The Bucs were going for a ‘California sweep’ on the road this week and the Bucs went out and delivered in San Diego.
Tampa Bay ran its winning streak to four by going back and forth with the Chargers before coming out on top, 28-21. The Bucs went to San Francisco in Week 7 and won 34-17, taking both games played in the Golden State.
The victory improves the Bucs’ overall record to 7-5 and its near-perfect road record to 5-1. A Week 2 blowout loss at Arizona represents Tampa Bay’s lone defeat away from home. Coupled with Kansas City’s dramatic win over Atlanta, the Bucs are now in a first-place tie with the Falcons.
After allowing Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers to march San Diego 75 yards into the end zone in the game’s first 4 minutes and 7 seconds, Tampa Bay kept itself within striking distance until emphatically jumping ahead for the first time late in the third quarter.
A three-and-out forced the Bucs to send Bryan Anger onto the field and one of this year’s top punters pinned down San Diego at its own 8. The Chargers opted to pass on first down, but Bucs cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III got his arm in on Rivers’ quick-hitter to Tyrell Williams and the ball bounced straight into linebacker Lavonte David’s arms at the 15. David made sure the Bucs offense could stay on the sideline by bee-lining it into the end zone for a 17-14 lead.
The pick-six came about four minutes after Tampa Bay kicker Roberto Aguayo hit a 27-yard field goal, but Rivers, running back Melvin Gordon and the Chargers didn’t back down after the 10-point swing to start the second half. On three runs and one reception, Gordon picked up 35 quick yards and set up Rivers’ 40-yard touchdown strike to Williams that regained the advantage, 21-17.
The Chargers bounced back from Tampa Bay’s first 10-point run Sunday, but they wouldn’t recover from the next. Aguayo – who missed his first attempt from 31 yards at the end of the first half – capped an eight-play, 59-yard drive with a 35-yard field goal two minutes into the fourth quarter. San Diego went three-and-out on its next possession and Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston delivered the clincher.
Playing with spare parts after early injuries to wide receivers Cecil Shorts III and Adam Humphries, tight end Luke Stocker, and running back Doug Martin, Winston cut straight through the Chargers defense. He hit young wideout Freddy Martino for 16 yards, found running back Jacquizz Rodgers for 21 yards, handed off to Rodgers for five yards, and then split three San Diego defenders with a perfect pass into the end zone to tight end Cameron Brate.
The Winston-to-Brate strike combined with Winston’s two-point pass to receiver Mike Evans provided a seven-point cushion at 28-21. Rivers worked San Diego from its own 25 to the Tampa Bay 31 with about 3 minutes to go, but backup-turned-starting safety Keith Tandy dealt the knockout blow by picking off Rivers in front of the end zone. Starting for injured starter Chris Conte, Tandy made the leaping interception at the 2-yard line and fell on top of receiver Dontrelle Inman in the end zone. The Bucs took over at their own 20, Rodgers picked up a first down with a strong third-and-1 run, and Winston set up the victory formation.
Sunday might not have been Winston’s best statistical game of his brief career, but Tampa Bay would have been hard-pressed to win without his ability to extend plays and succeed under pressure. The second-year signal caller finished with a 93.8 passer rating by completing 20 of 30 attempts for 280 yards, one touchdown, and one interception.
It was also a record-setting day for Winston. He now has more passing yards than any quarterback under 23 in NFL history. Winston is at 7,065 yards passing with four games remaining this year. The Bucs’ final regular season game in on New Year’s Day at home against the Carolina Panthers and Winston turns 23 on Jan. 6.
The Bucs needed Winston’s fortitude as Bucs running backs struggled to find room to run. Martin (17 carries for 45 yards and one touchdown) and Rodgers (seven for 29) led a charge that totaled 81 yards on 30 attempts. Martin limped off the field late in the third quarter but managed to return.
Tampa Bay edged San Diego in total yardage, 349-330. Gordon showed why he’s regarded as one of the game’s premier running backs, racking up 84 yards and a touchdown on 17 carries, and 54 yards on four catches, but it wasn’t enough to revive San Diego’s scant playoff hopes.