MINNEAPOLIS -- The NFL season is only six weeks old. Is it too soon to call any one game pivotal?
Minnesota and Tampa Bay square off Monday night in a game that might qualify. The outcome either will thrust the Vikings into an unexpected role as heavy favorites of the NFC Central or allow the Buccaneers back into a race they were expected to win.
The Vikings (4-0) will hold a 2 1/2-game lead over the Buccaneers (3-2) if they win and a half-game lead if they lose.
"It's got to be a crucial game," Buccaneers defensive tackle Warren Sapp said. "If we lose it, we're three games out. If we're three games out against a good ballclub, chances are we're not going to win a division title.
"Luckily, they're not playing the Bears or the Lions or someone like that. We control how many games we're behind them by how we play Monday night."
Vikings receiver Cris Carter, a 14-year veteran handicapper of division races, said it is not just early to say this game is critical -- it is way too early.
"The division will begin to unfold in the next six weeks," Carter said. "It isn't right now."
Division race aside, there is enough familiarity between these organizations to breed a rivalry. Tony Dungy left the Vikings as an assistant to become Tampa Bay's head coach in 1996. A pair of Pro Bowlers from the Vikings' offensive line, center Jeff Christy and right guard Randall McDaniel, were signed as free agents last summer by the Buccaneers.
Quarterbacks Daunte Culpepper of Minnesota and Shaun King of Tampa Bay knew of each other growing up in Florida and became friends during the NFL draft two years ago. Their seasons have been a source of comparison, because Culpepper has excelled after sitting out his rookie season in 1999 and King has struggled despite entering his second season with five games experience as a starter.
The matchups also are compelling.
The Bucs, who fell in overtime at Washington and by giving up 15 points in the fourth quarter against the New York Jets the past two weeks, will attempt to revive a running game that averaged just 2.6 yards per carry last week. Minnesota's defensive front is allowing an NFC-worst 5.2 yards per carry.
The Vikings have had success offensively by taking advantage of what opponents have given them, whether it was Culpepper's long runs against Chicago or his long passes to Randy Moss against Detroit. But the Tampa Bay defense ranks among the NFC's best against both the pass and run.
"In all reality, we've just been better than the four teams we've played," Carter said. "We felt good about the team when everyone said we wouldn't be that good. Why should we care what people are saying now?
"The thing about it is, in '98 people said we weren't going to do anything. And it was a tremendous year, so coming back everyone said we were going to win. But it was the same personnel as the team that everyone said wasn't going to do anything. People, for the most part, don't know what they're talking about."
End Advance for Oct. 7-8
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