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Surprising Ponder leads upstart Vikings
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Life is good in the North Star state.

For the first time in three seasons, the Land of 10,000 Lakes is home to a winning football team. The vastly underrated Vikings are 2-1 after three games, fresh off a stunning upset win over the San Francisco 49ers.

To no one's surprise, running back Adrian Peterson has played a pivotal role in the Vikes' rejuvenation. The four-time Pro-Bowler ranks 12th in the league in rushing with 230 yards on the ground in two games.

But that's not who this article is about. You already know how good Adrian Peterson is.

The real surprise after three weeks has been the emergence of second-year quarterback Christian Ponder, a player Ron Jaworski ranked as the 28th-best QB in football during the offseason.

Last season, 13 of Ponder's 291 pass attempts were intercepted. Ninety-seven passes into the 2012 campaign, Ponder has yet to throw a pass to the opposing team. Only two other NFL starters can say that (Kevin Kolb and Blaine Gabbert).

Ponder boasts a higher quarterback rating (104.9) than Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers and both Manning brothers. His completion percentage through three games is second only to Matt Ryan of the 3-0 Atlanta Falcons. Ponder's yards per game average (237.7) isn't elite but it's still a massive improvement over last season's laughably poor 168.4 yards per game.

The potential has always been there for Ponder. Obviously, the Vikings thought highly of him in 2011, otherwise they wouldn't have drafted him in the first round.

Part of the reason Ponder stumbled last year was because the team gave up so abruptly on veteran Donovan McNabb.

The plan had always been to have Ponder shadow McNabb for a year and become the starter in 2012. But after McNabb struggled to a 1-5 record in his first six games under center, the Vikings decided to expedite Ponder's career trajectory by starting him Week 7 against the Green Bay Packers.

Chaos ensued as the overwhelmed rookie got off to an erratic start. During his first five games, Ponder completed just 52.1 percent of his passes for five touchdowns and six interceptions.

The 24-year-old sprinkled in a few nice performances near the end of year, but overall 2011 was a fantasy disaster for Ponder. His 70.1 quarterback rating was good for fourth-worst among qualified quarterbacks and his 6.37 yards per passing attempt was the league's fifth-worst.

That was last year. This year, Ponder is on pace to reach 3,800 yards passing and 21 touchdowns. He's also shown a knack for running the ball as evidenced by his gorgeous 23-yard touchdown gallop against the 49ers last week.

Certainly the failures Ponder experienced as a rookie have fueled his desire to succeed this season. Ponder has shed the hesitance he showed as a rookie in favor of a fiercer, more confident approach.

But having a little fire in your belly doesn't always assure fantasy success. Tim Tebow is one of the more passionate athletes in the entire sport. How are his numbers this season?

Ponder has played well this year because of his improved decision making. Last season, Ponder was known for forcing passes into tight spaces, resulting in a high interception rate. This season, Ponder has abandoned the deep ball in favor of shorter, more manageable passes, hence his excellent completion percentage. His longest completion has been for only 29 yards.

Speedy wideout Percy Harvin has been the Vikings' boom-or-bust downfield threat for most of his career, but this season, he has added a new wrinkle to his game. With Ponder calling the plays, Harvin has evolved into a Wes Welker clone, piling up lots of receptions and becoming a hero in short yardage situations.

In the process, Harvin has shed some of his value as a touchdown scorer but has gained legitimacy in PPR formats, hauling in a league-best 27 catches through three weeks. His 32 targets account for the eighth-most in football this season.

Ponder isn't the only player who has risen to star status in Minnesota this season. It appears that second-year tight end Kyle Rudolph is quickly becoming the quarterback's top target when the Vikings are in the red zone. Rudolph's three touchdown catches, two of which came last week against the 49ers' top- ranked defense, are the most on the team. The 6-foot-6, 258-pound Rudolph has reeled in 13 of the 18 passes Ponder has intended for him this season and with just 113 more receiving yards, he'll surpass the amount of yards he racked up last season as a rookie.

After throwing for 198 yards and two scores in Week 3, Ponder should enjoy another strong fantasy game against the Detroit Lions in Week 4. Detroit currently ranks 20th in passing yards allowed and is coming off a dismal defensive effort in Week 3, when they gave up a season-high 44 points to the Tennessee Titans.

For those of you who still aren't impressed with Ponder's performance, think about this: in standard fantasy leagues, Ponder has averaged more points per game than Tom Brady, Philip Rivers, Aaron Rodgers, Tony Romo, Matt Schaub, Matthew Stafford and Michael Vick. Those seven quarterbacks have combined for three MVP awards and 21 Pro Bowl appearances during their careers.

As Dave Chapelle suggested in the famous skit from "Charlie Murphy's True Hollywood Stories," maybe it's time for you to purify yourself in the waters of Lake Minnetonka. He's not Mr. Flashy, but Ponder should provide your fantasy team with a refreshing change of pace, especially if you're in need of consistency at the quarterback position.

Comments? Criticism? Applause? Contact Jesse Pantuosco at jpantuosco@sportsnetwork.com.

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