In a week where there are a couple of obvious comparative matchups that are logical one to watch – the NFL's leading rusher (Adrian Peterson) vs. the NFL's running back with the most carries (Arian Foster), or last year's leader in sacks (Jared Allen) vs. this year's sack leader (J.J. Watt) – the battle that will likely go the longest way in determining who wins or loses Sunday will be the performance of quarterbacks Matt Schaub and Christian Ponder, making this the unlikely key matchup.
Schaub isn't a quarterback that garners a lot of attention when it comes to discussion of the league's top quarterbacks. He is more of a game manager than a player who takes over games and puts the offense on his back. He isn't asked to be a Tom Brady/Drew Brees/Aaron Rodgers/Peyton Manning clone. He has thrown two touchdowns or fewer in 12 of 14 games and one TD or fewer in nine of those games. He has just two 300-yard games and a typical game for him is to throw for about 250 yards and one or two TDs.
Schaub's value to the Houston offense is based primarily on his ability to manage games and not make critical mistakes. He has had seven games in which he has no interceptions and just three games in which he has thrown two interceptions. His touchdown-to-interception ratio is an impressive 22:10. They aren't numbers that jump off the page, but they represent a quarterback who does conducts his business like a pro and gets the job done on a consistent basis. He isn't the flashiest quarterback in the league. He doesn't earn the heaping praise that guys like Brady, Brees, Rodgers and Manning all receive, but his success is hard to deny. You don't get a 12-2 record without having an efficient quarterback. In many ways, Schaub is what Ponder aspires to be.
In his first full season as a starter, Ponder has experienced significant ups and downs. He has been held under 200 yards passing in eight of 14 games and has 131 passing yards or less in six games. But it isn't the passing yardage that really matters – in those six games in which he has thrown for 131 yards or fewer, the Vikings have a 4-2 record. With Ponder, it is throwing interceptions that have been critical.
In the six games in which Ponder hasn't thrown an interception, the Vikings have a record of 5-1. In the games he has thrown interceptions, the team has a record of 3-5. When he is efficient with the ball and doesn't turn it over, the Vikings are a much better team, whether he is throwing for significant yardage or not. He isn't in the category of young QBs like Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III or Cam Newton, but the Vikings knew that when they drafted him. Peterson is the centerpiece of the offense. Ponder merely needs to not give opponents easy opportunities to take advantage of turnovers. When he has done that, success has followed. Completing passes is the critical component to Ponder's game, even if they are short passes. In five games this season, he has completed 70 percent of his passes. The Vikings have won every one of those games.
Clearly the comparison that will draw the attention of fans and media alike with be the focus that will be put by each defense on stopping Peterson and Foster. Secondarily, there will be a big emphasis made on the pressure that Watt and Allen can put on the other team's quarterback. But, in the end, the Vikings-Texans game will more likely be decided by which quarterback is more efficient, doesn't make critical mistakes and manages his offense the best. It may not be grabbing headlines as the game draws near, but, when the game is over, if someone looks at the performances of Ponder and Schaub, even without benefit of knowing the score, they will likely be able to determine simply from their numbers who won the game.
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
Key matchup: The game managers
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