TAMPA, JAN. 13 -- Minnesota wide receiver Anthony Carter owns a travel agency that's booking several Vikings flights to Washington this weekend, so you might say he's carrying the team to the playoffs -- on and off the field.

In two playoff victories, he's totaled 500 yards of offense, not bad for the NFL's 19th leading pass-catcher during the regular season. Of course, when the Vikings threw to him this season, he usually made a big deal out of it, averaging a league-leading 24.3 yards per reception. Chicago Coach Mike Ditka was impressed, saying, "That's 2 1/2 first downs every time he touches the ball."

Carter wanted more.

At one point, he asked, "Why did they trade for me?" Now, we know.

If there's one significant reason for a Vikings resurgence heading into Sunday's NFC championship game against the Washington Redskins at RFK Stadium, it's Carter, a 5-foot-11, 170-pounder who previously was famous for his bony legs, not to mention Bo Schembechler.

Carter's legs are so thin, he calls himself, "Pelican legs." Of course, thin is in for Carter, a vitamin nut since high school. Schembechler convinced him to attend Michigan when Florida State, which appeared to have the inside track, asked Carter's girlfriend to pressure him to become a Seminole, which aggravated Carter. He joined forces with Bo, instead, and they got along so well, he was nicknamed "Little Shemmy."

Today, in a pool-side interview before a Vikings practice, Carter explained: "Bo, he doesn't like too many people. But we got along, with me being a great guy and a team ballplayer and not getting a big head. It was just the way I carried myself. If your head's screwed on right, he likes you. I don't take my head off and put it on a shelf at night like some people."

Something's screwed on right, whatever it is, because Carter has become the NFL's newest rage, turning the 49ers' Jerry Rice into yesterday's hero. In playoff victories over New Orleans and San Francisco, he tied or set 10 Vikings playoff records and two NFL records. The 49ers tried covering him man-to-man, and he caught 10 passes.

Considering he caught only 38 passes all season and considering he's caught 16 the last two weeks, something's definitely up, and it probably has something to do with the new Vikings quarterback. Carter acknowledges Wade Wilson, who will start Sunday's game, has a stronger arm than former starter Tommy Kramer, and Carter says he's good at running under bombs. He says he has 4.4- or 4.5- second speed in the 40-yard dash, but has probably "4.2 speed when I'm running for the ball."

Wilson says: "He's getting open now. Against San Francisco, he didn't draw double coverage, and all year, he did. If someone doesn't do something special to him, we design things to get it to him."

Wilson also said he had plenty of time to throw against San Francisco, which means any extensive pass rush from Redskins defensive ends Dexter Manley or Charles Mann might eliminate Carter as a factor. Then again, with Darrell Green hurting and Brian Davis a likely replacement, Carter might well be covered by a rookie cornerback.

Carter's family will be watching back home in Riviera Beach, Fla. -- his mother, who wrecked the Mercedes he gave her; his brother, who just spent 3 1/2 years in prison, and his father, who only started coming around when Carter made big money. Emotional and a worry-wart, Carter floundered in his early professional seasons, somehow overly preoccupied with the troubles back home.

After an all-America career at Michigan, Carter was drafted by the Miami Dolphins, but joined the U.S. Football League's Michigan Panthers. That's when his father came around for the first time since he was about 10, something he couldn't understand but figured it had to do with his million dollar contract.

Growing up without a father had left a chip on his shoulder, but the chip is apparently just a splinter now, because he doesn't blame his dad anymore. He also said he doesn't give him money, either.

He did give his mother, Manita, money; in fact, he bought her that Mercedes that was in the shop a few weeks later. "They didn't treat it right," he says now. "After a couple accidents, they had to get rid of it." The next time, he knew better and bought her a Chevrolet Celebrity. He also bought his brother, Reggie, an El Dorado, something to celebrate his release from jail.

Reggie, in fact, influenced Anthony the most when he was growing up. Reggie was the first one who ever told him to run a post pattern. But Anthony explains: "He'd be gambling, and he'd get caught, and he'd be put on probation, and he'd get caught again. And he got time."

Anthony had not led a perfect life himself, considering he was an unwed father by his senior year of high school. But he did show a knack for getting involved with good causes, like working with kids at a local playground, where he met his wife, Ortancis.

Ortancis had two teen-age daughters who hung around that particular playground, and Carter met their mother soon thereafter. Ortancis, at the time, was an unmarried insurance executive with a Riviera Beach firm and also a member of the local city council. Normally, Ortancis intimidated most of the men she dealt with.

"She was used to intimidating guys, but I didn't take no mess from her," Carter said. "That's probably why she liked me."

They were married, and Carter thus inherited two daughters, one of whom he's putting through college. He needs 30 more credits to graduate himself, but he figures Ortancis' daughter will beat him to it.

He made Ortancis quit her jobs and go with him to Minnesota after the Dolphins traded his rights to the Vikings in 1985 for linebacker Robin Sendlein and a No. 2 draft pick and he left the USFL. Now, she's busy with the travel agency, happy as a lark and apparently intimidating male customers.

Naturally, his sudden fame is improving his travel business, what with all those trips he's booking to Washington and the potential of a Super Bowl trip to San Diego. Before, when he wasn't getting the football, his battle cry was "quality, not quantity," but now the Vikings are giving him both.

"I guess they wanted to start winning," Carter said.