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BREAKING BRAD

Brad Culpepper, one step away from elimination tonight, talks Survivor strategy.

As ex-Tampa Bay Buccaneer Brad Culpepper faces a climactic battle tonight to stay on Survivor, one vexing thing has contributed to his precarious position: puzzles.

"I can do puzzles," Culpepper grumbled in an interview this week. "I passed the bar, I can do a puzzle."

The Tampa lawyer's tribe has been dubbed the Brad News Bears for their big goose egg when it comes to winning all-important immunity challenges. More often than not, puzzles have been their downfall.

Culpepper has emerged as a star and a lightning rod on this twisty-turny season called Survivor: Blood vs. Water, in which veteran Survivor players (like his wife, Monica Culpepper) are playingwith a loved one.

Unlike any other season of this classic reality show now in its 27th season, teams have to be careful who they boot off, lest they hurt their loved one's game on the other tribe. So far, that wrath has been reserved for Culpepper, who has been cursed out and shot a rude gesture when the tribes get together on Redemption Island.

Culpepper formed an early alliance of five men, and he points out that he has always put his team in a good spot, dragging a crate across the water while the rest of the team couldn't seem to finish a puzzle - even with a three-minute lead.

When his tribe sent him to Redemption Island last week in a dramatic last-minute twist, Culpepper exited with, "I'm not mad at you. I made a mistake."

So is he realizing it was a mistake to get rid of his best bro John, causing the rest of his alliance to distrust him? Not at all, Culpepper said. His mistake was not immediately speaking up for himself at the Tribal Council.

"I should have said, 'Look guys let's go after Caleb. Every one of us has a loved one on the other tribe and since Caleb does not, we won't have anyone mad at us at the merge.' No one seems to grasp this is not regular Survivor," Culpepper said. "If it was, I would never have broken up the five-guy alliance." He would have taken John to the end, he said.

But he is thinking about Monica, he said, trying to keep her from being targeted by what's happening on his tribe. When you have a loved one on the other side possibly getting the blame for what you do, you have to change your strategy, he said.

So now Culpepper will be up against Candice and her husband, John, on Redemption Island. The game play was shot in the Philippines in May and June, but of course Culpepper can't reveal who loses. Candice has made it very clear how much she despises Brad Culpepper, even shooting him the bird in front of the whole cast last week, so the competition is intense.

Culpepper said he has been dismayed by the hate he's seen from both the players and blogs and Twitter. "For people to act as immature as they did over a game and take it so personally. ... It's just a game."

Asked how hungry he got, he said, "Not very."

"I caught about 41 fish, plus there were bananas, papayas, coconuts. They are going to miss that."

In a recent interview, host Jeff Probst didn't do much to dispel complaints of his bromance with Culpepper.

"While we're on the topic of Brad - can we just address the Culpepper bodies for a moment? How exactly do they do it?" Probst said to Entertainment Weekly. "They both have beautiful, sculpted bodies that seem to defy gravity. I've seen a lot of people parade around in swimsuits, but if Survivor had a 'best couples combined body' I think they'd be a shoo-in!"

Culpepper shucked that it was "nice of him say" and that at age 43 and 44 it's "not by accident" that they are so buff. But he's found it amusing how writers have picked up on Probst calling him "Culpepper" from the start, almost like a term of endearment.

"It's funny their dislike of me over that," Culpepper said. "Should I have raised my hand and said, 'Jeff can you please call me Brad because some message board will have a problem with it?' "

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On the web

Survivor airs at 8 tonight on CBS.

Follow us on Twitter @TimesTVFeed, where we'll be live-tweeting the episode. Look for a recap on The Feed blog, at tampabay.com/blogs/media.

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