so the second-year quarterback had to step up. He threw for a touchdown, finished with 174 yards and went 9 for 13 on third down, moving the chains on six of those completions. Ponder also ran more effectively than he had all season, taking off seven times for 48 yards, twice for first downs.

Then on Sunday, Ponder matched his career high with three touchdown passes, turning in his fifth turnover-free performance of the year and taking only one sack in the most important NFL game he's played in. His 65-yard completion to Jarius Wright that set up one of those scores was his longest of the season.

Without his favorite receiver since Percy Harvin's injury on Nov. 4, Ponder has had a tougher time finding open targets. But his patchwork group, while never being confused with the collection of standouts the Packers have at their disposal, has begun to give him more help. Wright, Michael Jenkins and Jerome Simpson all made tough catches on Sunday against Green Bay.

``I don't think my confidence ever really was shaken or anything. I think it just goes back to obviously understanding what I can and can't do. I can't force things that aren't there,'' Ponder said.

He acknowledged Tuesday how much he appreciated the assurance from Frazier, Peterson and others.

``It was a tough situation and I was very hard on myself, so it was good to hear,'' Ponder said.

The passing game was so weak and the ground game so good that, for a while, Peterson was rushing for more yards than Ponder was accumulating passing. During an eight-game stretch from Oct. 21 to Dec. 16, when the Vikings went 4-4, Peterson averaged 164 yards rushing and Ponder averaged 137 passing. In the other games this season, of which the Vikings won six, Peterson averaged 98 yards and Ponder 230.

``From my perspective as the head coach, you can't be swayed by outside opinions,'' Frazier said. ``You can listen, but you've always got to make sure you're doing the best thing for the team and what gives the team the best chance to win. And for me, that was making sure that Christian knew that he had my unwavering support.''

At some point, the Vikings might face more of a crossroad about whether to stick with Ponder or find a replacement. But with only 26 career starts - Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers, by comparison, has 80 - they have a lot more performance reviews to conduct.

``He's done a fantastic job these past few weeks. I thought this past game was his best,'' center John Sullivan said. ``Obviously he's taking care of the football. He's completing passes, a lot of third-down conversion and some big plays down the field. And that's all we can ask of him. He's doing his job just like everybody else is trying to do.''

Except that he's under the most scrutiny, except maybe for Peterson.

``I think he's done a great job just weathering that and continuing to play ball. It's not always going to be pretty in this league,'' linebacker Chad Greenway said. ``I think he's just going to continue to push and improve, and you can kind of see where the results are now.''

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AP Sports Writer Jon Krawczynski contributed to this report.

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Follow Dave Campbell on Twitter:http://www.twitter.com/DaveCampbellAP

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Vitek Vanecek will play in NHL's round robin, but Capitals' Stanley Cup hopes rest with Braden Holtby

Vitek Vanecek will play in NHL's round robin, but Capitals' Stanley Cup hopes rest with Braden Holtby

Brought up to replace the injured Ilya Samsonov, Vitek Vanecek's first taste of NHL hockey will come inside the bubble in Toronto. Not exactly the best of circumstances. 

But Vanecek plays an important role on a Capitals team with Stanley Cup aspirations. Should Braden Holtby struggle or get hurt during the playoffs, Washington will need its young back-up goalie to keep their team afloat and let his talented skaters take it from there.

That's why NBC Sports Washington analyst Alan May, during an appearance with The Sports Junkies Tuesday, looks forward to seeing Vanecek play a little bit in the round-robin portion of the NHL restart. Ideally, though, it stops there.

"[Vanecek] probably will get one of these games, [the Capitals] said that from the start," May said. "But I hope he doesn't play once they get to the playoff rounds. I think it would be wise to play him in [round robin] games, it's not the end of the world what the seeding is in this. He's a good size goaltender, I think he's about 6'2, and with the training that he's had, he's worked on the fundamentals of his game, he's gotten his conditioning up. He looks very similar to Holtby in net, He's gotten a lot of good reps in American Hockey [League] just like Holtby did around the same age."

And what's the reason why no Caps fan should want to see Vanecek in the postseason? It's simple really. Because this team's best chance at another title revolves around Holtby being a steady and stifling presence between the pipes throughout the playoffs. 

RELATED: PHYSICALITY THE KEY FOR CAPITALS IN PLAYOFFS

"I think the big thing with this is you really don't want to see [Vanecek] in the net after the round robin," he said. "If they're going to win this thing, it's gonna have to be Braden Holtby getting 16 wins. To me, the most important thing is that Holtby plays in the playoffs, the guy's dynamite, no leaky goals out of him."

This could be Holtby's last playoff run with the Capitals as he enters a contract year. The Caps already committed long term money to Nicklas Backstrom this season, they have an Alex Ovechkin extension to worry about and the flat salary cap certainly won't do them any favors either. Not to mention the presence of Samsonov after a stellar rookie season. 

So if this is it, if this is Holtby's last dance in Washington, he at least looks ready to play his best hockey when it matters most.  

"He looks focused and dialed in, and he wants to make sure if he's going out and won't be a Capital anymore he wants to go home with a victory in his last game."

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With the way Alex Smith has looked so far, Ron Rivera 'can envision' him being in the quarterback mix

With the way Alex Smith has looked so far, Ron Rivera 'can envision' him being in the quarterback mix

Positive reports about Alex Smith's early training camp performance came out over the weekend, and on a Tuesday morning Zoom call with the media, Ron Rivera echoed those reviews.

"He's looked good, he really has," the head coach said. "I'll be honest, I was pleasantly surprised to see how far along he is. It's been exciting to watch his progression."

According to Rivera, Smith has been working off to the side with Washington Football Team trainers at the Ashburn facility and is mirroring what Dwayne Haskins and Kyle Allen are doing, too. Coordinator Scott Turner and QBs coach Ken Zampese are apparently involving Smith as much as they can, and Smith is looking "very fluid" so far.

"It's a tribute to who he is, it's a tribute to his trainers and his doctors who have helped him get where he is today," Rivera said.

That all, of course, is wildly encouraging. The fact that the 36-year-old is in a place where he can check off those boxes and do those activities is astounding. That can't be pointed out enough, either.

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Yet it's also fair to note just how different mimicking a starting signal caller and actually serving as the starting signal caller are. So, is there any real chance of Smith transitioning from that first phase to the second before the season? 

With what he's seen from the veteran so far, Rivera certainly believes there is.

"I can envision it," he said. "The big thing is if he can do the things that we need him to do, that he needs to do to help himself on the football field, he'll be part of the conversation most definitely. He did some really good things last week. He went through all four workout days, had no residual effect the next morning, which is always important because the next day usually tells.

"We'll see how he is this week and we'll go from there."

As Smith continues to rehab and try to make his way off PUP, the challenges are solely physical. Rivera is not worried at all about the veteran having to adjust to a new scheme or dealing with any other mental task; instead, the primary concern is ensuring that Smith can handle the contact that'll come if he makes it back into live action.

"I believe he already knows probably 75-percent of our playbook," Rivera said. "So for him, it's really just a matter of can he do the movements he needs to do? Can he protect himself when he's on the field?"

It feels like every time Smith is brought up, he's taken another step. The next one, however — going from the PUP list to the huddle — is particularly daunting.

But at this point, it's gotten pretty difficult to imagine anything being particularly daunting for Alex Smith. So don't be that floored if he makes it happen. Rivera clearly won't be. 

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