MINNEAPOLIS - Daunte Culpepper has a simple job - thanks to the weapons that surround him.
And who can argue with Culpepper when Randy Moss and Cris Carter are making huge plays, the offensive line is impenetrable and the defense isn't budging?
"Being a quarterback on this offense, all I have to do is be calm and know what we're trying to do, and get the ball in the right guys' hands," Culpepper said after throwing for three touchdowns in leading the Minnesota Vikings past the New Orleans Saints 34-16 on Saturday.
Displaying the firepower that made them the second highest-scoring team in the NFC, Minnesota advanced to the conference championship game. Moss caught touchdown passes of 53 and 68 yards, Carter added a 17-yard TD reception, and Culpepper showed no signs of a sprained ankle that limited him in the Vikings' three-game slide to end the regular season.
"It was unbelievable for him to do what he was able to do on a sprained ankle," said Carter, who had eight receptions for 120 yards.
Culpepper threw for 302 yards in his first playoff appearance, showing no sign of nerves, either.
"No, I was fired up," he said. "I want to make plays, too."
The best plays were the two passes to Moss. On the Vikings' third offensive play of the game, Moss found a seam between double coverage. He split Fred Thomas and Darren Perry, who took a bad angle on the short reception, and sped 53 yards to the end zone just 3:03 in.
"I think inside their heads it was, `Uh-oh, you don't want to get me started. That's the worst thing you ever want to do,"' Moss said. "The energy level was there, and I just had to get us off with a touchdown."
The other was on a play that was all Moss. He took a swing pass at the scrimmage line on the third play of the second half. In one step, he was in high gear. Moss ran right past Kevin Mathis down the left sideline for the 68-yard score.
"Not a lot of people can make that play," Carter said of Moss, who runs a sub-4.2 for 40 yards. "It was unbelievable that he could outrun the angle they had on him and make that play in traffic. His nickname is `Super Freak,' and he showed why."'
Robert Smith, the other star of Minnesota's dynamic offense, had a 2-yard TD run as the Vikings (12-5) moved on. They will play the winner of today's Philadelphia-New York Giants game for a spot in the Super Bowl. The vocal Metrodome crowd of 63,881 chanted "Let's go Eagles" as the final seconds ticked away, hoping for the NFC title game to be back in Minnesota.
"We have no effect on that game and who we play," said coach Dennis Green, who has his team one step from the Super Bowl for the second time in three seasons.
The Saints (11-7) knew they needed a strong pass rush. But the NFL leaders with 66 sacks rarely pressured Culpepper and did not sack him. And the second-year quarterback picked apart a defense that helped Jim Haslett win Coach of the Year honors in his first year in charge of the Saints.
"When you play a team with a Moss and a Carter, I don't think you would be happy with any of our DBs today," said Haslett, who got into a shouting match with Carter late in the third quarter. They shook hands at the end of the game.
"He's a great receiver," Haslett said. "He likes to play the crowd."
Saints rookie running back Chad Morton tied a playoff record with 13 receptions for 106 yards. Willie Jackson, who caught three TD passes in the wild-card victory over the Rams last week, had a 48-yard score with 2:19 to go. New Orleans' other touchdown came on Dave Stachelski's first career catch, a 2-yarder in the second period.
Gary Anderson added a 44-yard field goal following a 25-yard run by NFC rushing leader Smith, to make it 27-10. Smith scored from the 2 after Robert Tate's interception at the Saints 29 and Kailee Wong's interception finished off the Saints' turnaround season.
"We were glad to be here this year and we want to go further next year," Morton said.
Early on, Aaron Brooks showed great poise for someone in his seventh start. He eluded strong pressure to convert two third downs on New Orleans' 65-yard drive to Doug Brien's 33-yard first-quarter field goal. A 40-yard pass interference penalty on Wasswa Serwanga greatly helped the Saints.
That march also included Ricky Williams' first appearance at running back since Nov. 12, when he broke his left ankle. He ran for 3 yards on his first attempt and finished with 14 yards on six rushes in a secondary role.
Minnesota took a bit longer than three plays to score on its second series, driving 67 yards in 12 plays to Anderson's 24-yard field goal. Culpepper found Smith for 20 yards and Carter made a leaping 34-yard catch at the 1, but the Vikings stalled.
Carter was at it again late in the half. After Culpepper's 30-yard scramble, Carter ran an out pattern into the left corner of the end zone, where he outleaped beleaguered cornerback Mathis, who had his back to the quarterback the whole play.
Then Carter bowed to the heavens, one of many times he would celebrate yet another superb performance.
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