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WEEK 15 IN THE NFL MIKE PENNER

Ask and You Shall See Receivers

December 16, 2002|MIKE PENNER

It's an odd and curious universe the three best pass catchers in football have created for themselves.

Two of them -- Terrell Owens, who can't get enough attention, and Randy Moss, who just wants you to get out of his face -- live in their own little worlds.

The third, Marvin Harrison, is as reliable as the setting sun, the difference between night and day for the Indianapolis Colts, even if he's taken for granted on a daily basis.

Sunday, all three were spotted in their standard operational modes. While Owens finally came clean with what we sensed all along -- he's his own biggest cheerleader -- and Moss re-emerged from hibernation to spark his monthly Minnesota victory, Harrison was quietly breaking the NFL single-season reception record on his way to hammering it into oblivion.

Do you know that in 14 games in 2002, Harrison has caught more passes than anyone previously managed in any 16-game season?

Do you know that Harrison, with 1,524 receiving yards in 2001 plus 1,566 and counting in 2002, is the first man in league history to log consecutive 1,500-yard seasons?

Do you know what Harrison had to say after catching nine passes for 172 yards in the Colts' 28-23 victory over Cleveland and breaking Herman Moore's seven-year-old single-season record?

"I just catch them. I don't count them."

Which might explain why Harrison has caught more footballs in a season than Owens or Moss or Jerry Rice or Cris Carter yet flies considerably lower on the publicity radar.

Harrison has 127 receptions in 14 games this season, which is four more than Moore's record of 123 in 1995. He is averaging a little more than nine catches a game in 2002, putting him on pace for a season total of 145. "He's got two games left," Colt quarterback Peyton Manning said, "and maybe he'll try to set it forever."

But he's sorely lacking in the crucial career-enhancing departments of self-promotion and self-styled moodiness. Harrison doesn't have the fan club Owens has built (acting president, serving a lifetime term: Terrell Owens) or the mysterious, mercurial aura of Moss, who frightened the Vikings into ruining another season in their desperate attempt to "keep Randy happy," although no one on the planet is really sure what that requires.

Owens lost an important game Sunday, at home, 20-14, to the Green Bay Packers, which could mean bad things for the San Francisco 49ers if they win their first-round playoff game only to find themselves staring at a second-rounder at Lambeau Field or Veterans Stadium. Yet there was Owens in the back of the end zone during the game, grabbing pompoms from a 49er cheerleader and waving them in honor of his favorite athlete: himself.

Moss had been MIA for so long, the Vikings were thinking about printing bumper stickers: "Land of 10,000 Lakes and No Moss." On paper, the "Randy Ratio," Viking Coach Mike Tice's elaborate plan designed to send 40% of Daunte Culpepper's passes into Moss' private atmosphere, might have looked like a good idea -- or at least kindling to create a fire to warm those frozen brain cells.

Instead, all it did was tip Tice's hand to each of the Vikings' first 14 opponents.

Ten of them walked away with victories.

With the Vikings' playoff hopes extinguished long ago, with Moss having nothing or no one to play for except himself, the New Orleans Saints were defeated by an unexpected blast from the past. Inside the Superdome, Moss freed himself for 11 catches for 113 yards and two touchdowns -- his first multi-touchdown performance this season -- including the game-winner in a 32-31 victory.

With five seconds left, Culpepper connected with Moss for a 13-yard touchdown, pulling the Vikings to within a point at 31-30. With nothing to lose except another game, Tice opted for the two-point try, dropping Culpepper into shotgun formation.

In typical Viking fashion, Culpepper dropped the ball. Then he picked it up. And dropped it again. Inside of passing or pitching the football, Culpepper appeared to be dribbling it.

New Orleans, still getting re-acclimated with basketball, didn't seem to know how to react. By the time the Saints figured out what was going on, Culpepper was gone -- up the middle through the bamboozled defensive line and into the end zone for the winning two-point conversion.

After 16 consecutive road defeats, the Vikings had finally won a game away from the Metrodome -- a game against a playoff contender, no less. It would not have been possible without Moss.

"Moss is the money man," Culpepper said, and that's the problem. Priceless or not worth a plugged nickel -- from week to week, the Vikings never can be sure what they're getting with Moss.

The season has hit mid-December. With only two more weeks to play and a dwindling number of playoff berths still there for the grabbing, receivers are playing decisive roles -- for better or worse.

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