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Monday October 31st, 2011

One week after a strong showing against the Packers in his first career NFL start, Christian Ponder bested Cam Newton for his first ever win. (Bob Donnan/US Presswire)

[2-6] Vikings 24, [2-6] Panthers 21 (box score | recap)

You have to wonder if, given the chance to do it all over again, the Vikings would still make that summer trade for Donovan McNabb and put Christian Ponder on the bench to start his NFL career.

It's easy to rip McNabb now, after he started the season 1-5 and looked about as young and mobile as Abe Vigoda in that Snickers commercial from two Super Bowls ago. And maybe letting Ponder sit on the sideline for six weeks was exactly what the rookie needed before stepping in.

All we know for certain now, though, is that Ponder has provided a much-needed spark for a reeling Minnesota team.

One week after nearly orchestrating a shocking upset of undefeated Green Bay, Ponder simply knocked off Cam Newton -- thus far, the obvious choice for Offensive Rookie of the Year. Thanks to a shanked 31-yard field goal attempt by Olindo Mare in the final seconds, Minnesota claimed a 24-21 win over Newton's Panthers Sunday in Carolina.

Ponder didn't match Newton blow for blow in the box score, and that was both good and bad. Newton turned in another impressive performance, throwing for 290 yards and three touchdowns and running for another 53 yards. Ponder had just four yards on the ground, one TD through the air and 236 yards passing.

But Ponder also did not turn the ball over. Newton coughed up two fumbles, leading to two Minnesota touchdowns.

Of course, for all Newton has done this season -- and the highlight reel gets longer and longer with each passing week -- the Panthers are still 2-6, now in the same exact spot as Minnesota. Who knows where they'd be without Newton's weekly heroics.

They wouldn't be as exciting to watch, that's a given. Even when he turns the ball over, Newton has enough poise and moxie to bounce right back. In the second quarter, with his team down 7-0, Newton completed an absolutely beautiful pass to Steve Smith, dropping the ball in over the coverage of Asher Allen. The play was ruled a touchdown initially, then overturned and spotted at the 1. Two snaps later, Newton calmly tossed a TD to Jeremy Shockey.

Then, after Ponder led the Vikings down the field for a go-ahead field goal late, Newton responded with a long drive that included a 4th-and-15 conversion. Only Mare's botch job spoiled a possible overtime.

That miss gave Ponder his first NFL win. Based on what we've seen so far, there are plenty more to come.

In just two starts, Ponder has been everything McNabb was supposed to be for Minnesota -- a confident quarterback able to beat teams with his arm and his legs. On multiple occasions Sunday, Ponder avoided the Panthers rush long enough to at least throw the ball away.

And on the drive that wound up being the game-winner, Ponder turned in a 5-for-5 performance for 52 yards, the big play coming on a 22-yard connection with Percy Harvin on a 2nd-and-15.

If nothing else, Ponder gives the Vikings hope that the future will be brighter than the present. Minnesota didn't have that forward momentum with McNabb at the helm, and definitely did not have it last year with Brett Favre, Joe Webb and anyone else the Vikings could find to throw passes.

There will still be some difficult weeks for Ponder -- just as how not every single thing Newton touches turns to gold. But ask the Panthers if they would rather have a proven veteran in the lineup right now over Newton. Not a chance.

While the wins have not come for Carolina yet, a team that went 2-14 last season has developed rapidly into one to be reckoned with each and every week. Thanks to Newton's exciting play and the energy he's brought to the table, the Panthers' rebuilding process is on an accelerated course.

Will they win the division next year? Will they be in the Super Bowl soon? Probably not. But they feel a lot closer with Newton at QB than they did before.

Minnesota now finds itself in the same boat. The gap between the Vikings and the Packers, Lions and Bears is bigger than anyone in the Twin Cities would like to admit. Somehow, after winning the division in 2008 and 2009, the Vikings almost immediately became stagnant, old and predictable.

This season was not looking much better. That is, until last week, when Ponder got the nod at QB.

The Vikings are in position now to get better -- and to do so in a hurry. It's just a shame it took until now to reach that point.

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