Cowboys Must Contain Culpepper, Moss

This season opener is simple. It's about last year's No. 1 ranked defense (Dallas) vs. last year's No. 1 ranked offense (Minnesota).

It's that simple.

Whichever unit comes out on top will win the game.

The unfortunate thing for the Cowboys is that while the Vikings offense led by quarterback Dante Culpepper and receiver Randy Moss returns virtually intact, their defense looks nothing like it did a year ago.

They have four new starters and question marks in the secondary.

Outside of defensive end Marcellus Wiley, whose free agent signing was a move to improve the defense, the other three new starters would not be considered as upgrades.

Eight-year veteran Chad Eaton, who hasn't played football in more than a year because of knee problems, is starting at defensive tackle because Leo Carson is serving a league-mandated one-game suspension.

Injured free safety Darren Woodson is being replaced by fourth-year pro Tony Dixon and his seven career starts, while the unproven and struggling Pete Hunter won the battle to replace the departed Mario Edwards at right cornerback by default. The Cowboys refused to get into price war for some of the top cornerbacks on the market and didn't want to meet Edwards' demands for a long-term contract.

"What you were last year," Cowboys coach Bill Parcells said. "That doesn't really mean anything. We have several of the same players missing. So we got guys who are going to be different players here so who knows what it is. You can't just go year to year and say OK, you guys are the No. 1 statistical defense last year. That was then and this is now and we'll see where we go."

The presence of Culpepper and Moss on the other side of the makes the situation even more acute on Sunday. Parcells says the Vikings are one of the two or three best teams in the NFC. While it remains to be seen whether a Vikings team that finished 9-7 and out of the playoffs a year ago can become this year's version of the Carolina Panthers, there's no doubt that their offense is among the league's most feared units. Culpepper was the NFC's highest rated passer in 2003, throwing for 3,479 yards and 25 touchdowns. Moss, meanwhile, caught a whopping 111 passes for 1,632 yards and 17 touchdowns.

Rather than dwelling on the negatives and understandable fears associated with face Moss and company, many Cowboys defenders see this game as an opportunity to gain confidence.

"It would be a big confidence boost for us to get out there and come away with a victory," cornerback Terence Newman said. "They have a lot of weapons over there. For if we do what we have to do, limit them to minimal yards and touchdowns. That will give everybody in the secondary some confidence."

The Cowboys aren't revealing how they are going to defend the Vikings. They will likely use of mix of man coverage with Newman following him all over the field at times, zone coverage and double coverage. What's also true is that they won't be able to protect Hunter and unproven nickel back Jameel Powell all day. Both will have to step up and make plays.

25th meeting. Cowboys lead series 13-11. The Vikings have won the last four meetings, including 27-15 in Dallas on Nov. 23, 2000 and 27-10 in Minnesota on Jan. 9, 2000. The last Cowboys win came Dec. 28, 1996 by a score of 40-15.

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