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The gesture at the end of the play created a furor, but Vikings quarterback Daunte Culpepper's barely-noticed hand signal to receiver Randy Moss made it all possible.

The touchdown.

The victory.

The mock mooning Moss gave Green Bay fans in the end zone at Lambeau Field in Minnesota's 31-17 victory Sunday, and the ensuing controversy, would never have happened. Not without Culpepper, who recognized an all-out blitz, changed from a running play to a pass and lofted a perfectly thrown ball into the end zone for Moss to collect.

Hey, that's okay.

By now, Culpepper is accustomed to working in someone else's shadow. Despite a record-setting season of his own, Culpepper leads Minnesota into an NFC Division playoff game at Philadelphia with little fanfare thanks to a teammate's antics, Peyton Manning's abundance and the Vikings' familiar December swoon.

"It's too bad Peyton Manning had the year he did because a lot of people would have probably taken more notice of "Peps' here," Pro Bowl center Matt Birk said.

"He seems to do everything for us. When the plays are there, he makes them. When the plays aren't there, the protection breaks down, he seems to make them, too. I don't know the last time he made a bad decision. He's been scary good, like almost flawless. But that kind of recognition also comes with winning."

Culpepper, a sixth-year pro from Central Florida who grew up in Ocala, is on his way to a third Pro Bowl after setting franchise passing records for yards (4,717), touchdowns (39), completion percentage (69.2) and rating (110.9). He ranked among the top two in the league in each of those categories, plus completions (379) and attempts (458).

Culpepper became the first in NFL history to have three five-touchdown games in a season, and with 18 in the first five games it was Culpepper who seemed poised to threaten Dan Marino's supposedly untouchable record of 48 scoring passes.

Pretty impressive, eh?

"He plays with extreme passion and intensity," tight end Jermaine Wiggins said. "I'm going to be happy one day to say I played with a Hall of Fame quarterback in Daunte Culpepper and I'll be able to tell stories to my grandkids."

But a 5-1 start gave way to three straight losses. After two more wins, Minnesota lost four of its final five. Manning broke the record. Moss walked off the field with two seconds left in a season-ending loss to the Redskins. Coach Mike Tice came under criticism as the Vikings eked into the playoffs at 8-8.

Through the storm, Culpepper was steady.

"Culpepper has been great for us all season," Tice said. "He's tried to carry us to victory a number of times and because we didn't give him enough support his legs got heavy a few times before the game ended and he couldn't carry us the whole way there.

"But there have been a number of games this season where he did his part and a bunch of other guys' parts, too. He couldn't cover and tackle guys at times, but he thought about it. He's just tremendous. He's got great fortitude and character and that winning edge that you need."

But the NFL was full of great quarterback stories this season: Manning's pursuit of Marino, rookie Ben Roethlisberger's 13-0 record, Drew Brees' remarkable comeback, Donovan McNabb's bombs to Terrell Owens and Michael Vick's magic act.

Somehow, the league's most physically imposing quarterback _ Culpepper is an eye-popping 6-foot-4, 264 pounds _ was overlooked.

Even on the day of Culpepper's greatest professional triumph _ Sunday's stunning upset of the NFC North champion Packers _ he was upstaged by the losing quarterback when Brett Favre, fresh off a four-interception game, suggested he might retire.

Culpepper? All he did that day was throw four touchdowns and lead his team with 54 yards rushing in what he agreed was the biggest game of his career.

"This game was huge," Culpepper said. "Not only was it our biggest rival, it was a playoff game. Pretty much everybody said we couldn't do it and we never bought into the negativity."

As a child, Culpepper's heroes were Steve Young, Joe Montana, Doug Williams, Troy Aikman, John Elway and Marino. The common thread: Each has at least one Super Bowl victory, with the exception of Marino, who played in the game his second season.

"When you have guys who win in the postseason, that's what it's all about," Culpepper said. "That's what it all boils down to. When it's all said and done, those guys have the hardware. If you don't have the hardware, you don't have anything.

"A championship, that's what I want."

DAUNTE'S PEAK

Vikings quarterback Daunte Culpepper had a career year in 2004, ranking among the top two in virtually all passing categories:

YARDS

1. Daunte Culpepper: 4,717

2. Trent Green: 4,591

ATTEMPTS

1. Trent Green: 556

2. Daunte Culpepper: 548

COMPLETIONS

1. Daunte Culpepper: 379

2. Trent Green: 369

COMPLETION PERCENTAGE

1. Brian Griese: 69.3

2. Daunte Culpepper: 69.2

TOUCHDOWNS

1. Peyton Manning: 49

2. Daunte Culpepper: 39

RATING

1. Peyton Manning: 121.1

2. Daunte Culpepper: 110.9

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