Culpepper Carrying Team

The marks Daunte Culpepper are hitting this season are incredible, and football followers around the country are taking notice.

The Vikings rank 30th in defense, 31st in pass defense and their special teams remain below average. But none of that matters so far because QB Daunte Culpepper is head and shoulders above anyone else in the race for the NFL's Most Valuable Player award this season.

And yes, that includes Peyton Manning.

"Our quarterback continues to play at a very high level, a level that can carry us," Vikings coach Mike Tice said. "As we progress defensively and as we sort some things out defensively and continue to get better and try to get the right guys on the field, Daunte basically is carrying us."

The knock against Culpepper in past seasons — even his two Pro Bowl seasons — is he couldn't carry the team in hard times. But he has shown in the past two games he can hoist the defense, an injured Randy Moss and other shortcomings onto his wide shoulders and still win a game.

The Vikings had lost six consecutive road games before playing at Houston on Oct. 10. The defense blew a 21-0 third-quarter lead, but Culpepper threw five touchdown passes, including a 50-yard game-winner in overtime as the Vikings won 34-28.

A week later at New Orleans, Moss strained his right hamstring near the end of the second quarter and didn't play in the second half. No problem. Culpepper completed 15 of 20 passes for 182 yards and three touchdowns with Moss on the sideline as the Vikings won 38-31 to improve to 4-1 and take a one-game lead in the NFC North.

Culpepper threw another five touchdown passes against the Saints, giving him NFL records for most five-touchdown games in one season (three) and the most touchdowns after five games (18).

Culpepper is on pace to break NFL records for touchdown passes (58), passing yards (5,651), completions (432), passer rating (127.0), completion percentage (72.2) and most 300-yard passing games (13).

Future Hall of Famer Dan Marino, who holds the record for passing touchdowns (48) and passing yards (5,084) in a season, visited Culpepper this week to tape an interview that will air on CBS on Sunday. Marino said Culpepper has a shot at the records.

Culpepper's numbers also trump those of Manning, considered by most to be the best quarterback in the NFL. Culpepper leads Manning in touchdown passes (18-14), yards passing (1,766-1,321), passer rating (127.0-114.1), completion percentage (72.2-66.2) and yards per attempt (9.44-8.41).

But there's much more to Culpepper's success this season than statistics. A good example came in the first quarter of the Saints game.

Culpepper forced a pass into the end zone on third down in the red zone on the first possession. Ashley Ambrose intercepted it.

"Daunte came to the sideline, looked at the Polaroid and said, `The next time they show that coverage, I'll check down to the running back in the flat,'" offensive coordinator Scott Linehan said.

The next time the Vikings reached the end zone, they were facing third-and-nine from the 15. Culpepper looked over the middle, saw it covered and dumped the ball to RB Moe Williams in the right flat. Williams gained 13 yards and the Vikings scored a touchdown two plays later.

"He made that play and two others for touchdowns in the same situation as the one in which he threw the interception," Linehan said. "That's what impressed me most. He made what basically were instantaneous corrections."

That's what MVPs do.

NOTES
* RB Michael Bennett is expected to play his first regular-season game of 2004 this week. Rookie Mewelde Moore will start, while Bennett will come off the bench in a limited role. In Bennett's only game against Tennessee, he ran for 113 yards and two touchdowns on only 16 carries (7.1).
* The Vikings' injury report: C Cory Withrow (knee) is out. Questionable are RB Michael Bennett (knee); LB Chris Claiborne (calf); LB E.J. Henderson (knee); WR Randy Moss (hamstring). Probable are LB Raonall Smith (concussion); RB Moe Williams (calf). Claiborne, Henderson, Moss and Withrow did not practice Wednesday.
* The Titans' injury report this week: Out for the Titans are WR Tyrone Calico (knee); TE Shad Meier (appendix); S Lance Schulters (foot). Questionable are RB Chris Brown (shoulder); LB Rocky Calmus (back); DT Jared Clauss (concussion); DT Albert Haynesworth (ankle); TE Erron Kinney (calf); QB Steve McNair (sternum); T Fred Miller (ankle); G Benji Olson (groin); DE Juqua Thomas (ankle). Brown, Calico, Calmus, Clauss, Haynesworth, Kinney, McNair, Meier, Miller, Olson, Schulters and Thomas didn't practice Wednesday.

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