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Culpepper has chance to build a reputation

The stakes are high, which is just the way Daunte Culpepper likes it.

Since coming to the Vikings in 1999, he has played in two Pro Bowls and an equal number of playoff games, but he is quick to agree that today's NFC wild-card game at Green Bay is the biggest of his career.

Coming off a career season, it could be a defining moment for Culpepper _ one way or the other _ and the Vikings' self-confident quarterback said he's fine with that.

"I'm willing and ready for whatever happens," he said. "I love the opportunity, and I love the chance to compete at this level and this magnitude. It's great."

This has been a breakthrough season for Culpepper, who set team records for passing yards (4,717), touchdown passes (39), completion percentage (69.2) and passer rating (110.9).

The passing yards and completion percentage also were league highs, but Culpepper knows his season and the Vikings' will be judged by how they do in the playoffs.

"I think that's the way you have to look at it," he said. "When you have guys who win in the postseason, that's what it's all about."

ESPN analyst Joe Theismann, one of Culpepper's biggest boosters this season, said today's game is about more than one player. The former Washington Redskins quarterback said the Vikings as a team have something to prove after stumbling into the playoffs despite a second consecutive 3-7 finish.

"I think there are question marks about the Minnesota Vikings' ability to take their game to the next level," Theismann said. "If you look at the way Daunte has played, you'd have to say he has. The playoffs become that stage where everybody gains a reputation. Like Peyton Manning has had a great season, but if he doesn't get to the Super Bowl, it will be a great season but These are the games that eliminate the "buts.' "

As Culpepper knows full well, that is especially true when it comes to players at his position.

Asked which quarterbacks he admired while growing up, he rattled off the names of Steve Young, Joe Montana, Doug Williams, Troy Aikman, Dan Marino and John Elway.

Of that group, all but Marino owns at least one Super Bowl ring, and he got to the big game in just his second season.

"That's what it all boils down to," Culpepper said. "Because, when it's all said and done, those guys have the hardware. If you don't have the hardware, you don't have anything."

Theismann led the Redskins to a 27-17 victory over the Miami Dolphins in Super Bowl XVII, so he owns some hardware of his own. He sees today's game as a potential "reputation maker" for Culpepper, particularly with Brett Favre on the other sideline.

"This is absolutely a defining game for Daunte," Theismann said. "You're talking about the playoffs. Forget about what happened during the regular season. For this next month, all that really gets lost. Now it's not about having that great year. It's the playoffs. This is where you make your bones. It's the big stage."

Culpepper, 27, has been upstaged by Favre in both Packers games this season, as the three-time league most valuable player led two late drives to set up last-second field goals in 34-31 victories.

Except for a 22-19 victory over the Detroit Lions on Nov. 21, Culpepper's NFL resume contains no such fourth-quarter heroics, but Vikings coach Mike Tice said that's not the quarterback's fault.

"He's taken us back to tie games late in games," Tice said. "We haven't been able to sustain that a couple of times and lost on last-second field goals. But if we can take that one drive _ that championship drive, if you will_and close out the deal and win the game, it would certainly make up for a lot of those tough, tough losses we had this year."

For the record, Culpepper was one of three quarterbacks selected to the NFC team for the Pro Bowl this season, while Favre was left off, but the Vikings' unassuming leading man isn't looking at Sunday's game as a personal duel.

Asked if he wants the ball in his hands at the end, he said, "If that's what it's going to take to win." A win on Sunday, though _ in the playoffs, over Favre, in the cold at Lambeau Field _ obviously could elevate Culpepper to a new level in the eyes of many.

"It would just let everybody else know exactly what we think about him," Tice said. "Which is we think he's one of the top quarterbacks in the league."