The Schein Nine  

 

Christian Ponder demands your attention; Week 4 upset specials

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Finally, after three weeks of purely inept work by the replacement officials -- including the single worst call in league history on Monday night -- we have the real refs back at work!

We get back to football by uncovering the biggest surprise flying under the radar, taking the temperature of second-year starting quarterbacks and, of course, providing our red-hot upset specials in today's Schein Nine.

1) Something to Ponder

Riddle me this: Who is the most improved player three weeks into the 2012 campaign? Which team is the most pleasant surprise?

Both answers are crystal clear: Christian Ponder and the 2-1 Vikings (a team I picked to go 3-13 this year).

Ponder was a surprise No. 12 overall pick by the Vikings in the 2011 NFL Draft. While the media elite thought he went too early, general manager Rick Spielman and head coach Leslie Frazier thought they drafted a can't-miss star, given Ponder's smarts, leadership ability, accuracy, arm strength and athleticism.

Do you realize that Christian Ponder is currently second in the league in completion percentage at 70.1, trailing only Matt Ryan? Watch him play. It is totally different from last year. Ponder is now sure of himself. He has such incredible command of the Vikings, such a great ability to move around in the pocket and make plays. Ponder's had a great knack for spreading the ball around over the first three weeks. Conventional wisdom says the San Francisco 49ers boast the best defense in the NFL. I've made that case. So let's not overlook Ponder's greatness last week; how he capitalized on the Vikings' defense forcing rare San Fran turnovers. That was a colossal upset. Ponder deserves a ton of credit, contributing all three Minnesota touchdowns (two passing, one rushing).

Talking to a jubilant Frazier on Monday morning on the SiriusXM Blitz, the Minnesota coach couldn't stop raving about what Ponder exhibited -- not only in the game, but also during the week of practice leading up to it. Frazier had been disappointed in the Vikings' week of practice between the season-opening win over the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Week 2 loss to the Indianapolis Colts. But Frazier said the team responded after the loss in Indy, and it was a great example of Ponder's leadership.

"We challenged our team and they responded," Frazier said. "Christian responded. Christian Ponder is ahead of the curve. He didn't blink after the Colts game. He didn't blink in the face of a very good Niners defense. He was a step ahead of their defense all day. We are going to use that and build from the good things he did, the good things we did."

Prior to last season, the Vikings traded for Donovan McNabb, with the intention of playing the veteran while grooming Ponder. Unlike the success the Tennessee Titans enjoyed with Matt Hasselbeck and Jake Locker in identical roles, it was a disaster in Minnesota. McNabb was done. His work ethic was non-existent. Minnesota couldn't hold leads. The season slipped away rapidly.

Still, Frazier told me Ponder truly became the leader of this team during that forgettable 3-13 campaign, and you could see him really develop some swagger this offseason -- his first full offseason as a Viking (due to the 2011 NFL lockout) and first as a starter. Ponder becoming the alpha dog.

A winning quarterback is a rather big deal, especially with the Vikings stuck in a division that features Aaron Rodgers, Matthew Stafford and Jay Cutler. Suddenly, there is hope for the present and the future.

Now the key, as Frazier rightly explains it, is for Ponder and the Vikings to keep their winning ways going. Adrian Peterson is healthy and back to being a stud. Tight end Kyle Rudolph is making majestic catches. Jerome Simpson is returning after a three-game suspension. The defense has been better than critics -- certainly myself included -- anticipated. The Niners almost never turn the ball over. Josh Robinson, Jared Allen and the Vikings forced three.

For the first time since mortgaging their future on Brett Favre, the Vikings have hope. They aren't a playoff team this year. They are, most likely, a last-place team in their own division. But wouldn't it be something if they could win at Detroit this weekend? Frazier truly stressed the necessity for a winning streak. Isn't it nice for Vikings fans to see the makings of a coach and a quarterback you can win with?

Ponder impresses me. I like his style. I like his edge. He's flying under the radar in a wacky 2012. Pay attention.

2) Cam can't

Cam Newton was clearly the best quarterback of the bunch drafted in 2011. He deserved all of the accolades last year. However, his disgruntled diva act in last Thursday night's blowout loss to the New York Giants was awful. I hated everything, from his play, to sitting alone on the bench, to discrediting the Giants postgame, to the Super Man pose with the Panthers down big.

That garbage won't fly. He's better than that.

3) Andy is dandy

I am totally buying the 2-1 Cincinnati Bengals, and Andy Dalton is a major reason why. His offensive coordinator can't get enough of the second-year signal-caller's savvy. Talking to Jay Gruden on the SiriusXM Blitz, he gushed about Dalton's football IQ.

"He made great audibles against Washington and Cleveland," Gruden explained. "He got us in the right protection, the right run plays. One of the best plays he made was on a 3rd-and-15. Dalton checked down to the tight end and we got 12 -- and a field goal. If the experts stack him up (on the list of NFL quarterbacks), maybe they put him 16th or 17th. That's fine. We know. His linemen love him. We love him."

I've got a man crush, too.

4) America's quarterback

I lovingly refer to the Jacksonville Jaguars as "America's Team" because they consistently finish dead last in the Harris Interactive Poll for popularity. America loves the underdog, right?

Quietly, Blaine Gabbert has significantly improved from his skittish and ineffective rookie season. Jaguars coach Mike Mularkey is refreshingly honest when he comes on our radio show. I give you that as a backdrop to pass this nugget along: Mularkey is incredibly impressed with Gabbert's toughness.

Let's be honest: Gabbert looked somewhere between scared and inept in his rookie year. Mularkey, his new head coach, tells us he couldn't be more impressed with how Gabbert has responded to the blistering criticism. In the week leading up to last Sunday's game against the Colts, Gabbert was still nicked up from a 27-7 loss to the Houston Texans. Still, he insisted on taking every practice rep. He ended up throwing a game-winning, 80-yard touchdown pass to Cecil Shorts III, who told us on Monday, "Blaine Gabbert is as tough as nails."

Really. That's what he said.

The jury is still out on Gabbert. I'm still not sold. I want to see more. But I can tell you unequivocally that his coach believes in him. And after a brutal rookie season, he is gaining the trust of his teammates.

5) First of many?

Last Sunday, Jake Locker won his first game in the NFL; a wild, 44-41 overtime result against the Lions. His biggest backer, head coach Mike Munchak, was thrilled for his prized pupil when we talked on our radio show Monday. And yes, I totally believe in Locker.

Still, the Titans can't keep playing like this. Chris Johnson has to get going for them to be respected. Locker needs balance.

6) Ice, ice baby

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As colleague Gregg Rosenthal pointed out on NFL.com, while it is early, Matt Ryan is putting together an MVP start for the Atlanta Falcons. But talking to Ryan on the SiriusXM Blitz this week, he pointed out the big difference for the 3-0 Falcons.

"Our defense has been amazing," Ryan said. "They've forced 11 turnovers in three weeks. It has a great effect on our offense. When you get the ball in a short field, it is a game changer. The turnover ratio, capitalizing on turnovers, is the biggest difference in winning games."

He's right. I wrote this preseason that the Falcons are better than ever with Mike Nolan in charge of the defense and Ryan taking his game to the next level, concluding that they will finally be able to win games in January. I'm more convinced after watching these first three weeks.

7) Upset Special I

I know the Dallas Cowboys are at home on Monday night against the Chicago Bears. I don't care. The Bears' defense is vastly improved. I trust Jay Cutler more than Tony Romo in a big spot. I think Chicago's defense can exploit Dallas' suspect offensive line.

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8) Upset Special II

The Seattle Seahawks just won two high-profile games at home against Dallas and Green Bay. They visit the St. Louis Rams this weekend. Don't dwell on a 23-6 loss to the Bears in Week 3; the Rams have been very competitive under Jeff Fisher, making major strides on defense. No 12th Man advantage for the Seahawks this week. (Or 13th Man, for that matter ...) Give me the Rams and Sam Bradford.

9) Upset Special III

I believe that Greg Schiano has changed the culture of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but Josh Freeman just can't get going at all. While I'm concerned about the Washington Redskins' losses of Adam Carriker and Brian Orakpo for the season, Robert Griffin III will dazzle in a road win for the 'Skins in Tampa.

Follow Adam Schein on Twitter @AdamSchein.

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