Bucs 23 Vikings 30
They may as well have been a coupte of boxers Standing toe-to-toe and punching it out. Shaun King of the Bucs and Daunte Culpepper of the Vikings went at it that way on Monday night. They traded jabs and haymakers, each one pulling his team off the ropes and at times off the canvas, neither clearly outpointing the other. That is, until a battle-weary Culpepper delivered the critical blow by hitting Randy Moss with a 42-yard touchdown pass with 3:31 to play. Closing out a classic battle of new millennium titans, Culpepper's pass gave the Vikings the deciding edge in their 30-23 victory against the Bucs, a team once 3-0 but now at .500, whose dying hopes of winning a second consecutive NFC Central Division title may have received its knockout blow as well.

Tony Dungy suggested in the pre-game hype that a loss would not destroy his team's playoff hopes but would all but eliminate it from contention for the NFC crown. If Dungy is proven right, he has mostly Culpepper to blame for it. Young guns such as Culpepper usually fare about as well as flyweights do against heavyweight champions when facing the Bucsag And like Jon Kitna, Cade McNown and Brian Griese before him, Culpepper certainly had his rocky moments. He was sacked six times and fumbled once, setting up a 0ucs early score. But on the other side he completed 15 of 19 throws for 231 yards and two touchdowns, the first to former Buc John Davis for 26 yards.

King, who had his breakout game against the Vikings on a Monday night last season, may have outdone Culpepper on the stat board, completing 26 of 39 passes for 295 yards. But he had no touchdowns and despite being sacked just twice, he and the Bucs were done in again by some shoddy special teams unit, which cost the Bucs a critical loss in the previous game at Washington, where Deion Sanders returned an overtime punt 57 yards to set up the game-winning score in overtime, gave the Bucs a late lead, its only one of the game, when Donnie Abraham returned a blocked field goal by Warren Sapp 66 yards for a touchdown. But it also lost two fumbles, both of which resulted in knee-buckling scores that cost the Bucs dearly.

The loss was the third for the Bucs on the road on Monday nights. The Vikings, meanwhile, improved to 19-18 overall on Monday. More importantly, though, it allowed the Vikings to improve to 5-0 on the season while the Bucs fell to 3-3. Were the Bucs ready for some Monday night football? Judging by the way they came out of the blocks, youd have to say no. They committed a penalty on the first attempted play from scrimmage - an over-anxious Randall McDaniel jumping out of his stance before the snap - and they gave the ball away on the second - Keyshawn Johnson turning a Bucs first down into the Vikings first touchdown by fumbling for the second time in three receptions dating to last weeks game against the Redskins.

Culpepper got the score for Minnesota, running 27 yards into the end zone when he couldnt find an open receiver on his first play under center. Not to be outdone, though, King counter- punched 10 minutes later by running 11 yards into the end zone, tying the game 7-7 after Johnson had kept the drive alive five plays earlier by making a spectacular catch on third-and-16 from the Bucs 48.

That drive had started at the Bucs 26, where John Lynch recovered Culpepper's fumble of a shotgun snap that bounced off the quarterback's leg. It reached the 48 thanks to a 14-yard Warnck Dunn run and an 18-yard King pass to Green, but it was in danger of stalling there because of a sack of King by Talance Sawyer and a Dunn run that tost a yard when King stumbled and fell while making the handoff.

King's throw to Johnson on the next play was high and when Johnson leaped into the air to make the catch, he could only tip the ball back into the air. As Johnson and two defenders fell to the ground, though, the ball fell into the Bucs' receivers hands, giving the Bucs new life at the Vikings 21. Three plays later, after hitting Jacquez Green for 11 yards on third-and-11 play, King rumbled into the end zone for his score.

Culpepper came out firing haymakers again on his next senes, staggering the Bucs this time with passes of 35 and 17 yards to Randy Moss on the first two plays of the drive. The Bucs defense fought back, though, eventually improving its league-leading sack total to 24 by dropping Culpepper to the turf with a pair of sacks that forced Minnesota to settle for a 38-yard Gary Anderson field goal that gave the Vikings a 10-7 lead.

Aaron Stecker's fumble put the Bucs back on the ropes and Culpepper's 26-yard touchdown pass to former Bucs tight end John Davis three plays later put them down for an eight-count at 11:11. But King wasn't about to go down that easily. Like the hero in a Rocky movie, he rallied his team again, this time converting four of five third- down tries in a 19-play drive that resulted in the Bucs settling for a 23-yard Martin Gramatica field goal that cut the Vikings lead to 17-10.

Following the break, Culpepper led the Vikings down the field for another score, this one a 43- yard Anderson field goal that came mostly as a result of a Damien Robinson pass interference penalty on first-and-10 from the Vikings 38. The Bucs matched that, closing the gap to 20-13 on a 33-yard Gramatica field goal and after recording three consecutive sacks of Culpepper on the next series, forcing the Vikings first punt, the Bucs closed within four points with a 35-yard Gramatica field goal.