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BUCS’ OPPONENT: San Diego Chargers

WHERE: Qualcomm Stadium

SPREAD: Chargers by 5

WHERE THE CHARGERS STAND: The Chargers are 9-3 and in first place in the AFC West Division.

CHARGERS HEAD COACH: Marty Schottenheimer

CHARGERS OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Cam Cameron

CHARGERS DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Wade Phillips

CHARGERS SPECIAL TEAMS COACH: Steve Crosby

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS OFFENSE:
OVERALL: 23rd (304.2 ypg)
RUSHING: 28th (95.8 ypg)
PASSING: 18th (208.4 ypg)

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS DEFENSE:
OVERALL: 3rd (283.3 ypg)
RUSHING: 22nd (123.3 ypg)
PASSING: 1st (159.9 ypg)

SAN DIEGO CHARGERS OFFENSE:
OVERALL: 10th (351.8 ypg)
RUSHING: 5th (137.5 ypg)
PASSING: 16th (214.3 ypg)

SAN DIEGO CHARGERS DEFENSE:
OVERALL: 11th (315.5 ypg)
RUSHING: 2nd (78.7 ypg)
PASSING: 27th (236.6 ypg)

DID YOU KNOW…
…San Diego appears to be poised to make the playoffs for the first time in eight seasons?

CHARGERS OFFENSE:
San Diego has the 10th ranked offense in the National Football League. Chargers offensive coordinator Cam Cameron’s unit has benefited from quarterback Drew Brees’ emergence. Brees has completed nearly 65 percent of his passes for 2,564 yards and tossed 21 touchdowns and just four interceptions this season.

Brees’ offensive line is giving him time to locate receivers. In fact, Brees has only been sacked 15 times through 12 games this season. Former Tampa Bay left tackle Roman Oben, who was traded to San Diego during the offseason, protects Brees’ blindside and will be charged with the difficult task of holding off Bucs defensive end Simeon Rice, who notched two sacks against Atlanta last week.

Although Brees has been playing well, Tampa Bay defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin’s group will aim to halt San Diego’s ground game first. It’s led by running back LaDainian Tomlinson, who has carried the ball 267 times for 1,012 yards (3.8 avg.) and 13 touchdowns while running behind one of the league’s best fullbacks in Lorenzo Neal.

Cameron likes to use Tomlinson as a receiver, too, where he’s hauled in 43 passes for 332 yards. Bucs linebackers Derrick Brooks, Shelton Quarles and Ian Gold will each have to account for Tomlinson at different times throughout the game, especially on screen and swing passes. In addition to tackling him, the Bucs defenders must try to rip the ball out of Tomlinson’s hands. He is, after all, prone to fumbling, evidenced by his five fumbles this season.

If Tampa Bay can contain Tomlinson, the Bucs defense will stand a good chance of getting itself off the field and sending its offense on it. Tomlinson puts the Chargers in short down-and-distance situations, which is the main reason why they’re converting nearly 47 percent of their third down tries this season.

Brees’ go-to receiver is actually his tight end, Antonio Gates. Gates has caught a team-leading 72 passes for 826 yards and 11 touchdowns this season. Look for Kiffin to stick safety Dwight Smith on Gates, who is athletic and has impressive speed and hands. Smith has the cover skills of a corner and held Falcons TE Alge Crumpler and 49ers TE Eric Johnson to one catch each earlier this season. The Bucs could get themselves in trouble if they’re forced to use Smith as an extra man in the box in an effort to defend the run. That scenario could open things up for Gates and the Chargers’ passing game, so the Bucs’ front seven must find a way to contain Tomlinson on their own.

The Chargers are undefeated since former Bucs wide receiver Keenan McCardell’s arrival. McCardell has adjusted quickly to Cameron’s offense and has hauled in 28 passes for 363 yards and one touchdown. There’s no doubt that McCardell will want to show his former team that he was worth the money he held out for and didn’t receive, but the good news for the Bucs is cornerback Brian Kelly, who has emerged as one of the league’s elite cover corners, will be covering him throughout most of this contest. Kelly leads the Bucs defense with four interceptions and 16 passes defensed.

CHARGERS DEFENSE:
San Diego head coach Marty Schottenheimer hired defensive coordinator Wade Phillips during the offseason, and that move has helped the Chargers improve from 27th (2003) to 11th in total defense this season.

Phillips’ unit features the 3-4 defensive scheme. Because their front three, which is made up of defensive ends Adrian Dingle and Igor Olshansky, and defensive tackle Jamal Williams, doesn’t get much pressure on the quarterback, Phillips’ scheme features a lot of blitzing from the team’s linebackers. In fact, 12 of San Diego’s 21 sacks have come courtesy of its linebackers. Chargers outside LB Steve Foley leads the defense in sacks with six. Inside LB Randall Godfrey has notched two quarterbacks takedowns, and LB Ben Leber has recorded one sack this season.

While Foley and Godfrey blitz often, Phillips uses MLB Donnie Edwards to defend the run and cover receivers. Edwards leads the team in tackles with 113, and last Sunday against Denver he recorded 20 takedowns. Edwards has also recorded one forced fumble, one interception and seven passes defensed. Foley is also effective in pass coverage, where he’s notched two picks and a team-high 11 passes defensed. Because of the pass coverage ability of San Diego’s linebackers, Tampa Bay running back Michael Pittman and tight end Ken Dilger, two of quarterback Brian Griese’s favorite targets, could be limited in the passing game. However, these two players will have to play a big part in picking up the Chargers’ wide variety of blitzes.

Pittman, who has rushed for 662 yards (4.2 avg.) and seven touchdowns this season, has struggled to run the ball effectively on the road. That trend will likely continue against the Chargers, who rank 2nd in the NFL against the run, allowing just 78 yards rushing per contest. When Pittman does carry the ball, he’ll have to secure it. He’s already fumbled four times this season, and Foley and Godfrey each have forced three fumbles through 12 games.

Although Bucs head coach Jon Gruden will try to establish some sort of ground attack in an effort to sell the Chargers secondary on play-action fakes, look for the Bucs to attack mostly through the air Sunday. San Diego’s pass defense ranks 27th in the NFL and is surrendering 235 yards passing per game.

Griese has been efficient with the football, but he can’t afford to make too many mistakes in this contest. San Diego’s defense has thrived off turnovers this season. In fact, the Chargers have a plus-12 turnover ratio. Free safety Jerry Wilson leads the team in interceptions with three. Nickel cornerback Drayton Florence has also notched three picks.

With Bucs rookie WR Michael Clayton matched up against Chargers CB Quentin Jammer, look for Griese to try and take advantage of the matchup WR Joey Galloway has against Chargers CB Sammy Davis, who despite having 10 passes defensed might be the weakest link in the secondary. The Chargers like to use SS Terrence Kiel to defend the run, which should leave Galloway in some favorable one-on-one matchups with Davis, who may not even play due to injury.

CHARGERS SPECIAL TEAMS:
Tampa Bay can’t afford to give San Diego’s offense a short field to work with. That said, containing Chargers kickoff returner Tim Dwight will be key Sunday. Dwight, who is regarded as a speedster, is averaging 24.8 yards per return and has one touchdown on a 87-yard return.

Eric Parker returns punts for the Chargers and is averaging nine yards per attempt.

Kicker Nate Kaeding has made 17 of his 21 (81 percent) field goal attempts. He’s perfect from inside of 39 yards out. Punter Mike Scifres is averaging 43.1 yards per attempt and has pinned 24 of his 51 attempts inside opponents’ 20-yard line.

FLYNN’S FINAL:
Tampa Bay has been slaughtered in its past two trips to the West Coast by San Francisco and Oakland. The Bucs lost those two contests 24-7 and 30-20, respectively.

Bucs head coach Jon Gruden has elected to change the team’s travel schedule for a West Coast game — they will leave Saturday instead of Friday. The truth of the matter is the Bucs should be worried about how they’re going to go about defeating a very solid and well-coached Chargers team, which has produced a 9-3 record, instead of worrying about their travel plans. However, you can’t really blame Gruden for changing things up a bit.

Some pundits believe Tampa Bay might be catching San Diego at the right time since the Chargers, who have won six straight games, have a two-game lead over the Denver Broncos in the AFC West division and wouldn’t necessarily lose as much by being downed by the Bucs, who are in the NFC. While that might be true, the Chargers don’t want to do anything to kill the momentum they’ve built up over the past several weeks and hope to bring into the playoffs.

With the exception of Super Bowl XXXVII, Tampa Bay’s hasn’t done much to make one think the Bucs can escape the West Coast with a win over the Chargers. The Bucs are 3-22 in regular season games played in the Pacific time zone.

In order to beat the Chargers Sunday, the Bucs will have to play a near flawless game, which they’ve been hard pressed to do this season. The Bucs have produced a 1-5 record on the road. That said, the amount of reasons to pick the Chargers to win this contest outweigh the ones to pick the Bucs.

FLYNN’S PICK: Chargers 23 Buccaneers 16
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