MINNEAPOLIS (AP)—Daunte Culpepper played like a quarterback entering his prime, changing plays at the line, making all the right throws and protecting the ball like a wise old pro.
Culpepper threw a career-high five touchdown passes, two to Randy Moss, and led the Vikings to a 35-17 victory over the Cowboys on Sunday.
“He’s just got to drive the car,” coach Mike Tice said, “and it’s a pretty nice car he’s driving.”
The Vikings are hoping the 27-year-old Culpepper’s inconsistent days of interceptions and fumbles are behind him. Against a depleted Dallas defense, he was both sensational and efficient—going 17-for-23 for 242 yards with no turnovers and completing passes to nine different receivers.
“I don’t feel I have to make a play all the time with all these guys around me,” Culpepper said.
Meanwhile, 40-year-old Vinny Testaverde did his best to match Minnesota’s rising star. Testaverde was 29-for-50 for 355 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions. His favorite target, Keyshawn Johnson, caught nine balls for 111 yards in his first game with the Cowboys.
It was Johnson’s first regular season appearance since last Nov. 16, before he was permanently benched in a conflict with Tampa Bay coach Jon Gruden.
“We play 15 more games,” Johnson said. “That’s as positive as I can be. I’m not into losing.”
Darren Woodson’s back injury left Dallas with one proven player in the secondary, Terence Newman, to defend Culpepper, Moss and the rest of Minnesota’s offense that led the league in total yards last year.
“It’s very good to see the whole offense come around,” Moss said. “Not just Daunte.”
“He’s playing at a level that no one can match right now,” said Smith, who rushed for 76 yards while starter Michael Bennett rested his sprained knee.
Tice estimated that Culpepper audibled between eight and 10 times, and two of the last-second changes went for touchdowns.
On third-and-1 in the second quarter, Culpepper recognized a blitz, switched the play and threw a soft pass over the line to Smith—who snuck out of the backfield and raced untouched for a 63-yard score to put Minnesota up 7-3.
“Culpepper’s a good quarterback,” Dallas coach Bill Parcells said. “We did not get close to him, and he converted a bunch of third downs. They’re obviously a lot better than we are right now.”
Parcells’ teams rarely quit, and the Cowboys were within four until Culpepper found Moss in the corner of the end zone on a 1-yard rollout midway through the third quarter to make it 28-17.
Moss had only 27 yards on four catches, but he made a big impact as usual. He threw a reverse pass for 37 yards to Robinson, made some key blocks downfield and drew two pass interference penalties. The first one, an end-zone call on Tony Dixon, set up Moss’ first score to make it 21-10 early in the third.
“We have the weapons,” Moss said. “When a team wants to sit back there and double-team me and play a soft zone … we still don’t miss a beat.”
The Cowboys couldn’t do anything on the ground. Veteran Eddie George looked awfully slow and finished with 25 yards on eight rushes—all in the first half.
“I understand what my role is,” George said. “It’s a long season, and hopefully I’ll get some opportunities next week.”
Rookie Julius Jones might give the Cowboys a lift, but he was inactive with bruised ribs. Richie Anderson, another of Parcells’ guys from his days with the New York Jets, had 10 yards on six carries and lost a fumble at the Minnesota 19 with 9:35 to play and the Vikings leading by 11.
ReShard Lee, a reserve from Middle Tennessee State appearing in his first NFL regular-season game, was almost solely responsible for Dallas’ second touchdown. He returned a kickoff 62 yards and ran four times for 31 yards, the last a 7-yard rumble off left guard to cut Minnesota’s lead to 21-17 early in the third quarter.
That was as close as the Cowboys came, though, as the Vikings tried to get over their gut-wrenching, last-second loss to Arizona that closed the 2003 season and kept them out of the playoffs.
“It was definitely some motivation,” Culpepper said. “We were able to get that taste out of our mouth.”
Minnesota CB Ken Irvin, who was supposed to start, injured his Achilles’ tendon while backpedaling during warmups and is probably done for the season. … Dallas lost starting guard Andre Gurode to a sprained knee in the third quarter. … Vikings RB Moe Williams left in the fourth with a sprained ankle.