MINNEAPOLIS Minnesota coach Mike Tice realizes some people remain skeptical about his team's early success.
He's not going to disagree.
''People should probably still doubt the Vikings,'' Tice said, repeating one of his favorite lines this season and pointing to a soft start to the schedule that included five opponents with a combined record of 8-20.
Well, here comes the tough part.
''Starting with this great Denver team,'' Tice added.
The Vikings (5-0) face their biggest challenge to date when the Broncos (5-1) drop by the Metrodome for a Sunday matinee, the NFL's best matchup this weekend. Denver's only defeat? A 24-23 loss to division rival Kansas City (6-0).
Though quarterback Jake Plummer will miss the next month with a broken bone in his foot, and Pro Bowl linebacker Ian Gold is out for the year with a knee injury, the Broncos are more dangerous on both sides of the ball than anyone Minnesota has played thus far. Green Bay, Chicago, Detroit, San Francisco and Atlanta don't quite measure up.
''They are just a solid football team,'' said Daunte Culpepper, who returns as the Vikings' starting quarterback. He hasn't played since breaking several bones in his back Sept. 21 against the Lions.
Minnesota barely missed its burly leader, because Gus Frerotte did a tremendous job in relief, passing for 690 yards, seven touchdowns and only two interceptions in 2 1/2 games.
The Broncos are hoping for a similarly seamless transition from Plummer to 17-year veteran Steve Beuerlein, who threw for 172 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions last week in a sluggish 17-14 victory at home over Pittsburgh.
Plummer missed that game with a sore shoulder, remarking afterward that ''the old guy still has it.''
Beuerlein was shocked this week that Plummer's latest injury apparently aggravated when he got up off his couch had earned him another promotion. All Beuerlein could do was shrug off the compliment from his colleague.
''I don't know if I really did have it in that game,'' Beuerlein said. ''But I still think I can get the job done, for sure, and do what they need me to do at this point.
''I thought I'd done my duty. After we won the game, I clicked it into cruise control for a few days, and I thought I'd be able to kick back and heal up a little bit.''
When Beuerlein arrived at work Wednesday, he didn't initially believe some of his teammates who told him he'd better be ready to start again.
''That's a cruel joke for a guy who might have a heart condition,'' Beuerlein kidded.
As is usually the case when two good teams are preparing to play each other, the flattery was coming fast and furious from both sides this week.
The Broncos, who haven't played at the Metrodome since 1996, will be the first AFC team to test a vastly improved defense that leads the league in interceptions (13) and is allowing 16.8 points per game.
''I've got impeccable timing, don't I?'' Beuerlein said.
Broncos wide receiver Rod Smith sounded impressed.
''Those guys are flying around,'' he said. ''Every ball that's tipped, they're picking it.''
Then, of course, there's the Randy Moss-led offense that's first in the NFL in scoring at 30.2 points per game.
Moss has 515 yards receiving and six touchdowns, including five scores in his last two games. Denver's Lenny Walls is quickly becoming a top cornerback, and at 6-foot-4 he should be able to match up better with Moss than most.
''There's no such thing as an ideal guy to go against Randy Moss,'' Smith said.
The Broncos' offensive line has long been one of the league's best, an undersized unit adept at creating cutback lanes for a small, speedy running back like Clinton Portis. In just his second season, Portis has rushed for 479 yards despite being slowed by a bruised chest.
''Makes a lot of people miss,'' Minnesota strong safety Corey Chavous said. ''He has instant acceleration.''
Denver's defense will put plenty of pressure on the Vikings' line, too. The Broncos have 17 sacks, tied for third in the NFL.
''Those guys are fast,'' Culpepper said. ''We definitely have to be on top of our game this week.''
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