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Monday Observations: Ponder newly in bloom, Vikings make statement


Every week we hear so much about all of the young quarterbacks starting in the NFL these days, but hear so little about Christian Ponder. He's like the forgotten man of the last three or four quarterback classes, but that may soon be changing.

Ponder has already enjoyed his share of euphoria this season, leading a wild, comeback overtime victory in Week 1 and then performing expertly in Minnesota's 24-13 upset of San Francisco on Sunday in the surprise upset of the week. Few would have figured the Vikings to be 2-1 right now, but Ponder seems considerably more at ease than he did as a rookie, understanding when to check the ball down, when to throw it out of bounds and displaying a knack for making things happen in the clutch.

Ponder finished 21-for-35 for 198 yards and two touchdowns against the 49ers, the trendy top pick in everyone's silly power rankings, and their vaunted defense. He did not turn the ball over on a day when Alex Smith finally, inevitably, did, and he also had a huge score in the second quarter with his legs. Coach Leslie Frazier showed great confidence in the quarterback, as Ponder threw a touchdown pass on fourth down to complete a fairly epic opening drive, and later he made a spectacular lob pass to tight end Kyle Rudolph again in the end zone to give the Vikings a 23-13 lead they would not surrender.

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"From a decision-making standpoint, it may have been his best game," Frazier told reporters in his postgame press conference. "He did a lot of good things on the move, and even in the pocket."

Several times during the game, Frazier said he was remarking in his headset about Ponder's growth. Where in the past he may have held the ball too long, now Ponder knew when to toss it away. "He's growing up, he's getting it," Frazier said.

"I just feel so much more comfortable in what I'm doing," said Ponder, the 12th overall pick in 2011, in his postgame comments. "And then it helps when the guys around you are playing so well."

Ponder was a like a jitterbug on Sunday, in the best way possible. His athleticism gave the 49ers fits. "That's a big part of my game," Ponder said afterward. On the first touchdown, Ponder rolled left, faded back a good 12 yards, then placed the ball right in Rudolph's mitts in the back of the end zone. On Minnesota's second scoring drive, he scampered 23 yards, right up the middle of the field, before launching himself over the goal line, fully extended, for the score. He joked afterward he was thinking "Run, Forest, run!" while sprinting through the heart of the Niners' ferocious defense. Keep in mind, the 49ers don't yield scoring runs very often.

"I know it creates issues anytime a quarterback is nimble and able to create those plays on the run that he did," said Frazier, a former defensive coordinator. On Sunday it seemed to tire out and frustrate the 49ers' front as the game went on.

On the season, Ponder is completing 70 percent of his passes, with four TDs and no interceptions, for 713 yards and a 105 rating. He has completed at least 60 percent of his passes in all three games. As a rookie, he had a 70 rating and completed just 54 percent of his passes.

Protecting the football remains paramount, and he is also becoming more adept at slinging the ball to Percy Harvin and Adrian Peterson out of the backfield, to alleviate pressure and allow for yards after the catch.

"I'm not going to force things downfield when I can throw it short to one of those guys and then they can make a big play downfield," Ponder said.

Not to get ahead of ourselves here, but if the Vikings can get this kind of quarterback play on a regular basis, maybe, just maybe, we need to begin taking them more seriously. The running game, led by the quick-healing Adrian Peterson, is getting fearsome again, and Minnesota's rebuilt offensive line somehow was able to manhandle the 49ers' punishing front seven, leading Ponder to assert the unit "dominated the best front seven in the NFL." Jared Allen can still get after the passer, and the Vikings believe they can still be an elite run stopping team.

Frazier bristled at the notion all week that his team might not be able to match, or even withstand, San Francisco's brutally physical approach, and stressed that point with his players and coaches. "That really burned me up," he said. But the Vikings managed to exceed their rivals in that very area.

Put all that together, along with the Packers, Lions and Bears all seeming a bit less menacing than just a year ago, and perhaps the NFC North will be a little more wide open this season.

"It's a big win," Frazier acknowledged. "It validates the confidence we have as a staff in our players. ... It should be something we build on."

NFC South

I know it's early and all, but anyone else think the Atlanta Falcons might run away with the NFC South? Wasn't that long ago that some -- OK, me -- thought it might be among the best in football. Um, yeah, not so much.

The Falcons, now 3-0 after a third straight thrashing of an AFC West team, look like a juggernaut. Everyone else is the pits.

The Bucs are certainly taking a turn for the better, and new coach Greg Schiano has improved some aspects of their play; they play hard all the way now and they're tougher.

But they still have some major issues to overcome, quarterback Josh Freeman continues to look like he might be regressing and I don't think you can project them in the playoffs.

The Panthers were the team I believed would make power moves this season and enter that wild-card equation. Carolina's players and coaches believed that as well.

But now they are 1-2, Cam Newton has become Mr. Mope, the offense has been absolutely putrid in two of the first three weeks, they still have defensive issues, and from what I hear, owner Jerry Richardson was fuming about Thursday night's lethargic prime-time home loss to the Giants, and Newton's antics in particular.

Don't even get me started on the Saints. They are a total disaster right now on both sides of the ball, and the impact of losing coach Sean Payton seems greater by the week.

Drew Brees is playing out-of-control football in key moments, forcing plays, and there is no one there to keep him in check with Payton absent. The defense has been nothing short of brutal against both the run and the pass.

When you look at how badly teams like Carolina struggled against, say, Tampa and how New Orleans struggled against Carolina, then you look at how Atlanta's offense matches up with some of the teams in this division, you have to like the Falcons' chances.

RG3, Redskins

It's fair to say Robert Griffin III and that Redskins offense aren't fooling anyone much anymore in the passing game. And that defense, following the loss of anchors Brian Orakpo and Adam Carriker for the season, is in big trouble.

Teams are selling out to crash their ends, pound Griffin -- whose slight frame makes it hard for me to believe he gets through this season if he keeps taking so much abuse -- and take away the read option. The Redskins don't have much of a vertical game, and the Bengals, about as inept defensively as anyone in the NFL through two weeks and missing the few guys in their secondary who can play, had Washington at six -- yes six -- passing yards in the first half.

Griffin was a dervish running with the ball, and once the Bengals got up big the 'Skins managed a passing game in the second half, but their opponents are going to get more difficult and, with an already poor offensive line losing oft-injured left tackle Trent Williams on Sunday, you have to worry about the kind of abuse Griffin will take when he faces like the likes of the Giants, Eagles and Cowboys.

On the other side of the ball, the Redskins were banking on a stellar pass rush to offset a miserable secondary. But without Orakpo and Carriker they aren't the same, and the issues on the back end are being magnified. Already Lance Moore, Danny Amendola and now A.J. Green have exploded against this secondary.

This wasn't a team built to be able to survive many injuries, and I suspect we'll see a lot of Alfred Morris and the stout run game to protect Griffin and try to keep the defense off the field.

Extra Points

  I don't care what John Skelton's ankle looks like this week, ain't no way Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt can change quarterbacks now. You have to ride Kevin Kolb, who surpassed Tony Sparano in the revenge performance of the week for his dismantling of the previously undefeated Eagles.

  Blaine Gabbert has been at his best in late-game, two-minute-drill situations. The Jaguars QB pulled off another miracle ending Sunday, with receiver Cecil Shorts again on the other end of the big play.

  The Bills were dealt a huge blow with the loss of C.J. Spiller for at least a few weeks, but the good news is that Fred Jackson remains well ahead of schedule to return from a knee injury and is aiming to play this week.

  The wildcat, with Tim Tebow, isn't fooling anyone. Mark Sanchez has a tough enough time playing, but he's repeatedly re-entering games in poor down-and-distance situations after Tebow gets stuffed on the previous play. Someone tweet me the first time Tebow lines up in the slot and accomplishes anything.

  Jason Witten is not right. The Cowboys tight end is dropping a lot of balls and he's not a consistent factor in games. You have to wonder if that spleen is bothering him, or something else isn't right.

  The Rams better hope they get tackle Rodger Saffold back soon, because the state of that offensive line threatens to undermine the strides being made by Sam Bradford.

  No one had a more heartbreaking loss Sunday than the Lions, on multiple levels. If there is any positive to be taken from it, however, they may have found the makings of a run game with Mikel Leshoure in the mix.

Before joining CBS Sports, Jason La Canfora was the Washington Redskins beat writer for The Washington Post for six years and served as NFL Network's insider. The Baltimore native can be seen every Sunday during the season on The NFL Today.

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