Bucs 24 Chargers 31
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers will still have warm memories of San Diego. They just won’t look back very fondly on their visit of December, 2004. Almost two years after winning Super Bowl XXXVII in San Diego, the Buccaneers returned to Qualcomm Stadium on Sunday with their 2004 playoff dreams needing a new charge. Instead, the hometown Chargers drained some energy from the Bucs’ late-season surge with a 31-24 defeat keyed by LB Donnie Edwards’ 30-yard touchdown return of an interception late in the fourth quarter.

Before Edwards’s play, the Bucs had to appeared to seize the momentum from the first-place Chargers, as rookie WR Michael Clayton made a dazzling one-handed touchdown catch to tie the game at 21-21. The Buccaneer defense then forced a quick three-and-out, thanks to a sack by DE Simeon Rice, and got the ball back at their own 15 with six minutes to play. But Edwards got the lead back for the Chargers with his second interception of the game and the Chargers tacked on a game-clinching field goal at the two-minute warning after San Diego’s fourth takeaway of the game. The Bucs drove 38 yards for their own field goal in the closing seconds but failed on the ensuing onside kick attempt.

Griese threw for a season-high 392 yards and three touchdowns but also tossed three interceptions, though one was a harmless turnover on a ‘Hail Mary’ pass at the end of the first half. He went to receivers Clayton and Joey Galloway repeatedly, as the two combined for 15 catches for 223 yards and three scores. Clayton set career highs with nine receptions for 145 yards and Galloway, who had found the end zone for the first time as a Buccaneer a week ago, scored twice more on five catches before being forced out of the game in the fourth quarter with cramps.

The Bucs lost their sixth road game in seven tries in 2004 despite racking up a season-best 436 yards of offense and out-gaining San Diego by exactly 100 yards. The Bucs trailed by seven points three times through the first three-and-a-half quarters and were able to tie the game each time, but were never in the lead. The Bucs intercepted QB Drew Brees twice but the MVP candidate was otherwise efficient, completing 17 of 23 passes for 220 yards and two touchdowns. RB LaDainian Tomlinson did the rest, rushing for 131 yards and a third-quarter touchdown that put San Diego up 21-14.

In the early going, the Chargers moved the ball well but had difficulty sustaining drives in the Bucs’ half of the field. After their first three possessions ended in a punt from the Bucs’ 41, an interception in the end zone and a missed, 51-yard field goal try, San Diego took care of that problem by scoring from the edge of their own red zone. On the first play of their fourth possession, the Chargers scored on a 79-yard pass from Brees to WR Eric Parker. Parker got open on a deep post over the middle and side-stepped a Dwight Smith tackle to go the distance, recording the longest touchdown play for San Diego in four years.

Fortunately, the Bucs answered that play in impressive fashion, driving 81 yards in five plays to tie the score at 7-7. Facing a third-and-six at his own 23, Griese got the Bucs into the end zone with three consecutive long passes. An 18-yard strike to rookie Clayton over the middle was followed by a low laser of a seam pass to RB Michael Pittman for 23 yards. On first down from San Diego’s 36, Griese lofted a high, pretty pass that dropped into Galloway’s hands as he crossed the end zone on a post-corner. The Bucs built on that momentum quickly thanks to a play by another rookie. S Will Allen had to come into the game to replace starting free safety John Howell, who was injured on a kickoff return. On his first play on defense, Allen cut in front of WR Keenan McCardell, the former Buccaneer, to intercept the pass at the Bucs’ 49.

Unfortunately, the ensuing drive ended up in a missed opportunity for the Bucs. Two catches by Clayton got Tampa Bay into a first-and-goal from the seven, but they couldn’t punch it into the end zone. Worse, a 20-yard field goal was taken off the board by a tripping penalty on TE Ken Dilger and K Jay Taylor shot his second try, a 30-yarder, right into the left upright. Having seized the momentum back, San Diego promptly drove 80 yards on 10 plays, aided by a sliding, 18-yard catch by McCardell, who was hurt on the play. Three snaps later, on third-and-three, Brees barely got a throw off out of a collapsing pocket and second-year WR Kassim Osgood wrestled the lobbed ball away from CB Brian Kelly for a 19-yard touchdown.

The Bucs tied the game late in the third quarter on an impressive 68-yard drive keyed by a third down play in which Griese barely evaded a sack, scrambled right and improvised a 24-yard pass to WR Joe Jurevicius. Griese converted four third downs on the march, including the final play, a four-yard touchdown pass to Galloway. A problem from the first half of the season resurfaced in San Diego, as the Bucs were penalized 12 times for 111 yards, including the flag that took Taylor’s field goal off the board. Early in the Bucs’ third-quarter touchdown drive, the Bucs neared midfield only to back up 25 yards on holding and hands-to-the-face calls. The Bucs managed to keep the drive on Jurevicius’s third-down catch, and went on to score the game-tying points, but Griese had to throw for 86 yards on a 68-yard drive.

On the Chargers’ next drive, a roughing-the-passer penalty was instrumental in an 81-yard touchdown drive. Tomlinson ran for 35 yards on the next play and put it into the end zone on a seven-yard run to give San Diego a 21-14 lead with 30 seconds left in the third quarter. The Bucs tied it on Clayton’s remarkable catch, capping a two-play, 37-yard drive that followed a fumble by Tomlinson, forced by Smith and recovered by DT Dewayne White. However, Edwards picked off another pass intended for Clayton on the Bucs’ next drive and scored the game-winning points. Edwards had another interception in the first quarter on a screen pass that sailed over Pittman’s head.

The loss, yet another road game that went down to the wire before ending in unsatisfying fashion, dropped Tampa Bay to 5-8 and put them on the very fringes of the NFC playoff race. Carolina, which plays in Tampa the day after Christmas, may have taken the lead in the hunt for the final wild card spot by defeating St. Louis and moving to 6-7.