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Culpepper continues amazing play

Even though we use it way too much, frankly, we're not really all that big on "pace" stuff. You know, through five games, a player is on pace for this many catches or that many rushing yards, or so many sacks. But if you stayed up long enough to watch the Sunday night game in the Superdome -- probably, as was yours truly, flipping between the NFL game and baseball's ALCS -- you couldn't help but be impressed by the torrid, uh, pace, currently being set by Minnesota Vikings quarterback Daunte Culpepper.

Even with Randy Moss sidelined roughly half the game by a balky hamstring, Culpepper posted five touchdown passes for a record third time this season. Methinks it might not be the last single-season record the sixth-year veteran carves out in 2004. In leading an offense that amassed a sizzling 605 yards (nice defense by the Saints), the red-hot Culpepper hit on 26 of 37 attempts for a career-best 425 yards, with the five scoring passes and a couple of interceptions.

At his current pace (18 TDs and 1,766 yards through five games) -- yeah, we know, that word again -- Culpepper would finish with 432 completions in 598 attempts for 5,651 yards and an astronomical 58 touchdown passes. That would break NFL marks for completions (Rich Gannon, 418, in 2002); passing yards (5,084 by Dan Marino in 1984); and touchdown passes (Marino, 48, also in '84). "I've never, in all my years in the league, seen a quarterback as hot as he is right now," conceded New Orleans 13-year cornerback Ashley Ambrose.

There are some who contend that Culpepper can't keep playing at such a high level. But he still has eight "dome" games in the Vikings' final 11 contests of the season. And Culpepper is usually like a hothouse tomato indoors. If you're starting to consider most valuable player candidates, even at this early juncture, his name has to be at or near the top of the roll call.

It doesn't hurt that the Vikings offense is doing a nice job of developing even more young stars, like second-year wideout Nate Burleson (six catches for 134 yards Sunday night) and rookie tailback Mewelde Moore (187 total yards from scrimmage versus the porous Saints defense). But the strong-armed Culpepper is the undeniable hub of this high-powered offense right now and, if you like fireworks, circle Nov. 8 on the calendar, for the Minnesota-at-Indianapolis prime time matchup. Culpepper and Peyton Manning might blow the lid off the RCA Dome in that Monday night encounter.

One final thing on Culpepper, and, hopefully, the last time it's mentioned: If he does win the league MVP honor, it would mark the second season in a row that a quarterback of African-American descent either won the title outright or shared it. In a year that marks the 30th anniversary of pioneer James Harris going to the Pro Bowl, perhaps we could all, finally, expunge the term "black quarterback" from the lexicon forever.

Droughns on
So, given that Reuben Droughns entered the 2004 season with all of 40 carries for 97 yards, you'd probably be at least mildly surprised to know the newest Denver Broncos running back star finished his college career at the University of Oregon as the sixth-leading rusher in school history. But honest, he did, with 2,058 yards in the two years he played for the Ducks after transferring from Merced (Calif.) Junior College.

You also might not know that Droughns, 26, was a third-round draft choice of Detroit in 2000, and that those savvy, always-spot-a-diamond-in-the-rough Lions opted not to offer him a contract following the 2001 campaign. (Note to Lions, who ranked 32nd in rushing yards in 2002, and No. 28 in '03, and whose three tailbacks combined for all of 18 yards on 11 carries in Sunday's loss to Green Bay: You screwed up.) So, you think Droughns might look good in a Lions uniform right about now, bubby? You betcha.

Proving that one game does not make a career, Droughns followed up his eye-opening 193-yard outing of last week with a 176-yard game on Sunday against the pitiful Oakland Raiders. In his two starts this season, Droughns has carried 68 times for 369 yards. Basically, in the last two weeks, Droughns has accounted for 74.4 percent of his career rushing yardage. The guy who had never rushed for 30 yards in a game before last week now has run for 30 yards-plus in six of his past eight quarters. His career rushing average has gone from 2.4 yards per carry to 4.2 yards per rush. Not bad, right? The Lions' leading rusher in 2003, Shawn Bryson, had 606 yards. 60.9 percent of that his past two starts. In fact, over the last two games, Droughns individually has 33 more rushing yards than the Lions' top three tailbacks -- Artose Pinner, Kevin Jones and Bryson -- have combined for in five games.

Hall of problem
There are a lot of reasons, most of them articulated by the Kansas City media, for the four-game difference in the Chiefs' record at this point in the season as opposed to the same juncture of the 2003 campaign. A year ago after five outings, of course, Kansas City was 5-0 and in the midst of what would become a 9-0 run to open the season. This year, coach Dick Vermeil's club is 1-4 following Sunday's last-minute defeat against the Jacksonville Jaguars, and floundering, 3½ games behind the division-leading Broncos and, ignominiously, mired in the AFC West basement.

Theories abound, the most popular of which is that the Chiefs didn't do enough to improve their defense, despite re-signing some pretty good veterans and importing highly-regarded coordinator Gunther Cunningham. There is a feeling that quarterback Trent Green hasn't played as well as a year ago, that the wide receivers are deficient, that maybe management should have kept right tackle John Tait, instead of letting him escape to the Chicago Bears for a phat contract. Heck, some loyal Chiefs fans are even wondering if the game has begun to pass by coach Dick Vermeil, who turns 68 in less than two weeks.

Hey, all of these things could be true, at least in part. Then again, maybe none of the elements cited has anything at all to do with Kansas City's worst start since 2001, Vermeil's first year on the job. The one component upon which no one seems to have touched -- as Larry King says, it's my two cents, and so I'm spending it -- is the quick demise of the Dante Hall Era. That's right, the diminutive return specialist, forced to play more wide receiver this year because of injuries, isn't exactly sporting the Energizer Bunny look he had in 2003, when people were ready to name him the NFL's most valuable player less than halfway through the campaign. Hope all those folks are paying attention now because, insert drumroll here, it has now been a full season's worth of games, yep, 16 in a row, since Hall has scored on a kickoff or punt return.

In the Sunday loss at Jacksonville, he had four kickoff runbacks for 60 yards and two punts returns for a microscopic six yards. Props, indeed, to the Jags kick coverage teams and to special teams coordinator Pete Rodriquez, simply one of the best in the league. For the season to date, Hall has 15 kickoff returns for 313 yards, along with six punt returns for 62 yards. In fact, the once-explosive Hall has more fair catches right now, seven of them, than punt runbacks. Through the first five games of 2003, Hall had 15 kickoff returns for 491 yards and two touchdowns, and 12 punt returns for 259 yards and a couple scores.

So part of what's missing from the Kansas City repertoire this year? Uh, try four fewer special teams touchdowns and 375 fewer return yards, exactly half less return yardage than in 2003. That ciphers out to 75 yards less of return yardage per game in 2004 than in '03, and that's a ton of field position, folks.


Lito catching on
Third-year cornerback Lito Sheppard intercepted two passes in Philadelphia's rout of the Carolina Panthers on Sunday. Even better, the former University of Florida star, a notable big-play guy in college, returned one of the "picks" 64 yards for a touchdown.

Want even better yet? OK, we can do that, no sweat. The theft that Sheppard brought back for a score was the first interception by an Eagles starting cornerback in 336 pass attempts, counting 2003 postseason games. Not since Week 14 of last season, when Bobby Taylor pilfered a Quincy Carter aerial, had an Eagles starting corner posted a pickoff. What's so nifty about the long drought is that it makes even more remarkable the defense run by coordinator Jim Johnson. The Eagles aren't nearly as larcenous as they were a few seasons ago. They allow a lot of yardage. They bend, bend, bend, even more than a worn-out Gumby doll. But the unit doesn't often break.

There are some people disappointed with the play of Sheppard and Sheldon Brown, who inherited the starting spots filled for many years by Taylor and Troy Vincent. Don't count the Eagles coaches, though, among the skeptics.

Brown and Sheppard, part of a 2002 draft class that also netted Philadelphia starting strong safety Michael Lewis, are tough, physical kids, neither of whom is scared off by "press" coverage. Losing Vincent and Taylor in the offseason, both in free agency, was a reality for which the Eagles organization prepared. And, apparently, prepared well. The team chose Sheppard, Lewis and Brown with its first three picks in the '02 draft, fully cognizant that the trio would probably all move into the lineup together one day. Lewis got about a 1½-season jump on his buddies, but the three are all playing well right now. And you might want to wager a buck or two that, now that Sheppard has broken the ice, a lot more interceptions will follow.

Falcons find keepers
Nothing should diminish the excellent work done by Atlanta Falcons president/general manager Rich McKay and assistant general manager Tim Ruskell in supplying rookie head coach Jim Mora with a roster much better than people felt it would be. We surely aren't going to do so. But two of the holdovers from the Dan Reeves Era in the Falcons' personnel department, vice president of player personnel Ron Hill and director of pro personnel Les Snead, merit some mention here, especially after Sunday's victory over the formerly surging San Diego Chargers.

Hill will never take credit for the acquisition of Michael Vick but, trust us on this one, it was he who most nudged Reeves toward making the megatrade that netted the quarterback. Even though it was Vick who bailed out the Falcons in the fourth quarter Sunday, the handiwork of Hill and Snead was evidenced almost as much by the play of some incredibly nondescript youngsters who played well for Atlanta in a pinch. Aside from maybe their families, defensive linemen such as Antwan Lake, Cleveland Pinkney and Junior Glymph could have all sauntered out of the Georgia Dome on Sunday night, and no one would have known them. But with the team's defensive line undermanned because of injuries to swing-man Travis Hall and tackle Rod Coleman, the anonymous kiddy corps stepped up big-time.

You've got to do the legwork in the NFL to really unearth kids like the ones Atlanta had logging considerable playing time on the d-line Sunday afternoon. Hill and Snead are two scouts who understand that.

Fishy play calling
Regular visitors to this site know full well the regard we have for Dallas coach Bill Parcells. Even given the events of the past few seasons in New England, we would still have Parcells in a coin-flip with former protégé Bill Belichick if asked the old "if you had one game to win" hypothetical. But in the past two weeks, including a Sunday home loss to Pittsburgh, "The Tuna" and his staff have made some fishy calls.

First, there were two shaky fourth-and-one decisions in the Oct. 10 defeat to the Giants. On Sunday, though, a decision to have Vinny Testaverde try a pass in the late stages of the contest likely cost the Cowboys the game. Leading 20-17, the Cowboys faced a third-and-13 at the Pittsburgh 47-yard line. There was 2:36 remaining and, here's the key, the Steelers had no timeouts. Instead of simply calling a run play, letting the clock go to the two-minute warning and then punting, Dallas went with a pass play. Testaverde was hit by Steelers linebacker James Farrior and fumbled. Defensive end Kimo von Oelhoffen scooped up the loose ball and lumbered to the Dallas 24-yard line. The Steelers then got the winning touchdown on a two-yard run by Jerome Bettis.

Two home losses in a row for the Pokes and two defeats in which dubious sideline decisions played a part.

Punts
The victory which extended New England's winning streak to 20 games was the Pats' first triumph this year that didn't come against a winless opponent. ... The Steelers could lose two key defenders, nose tackle Casey Hampton and cornerback Chad Scott, to season-ending knee injuries. Both will have MRI exams Monday, but the initial prognosis doesn't appear very positive. ... Tennessee has lost three straight home games, the first time that has occurred since 1996, when the franchise was still playing in the Astrodome. Steve McNair has just one touchdown pass and six interceptions at home. ... Washington has scored 95 points in six games and hasn't been past 21 points yet. The defense, on the other hand, has allowed only six touchdowns. Coordinator Gregg Williams is doing a superb job with that unit. ... Great line from Falcons coach Jim Mora, who can get a tad excitable, in his Sunday post-game session. Mora was starting to take some heat over questions concerning Michael Vick's inability to function well in the more structured offense this year. At one point, in fact, Mora was borderline defensive about his star and he appeared a little angry. "You guys are all waiting for my dad to show up, aren't you?" joked Mora, referring to the much-documented post-game meltdowns of his father in his tenures at New Orleans and Indianapolis. ... Ben Roethlisberger of Pittsburgh is the first rookie quarterback to win his initial four starts since Phil Simms of the Giants in 1979. ... Byron Leftwich has now thrown touchdown passes in 11 straight Jacksonville games. ... The Miami offense has scored just four touchdowns. The Dolphins have had four interceptions against them returned for touchdowns. ... Most unusual quote of the day might have come from Detroit quarterback Joey Harrington. Asked about being booed in the Lions loss to Green Bay, he said: "Do I think it's right? No. Can I change it? No." Well, maybe Harrington could change things if he had a better day than the one he posted Sunday, completing just 12 of 23 passes for a measly 101 yards. ... All week long, Jets coach Herm Edwards talked about getting reserve tailback LaMont Jordan more carries. Instead, it was more of the same, as Jordan got only two attempts. Of course, that's one more than Jordan had in the first four games combined. By the way, he rushed for 25 yards on his two carries. ... The 99-yard touchdown pass from Cleveland quarterback Jeff Garcia to wideout Andre Davis was the 10th such score in league history.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.