Culpepper shows he has brains to go with brawn

At 6 feet 4, 266 pounds, Minnesota QB displays composure, playmaking


His biceps, chest and legs are massive.

All season, the press has focused on second-year quarterback Daunte Culpepper's physique and athleticism. But if you ask the Minnesota Vikings what impresses them most about Culpepper, they skip the anatomy and go straight to his mental makeup.

Teammates rave about his poise. They consider him mature beyond his years, and his brilliant performance in the Vikings' 34-16 thrashing of the New Orleans Saints on Saturday - Culpepper's first playoff game - solidified the belief.

"He's truly amazing," Vikings guard Corbin Lacina said. "The guy is performing like a seasoned Jim Kelly or Dan Marino, guys who have been in it. ... This kid, to be in his first year starting, what he's able to do ... amazing."

In leading Minnesota past New Orleans and into Sunday's NFC championship game against the New York Giants, Culpepper, 23, passed for three touchdowns and 302 yards and ran for 51 yards. He also became the first Vikings quarterback to pass for two touchdowns of more than 50 yards in a playoff game.

By shaking off an ankle injury and the flu to turn in a monster performance against the Saints, Culpepper left his teammates and coaches buzzing about his toughness and competitive spirit.

"He loves the intensity of competition," Vikings coach Dennis Green said. "That's a big part of his makeup."

Vikings running back Robert Smith also liked the decisions Culpepper made while playing in the most pressure-filled game of his young career. On third-down snaps alone, he completed seven of 13 passes for 168 yards and a touchdown, and his overall passer rating of 120.7 was a team playoff record. It's a phenomenal statistic, considering that Hall of Famer Fran Tarkenton appeared in a club-record 11 postseason games.

Culpepper's ability to learn is every bit as impressive as his size (6 feet 4, 266 pounds), bench press (a lineman-like 400 pounds) and 40-yard dash time (4.5 seconds).

And he thinks on his feet, which resulted in 68-yard touchdown pass to Randy Moss against the Saints. On the opening possession of the second half, the Vikings faced third-and-one at their 32. Carter was in the slot and Moss was wide, to Culpepper's left.

"It was a running play," Lacina said. "So [the offensive linemen] came off the ball real hard. I look over to my left and Randy's running. Daunte had seen something."

Instead of handing the ball off to Smith, Culpepper signaled to Moss, then threw a quick pass to the speedy receiver near the sideline. Moss cut to the inside past Saints cornerback Kevin Mathis, then sprinted to the end zone to give Minnesota a 24-3 lead with 13:33 left in the third quarter.

"That was all Daunte," Lacina said.

NOTES: Amani Toomer, the Giants' leading receiver the past two seasons, didn't practice yesterday because of a sprained left ankle suffered in the fourth quarter of Sunday's 20-10 win over the Eagles in their NFC semifinal game.

Toomer (78 receptions for 1,094 yards and seven touchdowns) is listed as questionable. If Toomer can't play, either Joe Jurevicius or rookie Ron Dixon would start.

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