MINNEAPOLIS -- In the battle of two No. 1s -- the No. 1 offense of 2003 against the No. 1 defense -- the Minnesota Vikings held all the aces. They had No. 11 Daunte Culpepper and this ace leads a full house of talent.
What the Vikings did to Bill Parcells' Dallas Cowboys defense was terrifying. Naturally, Parcells spent a part of the day double- and occasionally triple-teamming Vikings wide receiver Randy Moss. It's accepted that the league's best receiver is going to draw a crowd, but that didn't stop Culpepper from throwing five touchdown passes.
Culpepper's maturity as a quarterback puts the Vikings offense in a new dimension. The Vikings whipped the Cowboys, 35-17 Sunday, and put up 415 yards almost effortlessly. The Cowboys held the ball 12 minutes of the first quarter and a minute into the second quarter. Culpepper then started moving his feet, throwing his bombs and outthinking the defense.
"We were the No. 1 offense and they were the No. 1 defense, and everybody thought it was going to be a close game," Moss said. "I really thought we were going to score 40 points on these guys."
Moss wasn't just rubbing salt into the wound. During tape sessions early last week, he told his teammates they could score 40 on the Cowboys. Even though Minnesota was without playmaking halfback Michael Bennett, Moss also took into account the Cowboys were without strong safety Darren Woodson.
After the game, Parcells sounded hopeless in facing the Vikings offense.
"I told the defense after the game they went from No. 1 to 32 and they did it in a week," Parcells said. "We have a lot of work to do. The good thing is that you can only lose the game once."
Already, Moss is starting to compare this offense to the Vikings' record-setting unit of 1998. That year, they scored 556 points. Since then, Cris Carter and Dennis Green have left. But solid drafts and key free agent signings have built up an arsenal of weapons.
For speed and deep threats, the Vikings can hit you with Nate Burleson and Kelly Campbell. Culpepper sent Campbell down the left side of the field in the fourth quarter, knowing he had single coverage on cornerback Pete Hunter. Knowing that Campbell was a former sprinter, Culpepper tried to overthrow him to give him a chance to catch up to make the reception.
"Kelly Campbell is a big track guy, and he'll tell you, he can run," Culpepper said. "He just tells me like Randy, 'Just throw it out there and I'm going to go get it.' "
That type of confidence would be useless if they didn't have a quarterback like Culpepper. Like Moss, he's a freak for his position: 265 pounds plus athletic with one of the league's deepest throws and an elusive running style.
Culpepper came out of last year thinking he needed to create more problems for defenses by running when his first two reads are covered. Three times in one drive, Culpepper successfully scrambled on third down to keep drives alive.
The Vikings play mind games with defenses. Parcells wanted to use some man-to-man near the line of scrimmage and have the safeties play a two-deep zone. Moss sees these defenses all the time. To counter, the Vikings will stack Moss behind or in front of a receiver like Burleson on one side of the field. Against three-receiver sets, defenses have to commit half of their six defensive backs to Moss' side.
"They were buzzing a linebacker out there too," Culpepper said, indicating an occasional triple coverage on Moss. The linebacker tries to get him at the line. The cornerback and a safety are waiting for him to go downfield.
Over the years, Culpepper has seen about everything thrown at Moss, and knows how to respond. Trailing 3-0 in the second quarter, Culpepper had a third-and-1 at the Vikings 37-yard line. He stacked Moss and Burleson on the right side. He had Marcus Robinson and tight end Jim Kleinsasser on the left. He sensed blitz and called an audible. All Moss did was step out a couple yards and turn to his right near the sidelines.
While three defenders followed Moss, Culpepper picked up that the Cowboys defenders not involved in coverage were in an all-out blitz. He sent halfback Onterrio Smith into the middle of the field and flipped him the ball. Smith raced 63 yards for a touchdown, and the Vikings offensive machine was on a roll. At one point Sunday, the Vikings scored touchdowns on four consecutive possessions.
"The offense is better than 2000," Moss said. "The 1998 offense was very explosive and this offense has the ingredients to be as explosive as 1998. But this is Week 1. We are 1-0. We just wanted to get this first game behind us and go on down the road and just see what we do."
Tice studied the stat sheet after the game and smiled. Nine different players caught passes. Moss, in fact, only had four receptions for 27 yards. Culpepper was 17 for 23 for 242 yards and five touchdowns. His quarterback rating was 147.1. The Vikings were so hot throwing the football even Moss completed a pass to Marcus Robinson for 37 yards.
Though effective, Moss' pass wasn't pretty. It wobbled and was short, forcing Robinson to come back to make the reception.
"I test him every time we call that play in practice by saying, 'Who's going to throw it?" Culpepper said. "But Randy's a great athlete. Randy could probably be a quarterback if he had started playing quarterback at an early age. He's just a great athlete, but I don't think he was ready to put a spiral on that one. But it got there."
Tice estimated Culpepper audibled about eight times, twice changing plays into what turned out to be touchdowns. He's in sync on every phase of his game -- running, throwing and thinking.
The Vikings offense has that swagger again. Cowboys cornerback Terence Newman is considered one of the most talented young corners in the game. Culpepper and Moss made him look silly Sunday.
For whatever reason, Parcells had Newman line up against Moss in man coverage when the Vikings were in the red zone. Culpepper had fun all day with that. Once, Moss drew an interference call when Hunter lined up against in man near the goalline. Twice, Culpepper hit Moss for touchdowns in front of Newman.
One of those touchdown receptions was for revenge. Moss slipped on a route in the end zone and Newman flopped on him. That's normal. Moss said he was too tired to get up, but Newman started slapping him around while he was on the turf.
"Randy wanted it more and coach Scott Linehan (offensive coordinator) called the play to get back over there and go at it," Culpepper said. "We are competing out there, and we try to go out to make plays on people."
It became personal. For Moss, it was nice because he remembered talk about the Cowboys being interested in drafting him. Before it bothered him a lot. He felt misled. They instead chose defensive end Greg Ellis, a solid player but not a great pass rusher. Moss had fun burning the Cowboys.
Now, in Minnesota, the offense is built around him. It's up to the rest of the league to stop it. Even though it didn't show in his numbers, Moss loved the attention the Cowboys gave him in coverage. When opponents concentrate on him, he says, "We burn them."
"We tried to roll into him and double him," Parcells said. "We went to sleep a couple of times in the secondary in the third quarter on two long drives they had. You can't do stuff like that, not against a good team like that."
The Vikings proved to be the No. 1 of the No. 1s.
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.