MINNEAPOLIS — Move to the head of the class, Daunte Culpepper.
The Minnesota Viking quarterback who was everybody's question mark before the season is suddenly the undisputed leader of the vaunted quarterback class of 1999.
In a rollicking battle Monday night that kept Minnesota unbeaten and sent Tampa Bay reeling to its third consecutive loss, Culpepper introduced himself with a 27-yard touchdown run in the first minute and waved goodbye with a 42-yard touchdown pass to Randy Moss with 8:42 left in a 30-23 victory in front of 64,162 in the Metrodome.
It could have been billed as Keyshawn Johnson versus Randy Moss or Tony Dungy versus Dennis Green, but it was two teams trading blows behind their second-year quarterbacks, Culpepper and the Buccaneers' Shaun King.
"This was just huge," said Culpepper, who completed 15 of 19 passes for 231 yards and two touchdowns with one interception and ran for another 35 yards in the most impressive game of his career so far.
"Like Coach said, we'd rather be 5-0 and getting better than 4-1 and getting better. This is big in our division."
The Vikings still had to withstand the Buccaneers' desperate passes in the final minute after Gary Anderson's 19-yard field goal with 59 seconds left provided Minnesota's final margin.
Johnson couldn't quite control King's pass inside the 10-yard line. Then, King's desperate heave on the last play of the game barely eluded Jacquez Green in the end zone.
Dungy took a gamble earlier in the quarter and lost, trying a halfback pass from Mike Alstott on fourth-and-short and trailing by four points.
Tight end Todd Yoder was open with no one between him and the end zone, but he stumbled and fell and the pass might have been slightly overthrown anyway.
"It's a play we worked on," Dungy said. "We knew they played very aggressive and wanted to save it for a fourth-and-one situation. We had it, but just couldn't complete it."
Tampa Bay's 3-3 record is a stunning turnaround for a team that reached the NFC championship game against the Rams last season, then added Johnson in one of the biggest moves of the off-season.
"We've been in deeper holes than this," said defensive end Warren Sapp, remembering that the Buccaneers were 3-4 last season before their late-season run.
"We just have to start playing. Go do the same things we always do. Put ourselves in position to win."
Sapp almost did that in the fourth quarter, blocking a field-goal attempt that allowed Donnie Abraham to scoop up the ball and race 53 yards for a touchdown that gave Tampa Bay its only lead of the game, 23-20 with 12:13 left.
Culpepper--the only member of the quarterback class of 1999 who didn't throw a pass last season--and Moss brought the Vikings back. Moss leaped over Abraham and John Lynch to make the catch.
"He's just a special player," Lynch said.
That sent Tampa Bay to its third loss in a row on the heels of defeats to the New York Jets and Washington.
The Bucs were a Super Bowl favorite before the season.
But the final piece of the puzzle hasn't fit the hole the way the Buccaneers imagined.
Third in the NFL in defense last season and next-to-last in passing offense, Tampa Bay saw an opportunity to trade for Johnson if it would sign him to a big deal and did it.
In an echo of the beginning of his career, Johnson has complained that he hasn't gotten the ball enough.
He got his comeuppance against the Jets when he had only one catch for one yard in what should simply be known as the Wayne Chrebet game.
He got it on the second play of the game Monday.
But when they give you the damn ball, you have to hold onto it.
Johnson didn't, fumbling at the 27-yard line after a 12-yard catch.
Orlando Thomas recovered, and Culpepper dropped back on the first play, saw the field open up and ran the ball in all but untouched for a touchdown.
Only 24 seconds gone, and the Vikings led, 7-0.
With that run, Culpepper stamped his name next to Fran Tarkenton's in the Viking record book.
His touchdown run was the second longest by a quarterback in team history, although Tarkenton's was a tad more impressive: It was 52 yards against the Rams in 1961.
As for Johnson, he finished the game with five catches for 71 yards and no touchdowns, leaving him stuck at one this season.
He was overshadowed by Jacquez Green, who had 11 catches for 131 yards--not to mention the Vikings' Moss, who had five catches for 118 yards and the go-ahead touchdown.
"We had to fight through adversity the entire second half," Moss said.
"They were tough. I have to give them credit."
They were--and King, another member of the 1999 quarterback class along with Tim Couch, Akili Smith, Cade McNown and Donovan McNabb--did himself credit.
He completed 26 of 40 passes for 295 yards.
It was a wild game and a well-played one, but one team emerged 5-0 and the other one 3-3.
"There was a lot of drama," Dennis Green said. "A lot of momentum swinging, big plays all over the place. They can make those plays--and so can we."
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