CHAMPAIGN—Just how broad are Daunte Culpepper's shoulders? They looked extra large by tailoring standards in his light brown suit. As if being 6 foot 4 inches and 260 pounds were not big enough, they loomed even larger once he opened his mouth.
"It all points back to me," the Vikings' quarterback said after his team lost to the Bears 27-23 in their NFL season opener Sunday. "I accept that."
With barely over 21/2 minutes remaining and the Vikings leading 23-20, Culpepper overthrew Derrick Alexander. Safety Mike Brown intercepted the pass to set up the Bears' winning drive.
"That was very uncharacteristic of me to make an errant throw like that," Culpepper said.
Culpepper was subdued but not morose in a quiet locker room. Last year Culpepper and other Vikings were shocked speechless when the Bears bested them 17-10 at Soldier Field. In a Cinderella-type season, the Bears advanced to the playoffs. The Vikings tumbled to a 5-11 record, hastening the exit of coach Dennis Green.
These Vikings are younger and more inexperienced, with a new coach, Mike Tice, who had his team poised for an upset.
"I'm proud and disappointed in the same sentence," said Tice, who used the words "fight" and "battle" in other sentences to praise his team. Still, Tice said it was turnoverstwo interceptions and one fumblethat cost his team the most.
"We've got to make sure we finish each series with the ball in our possession," he said.
In comparison to the recent past when the Vikings were perennial playoff contenders, they are a team of no-names. But unheralded backs like Moe Williams (48 yards) and Doug Chapman (33 yards), who complemented Michael Bennett's 53 yards, had the Bears reeling.
It was 23-13 Minnesota with 9 minutes 7 seconds to go. That's a long time, but the 63,226 fans were worried. And the Vikings did not think things would change so quickly.
"Yeah, I'm surprised," said the Vikings' Jim Kleinsasser, who grabbed five passes. "I don't think anybody was expecting [the Bears' rally]."
Not even D'Wayne Bates, the former Bear and now a Vikings starting receiver.
"We never thought we were going to lose," said Bates, who made two catches, including a 46-yarder that set up the game's first score, a Doug Brien 30-yard field goal. "Even in the end, when we had 70 yards and 30 seconds to go."
Bates, a former Northwestern star who still considers Chicago home, said he believed Minnesota had the Bears on the verge of a knockout.
"We got rolling and I thought we had a pretty good chance to finish this team off," he said.
He should know better. Bates was one of the 2001 Bears who specialized in heart-stopping comebacks.
Sunday, they were just following the same script.