Ask the Sportswriters

Following are opinions from Mille Lacs County Times  editor-sports editor Gary Larson, reporter Luther Dorr and former Times intern Logan Marxhausen. Note: This feature is written on Monday each week.

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•Question:  The Minnesota Vikings lost to the Green Bay Packers 24-10 in the first round of the NFL playoffs Saturday night in Green Bay. The Vikings were without quarterback Christian Ponder, who was sidelined with an elbow injury. Back-up Joe Webb took Ponder’s place and completed 11 of 30 passes for 180 yards, with one touchdown pass and one interception. Webb, who had not thrown a pass all season, looked rusty to say the least. What are your thoughts on the game?

-Dorr: About 8 p.m. Saturday I was wishing I had a chance to talk with all those people who told me this fall they thought Joe Webb should be playing instead of Christian Ponder. Mike Max, on WCCO, was singing the praises of Webb before the game and Pete Bercich, the radio analyst for the team’s broadcasts who was very critical of Ponder this season, was positively giddy as he talked about Webb getting a chance to play after “Ponder left all those plays out on the field” during the season. Bercich, who Sunday night questioned why Ponder couldn’t play (Ponder didn’t make that decision), conveniently forgot about the three TD passes Ponder threw when the Vikings beat the Packers a week earlier as they scored 37 points. I wrote in September, and still believe it today, that the Vikings should have kept veteran Sage Rosenfels around. Would the Vikings have won Saturday with Ponder? I don’t know but they’d have been way better off. Two penalties – an offside on Kevin Williams and a 12-men-on-the-field – kept Green Bay touchdown drives going and those were big. Williams’ penalty prevented a second straight three-and-out series to open the game and Green Bay, the better team, took over from there. The Vikings were 10-6 in the regular season and that was quite a feat. Look at some of the big-name quarterbacks – Eli Manning, Tony Romo, Drew Brees, Ben Roethlisberger, Phillip Rivers, Cam Newton – who didn’t make the playoffs.

-Marxhausen: It is pretty tough to see a team’s starting quarterback take a seat on the bench when the entire season is on the line. Christian Ponder has endured some of the harshest criticism analysts have to offer concerning his legitimacy as a starting quarterback and sitting out his first playoff game is not going to help. Joe Webb did the best he could for not throwing a pass with the first team all season. On the opening drive it looked as though the Vikings were going to be able to use some trickery to push the ball down the field with a quarterback and star running back with speed. The Packers caught on quickly and stopped that before it could continue. Adrian Peterson was kept to minimal gains for a majority of the game, as the Packers were not going to have a repeat of the previous week. Aaron Rodgers had his way as he hit his open receivers in stride for big gains. In the eyes of Vikings fans, Ponder should have played as long as he was able to lift the ball up to his head and give it a toss. I would not be surprised if there was a new number under center next season, with many Vikings fans hoping there will be.

-Larson:  Webb was lost and looked more like a rookie in his first game than a player who has played before and taken part in three seasons worth of practices. But, the biggest disappointment was the Viking defense which, with Ponder out and Webb in, knew it had to suck it up and keep the game close. As generally is the case, it didn’t. The better team won. Still, the 10-6 regular-season record was an accomplishment.

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•Question:  In other NFL playoff games last weekend, Houston topped Cincinnati 19-13, Seattle stopped Washington 24-14 and Baltimore topped Indianapolis 24-9. Games this coming weekend have Green Bay at San Francisco and Seattle at Atlanta in the NFC and Baltimore at Denver and Houston at New England in the AFC. Who are your picks in those games?

-Dorr: Denver, Green Bay (the oddsmakers don’t think so), Atlanta and New England, with Seattle maybe pulling off an upset of Atlanta.

-Marxhausen:  Green Bay didn’t really have a tough game against Minnesota, with a few of its fundamental habits suffering because of a lack of tough competition. I don’t like that inexperienced quarterback Colin Kapernick will lead the ferocious 49er offense against a healthy Green Bay defense. I think Green Bay will topple San Francisco. Rookie quarterback Russell Wilson had a decent game against RGIII and the Redskins, but takes on a tougher defense and a high-powered offense. I like Seattle as an upset pick, but only if it can keep scoring while Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan will do his best to score himself. Baltimore kept quarterback Andrew Luck at bay last week, but I don’t see the same outcome against Peyton Manning and the Broncos. The Broncos will win and go on to face Tom Brady and the New England Patriots in the AFC championship game. Head coach Bill Belichick and Brady’s experience in the postseason will push New England past Houston.

-Larson:  It’s San Francisco over Green Bay, Atlanta over Seattle, New England over Houston and Denver over Baltimore. Home field will be a big advantage.

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•Question:  The National Hockey League lockout has ended and a shortened season will likely begin next week. Are you excited about the return of pro hockey?

-Dorr: I’ll end up watching some Wild games on TV, mostly to see if the new millionaires on the team are making a difference, but I don’t think I will be excited. The players held out so they could make a few more bucks a year and that was ridiculous. Minnesota fans will probably flock to the games but that might not be the case throughout the league.

-Marxhausen: I am very excited about the return of professional hockey. I couldn’t believe they took as long as they did to reach an agreement, losing millions of dollars in revenue in the process. Minnesota is one team to get excited about with the additions of Zach Parise and Ryan Suter. Wild fans will be ecstatic to see these two put on a Wild jersey. Minnesota is a hockey state and it has been too long for the Wild not to be in contention for the Stanley Cup. The additions of Parise and Suter don’t automatically make the Wild a contender, but now the foundation is set and the Wild can surround that duo with proper talent to get them where they need to be year in and year out.

-Larson:  I watch a lot more college hockey on TV than NHL games. The lockout dampened my enthusiasm for the season. I’ll probably tune in a couple of Wild games when the season begins, just to see the new star players, then wait and see how the team fares.

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•Question:  The University of Minnesota men’s basketball team is 2-0 in the Big Ten and 14-1 overall after topping Michigan State and Northwestern at home. The Gophers are ranked No. 8 in the country and face Illinois (14-2) and Indiana (13-1) in road games this week. What are your thoughts on coach Tubby Smith’s team and its impressive start?

-Dorr: Knowing full well that Tubby Smith’s Minnesota teams have won about 43 percent of their Big Ten games and about 80 percent of their November and December games, I made the trip to Minneapolis Sunday night to see if the team was for real. After a horrible first half and a great second half against a poor Northwestern team that is without its best player, I’d say the jury is still out. The Gophers are better, and deeper, than last year but I’m not sure they are the No. 8 team in the country. Still, they would probably have lost the Michigan State game last year and would have struggled to beat Northwestern. They closed out the Michigan State game in fine form and took over the Northwestern game in the second half. If Minnesota can go 1-1 in games this week, it deserves to be called a Big Ten contender and to be ranked highly. Two losses would not end things but it would be tougher to be a contender. Two wins would move the team up in national rankings.

-Marxhausen: This is what Gopher fans have been waiting for from the legendary coach Tubby Smith. Smith has not had an easy ride at Minnesota, but finally he has put together a legit team from the center position to the point guard position, with a few key players coming off the bench. His long awaited success comes at a time when the Big Ten is extremely competitive, with six teams ranked in the top 25. The Gophers are not the best shooting team nor are they the most explosive offensive unit, but they do the fundamental and little things correctly. They rebound and pass the ball well, they move off the ball well in good position and, best of all, they play as a team on the court and not five individuals. Smith has done a lot to get this team where it is and the tough competition of Illinois and Indiana on the road will show what this team can do.

-Larson: I’m not from Missouri, but the Gophers are going to have to “show me” they’re a contender in the Big Ten and that they deserve to be ranked in the top 10 or 15 in the country. A good showing on the road this week would be a good indicator of how solid Minnesota is. Coach Smith has said this season’s roster is his best at Minnesota – now, show us.

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Do you have an opinion on any of this week’s questions? Do you agree or disagree with the sportswriters? Let us know by sending an e-mail to editor.millelacscotimes@ecm-inc.com or a note to Mille Lacs County Times, 225 S.W. 2nd St. Milaca, MN 56353. Or comment online.

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