Culpepper chillin' while Vick-less Falcons falling apart
Culpepper didn't play last week because of an ailing back, but the Vikings kept on winning with Gus Frerotte. Minnesota is the NFC's only 4-0 team heading into Sunday's game at the Georgia Dome.
"I'm having a lot of fun -- not a lot of stress," said Frerotte, who was near-perfect in a 35-7 rout of San Francisco. "It's funny. You have such a good game like I had and after the game it was normal. My wife and I just went out to eat with the kids. It wasn't a big deal."
Ahh, the beauty of playing with a winner. Everyone expects to succeed. It just feels right, even when a top player such as Culpepper goes down.
Which brings us to the Falcons (1-3), whose three-game losing streak has unleashed all sorts of pettiness and strife.
Cornerback Tyrone Williams was suspended for this game after an apparent blowup with the coaches. Two key players, Warrick Dunn and Peerless Price, are grumbling about their role in the offense. And Doug Johnson hasn't done a thing to make people forget about Vick.
Since holding a 24-17 lead on Washington in Week 2, the Falcons have been outscored 70-20. They have managed just two touchdowns in the last 10 quarters -- and one of those handed over on a silver platter when the defense scooped up a fumble and returned it within 2 yards of the end zone.
"You just have to take a look at yourself in the mirror," Johnson said. "Everybody does. We don't need any bad attitudes on the team."
The Falcons keep pointing out they were in this same position a year ago and rallied to make the playoffs as a wild card.
"It's not how you start a season, it's how you finish," Johnson said. "That's what we did last year -- we finished strong. That's what we plan on doing this year."
Not so fast. The Falcons had Vick at quarterback when they began last season's turnaround. He hasn't played since breaking a bone in his right leg during the second preseason game, and it doesn't look like he'll return until the Oct. 19 game against New Orleans.
By then, the Falcons could be 1-5 and headed for oblivion. For a franchise that has never had back-to-back winning season, these are critical times.
"The thing is, we've seen things go down the tubes here so many times before that we want to nip this in the bud before it's too late to save the season," cornerback Ray Buchanan said. "Our expectations were high coming in this year, and it's our job to live up to that no matter who gets hurt."
Culpepper broke three small bones and partially fractured another in his lower back during a Sept. 21 victory over Detroit. Frerotte finished that game, then passed for 267 yards and four touchdowns in the victory over San Francisco.
He could be in position to have another big game with Randy Moss (24 receptions, four TDs) working against the Falcons' shaky, undermanned secondary. For a guy who wants to be a starter again, this could be his chance to impress.
"I always have that itch," Frerotte said. "I know I can play in this league and I feel very comfortable back there. Maybe somebody is watching. Who knows?"
Minnesota's quarterbacks rank 1-2 in the NFC passing ratings: Frerotte leads at 128.2, followed by Culpepper at 108.0. By comparison, Johnson is far down the list at 60.5.
"Vick is the key to that offense," Vikings defensive tackle Chris Hovan said. "I'm glad he's out."
No kidding. Last year at Minnesota, Vick rushed for 173 yards -- an NFL record for a quarterback -- and finished off his virtuoso performance with a 46-yard touchdown scamper in overtime to give the Falcons a 30-24 victory.
"Yeah, we definitely feel like we owe them a little something for that game," defensive end Lance Johnstone said.
Under first-year coordinator George O'Leary -- the former Georgia Tech coach who was disgraced by lies on his resume -- the Vikings have tightened up defensively. They so frustrated the 49ers that receiver Terrell Owens chewed out a coach on the sideline and blasted his teammates publicly.
Minnesota leads the league with 11 interceptions, including four each from starting safeties Corey Chavous and Brian Williams. That doesn't bode well for Johnson, who already has been picked off seven times while managing just four TDs.
The Vikings are glad to be facing a pure dropback passer, though Johnstone would love to get another crack at Vick. He still remembers what happened in overtime last year.
"I would like to give him a lick or two for that run," he said. "For whatever reason, that is the one highlight of Michael Vick that everybody wants to show. I am tired of seeing it personally because I happen to be in it."
For the Falcons, year-old highlights are about all they have right now.
This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index