Bucs 24 Chargers 41 - the game report
The winning ways at Raymond James Stadium came to an end Sunday. So, too, did the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' direct path to the playoffs. After a dispiriting 41-24 loss to the San Diego Chargers, Tampa Bay, once 9-3 and now 9-6 with one to play, needs a victory next Sunday over Oakland and help from the other NFC contenders to earn a spot.

The Buccaneers lost a third consecutive game to drop to 9-6, equal to Dallas, with the 9-5 Falcons, the 8-5-1 Eagles and 8-6 Bears still to play on Sunday and Monday. If Atlanta beats Minnesota later Sunday afternoon, the Buccaneers' chances will be relatively slim.

The Buccaneers fought back from double-digit deficits on several occasions and even took a 24-20 lead late in the third period, but San Diego proved remarkably resilient for a 6-8 team, scoring the game's last 21 points. Each time that the Buccaneers grabbed some momentum, Philip Rivers and the Chargers' offense answered right back, often with a boost from return man Darren Sproles.

"That wasn't our best football today, but San Diego is an excellent, talented team," said Buccaneers Head Coach Jon Gruden. "I realize that their record doesn't show that, but they are a fine, talented football team. They didn't turn the ball over and played a fine football game with their backs against the wall."

San Diego finished the day with 370 total yards, 280 through the air, and Sproles added a total of 172 combined punt and kickoff return yards. Even with the Bucs' Pro Bowl return man, Clifton Smith, setting up Tampa Bay's first touchdown with a 73-yard kickoff return, Sproles stole the show.

The most troubling example of San Diego's one-upmanship came just before halftime. Down by 10, the Bucs ran an impressive two-minute drill – their specialty in 2008 – and set up Matt Bryant for a 49-yard field goal to make it 17-10 with 17 seconds left. However, a long kickoff return by Darren Sproles and a 25-yard Rivers completion left the Chargers with four seconds to try a 57-yard field goal. Nate Kaeding nailed it to send the Bucs into halftime down again by 10.

Tampa Bay came out strong in the third quarter – another season-long trend – and used half of it to drive 78 yards for a touchdown. Garcia capped it with a seven-yard keeper on third-and-two, but Sproles then returned the ensuing kickoff all the way to midfield. The Bucs stopped that possession, fortunately, and then briefly took the lead on a 71-yard touchdown catch by Antonio Bryant, only to have San Diego drive 63 yards on the next possession to retake the lead on TE Antonio Gates' second TD catch of the game.

Tampa Bay's defense survived a fourth-quarter interception in Buc territory, but allowed a short touchdown drive moments later after Sproles 43-yard punt return. Sproles finished that one himself with a 32-yard score on a screen pass. The Bucs were hurt by the game's other two turnovers, the first a Bryant fumble that set up San Diego's first touchdown drive. The last clinched the game for the Chargers, as CB Antoine Cason returned an interception 59 yards for the game's final score.

That pick came off a deflection and wasn't indicative of the gritty and productive game turned in by QB Jeff Garcia. Garcia completed 21 of 34 passes for 232 yards and a touchdown and also ran for a team-high 45 yards and a touchdown on six scrambles, most of them ending in head-long dives. After his second-to-last run, a seven-yard scramble that converted a must-have third down, Garcia came up bloody after a helmet-to-helmet hit. He played the next several minutes with blood running down his nose and over his mouth and chin.

After struggling to stop the run in Carolina and Atlanta over the two previous weeks, the Bucs held LaDainian Tomlinson and the Chargers to 90 yards on the ground but didn't have an answer for Rivers and a seemingly endless succession of deep outs to WR Vincent Jackson. Jackson finished with seven catches for 111 yards and Gates added four catches for 43 yards and those two scores. Rivers, the league's highest-rated passer, completed 21 of 31 for 287 yards, four touchdowns, no interceptions and a 136.7 passer rating.

Playing with a banged-up defensive line, the Buccaneers got very little pressure on Rivers (one sack) and when they did flush him out of the pocket he often made big plays on the run. Both of his TD passes to Gates were on scramble plays. Gruden lauded Rivers after the game and pointed to the lack of pressure as an issue. "He was a problem today outside the pocket and in the pocket," said Gruden. "His mobility was a big factor in the game."

Rivers was able to direct several extended drives because the Buccaneers' defense continued its puzzling problems on third down. Earlier in the season, Tampa Bay possessed the league's top-ranked third-down defense; in the last three weeks, Buc opponents have converted 21 of 37 attempts (56.8%), including seven of 13 by the Chargers on Sunday.

Things looked promising for the Buccaneers late in the third quarter, after Bryant's touchdown, especially considering that Tampa Bay had been 6-0 this season when leading after three quarters. But Gates scored on the first play of the final period and the Chargers never looked back. Bryant finished the game with 127 yards on six catches, becoming the first Buccaneer since Mark Carrier in 1989 to record three straight 100-yard games…unfortunately, all have come in losing causes.

Tampa Bay's defense got a quick stop to start the game, as CB Aqib Talib's tight coverage on Jackson disrupted a third-down pass. The Bucs then opened their first drive in a four-WR formation and, two plays in, got a 19-yard completion to TE Jerramy Stevens after a deep route by WR Joey Galloway cleared out the underneath. The Bucs faced a third-and-three at the San Diego 46 three plays later and Garcia made a heady scramble to get just enough for a first down. Unfortunately, San Diego got the ball back on the game's first turnover when DE Luis Castillo forced a fumble by Bryant and recovered for the Chargers at their own 41.

San Diego moved immediately into Buccaneer territory on a 15-yard pass to Gates, then tried a flea-flicker that produced just four yards when Rivers settled for an underneath toss to Sproles. On a third-and-five from the Bucs' 26, Rivers hit Jackson on a quick slant for 15 yards and a first down at the 11. On the very next play, Rivers threw a TE screen to TE Brandon Manumaleuna and it worked like a charm, as the jumbo tight end ran to the left pylon for the game's first score.

That's when Smith turned in yet another play, dashing down to the San Diego 11 on a return that began with him slipping as he caught a short bouncing kick. That put the Bucs in excellent position to answer right back, and they got close to the goal line on another tough scramble by Garcia down to the two. On third-and-one, Williams used a second effort on what looked like a failed sweep to plow down to within inches of the goal line, and Askew's fullback dive on the next play tied the game.

The Chargers' offense remained hot, however, with a 13-yard Tomlinson run and an 18-yard Jackson catch quickly getting the ball down to the Bucs' 38. Tomlinson outran Brooks on an underneath release two plays later to get 22 yards down to the 14 as the first quarter expired.

After the teams switched sides, alert tackles by CB Ronde Barber and LB Barrett Ruud put the Chargers into a third-and-11 from the 15. The Bucs couldn't get the stop, however, as Rivers scrambled left to escape a blitz and threw a pinpoint pass in the back of the end zone to Gates for the go-ahead score. Barber's leaping attempt to break it up was just inches short and the Chargers had their seven-point lead back with 13 minutes left in the half.

The Bucs' offense came back out onto the field with a no-huddle attack and got a quick 11-yard completion to Bryant. However, Bryant dropped an impressive throw by Garcia two plays later, setting up a third-and-six and the Bucs had to blow their first timeout. Unfortunately, Bryant dropped another potential first down in traffic and the Bucs had to punt. S Tanard Jackson made a nice foot tackle to keep Sproles from getting around the corner, trapping San Diego at its own 15.

The Bucs forced a third-and-four but Rivers had enough time to get off an 18-yard pass down the middle to WR Legedu Naanee. The next pass was a 17-yard deep out to WR Chris Chambers that moved the ball down to the Bucs' 44. A similar play on the opposite sideline got 22 more on Jackson's tiptoe catch, bringing a chorus of boos from the Raymond James Stadium crowd. Rivers made a play on the next third down, too, scrambling right and finding Naanee at the Bucs' nine. Tampa Bay forced another third down from there and this time managed to cover long enough to force a throw-away. Nate Kaeding's 28-yard field goal at the end of that 75-yard drive gave the Chargers a 10-point lead.

The Bucs started anew at their own 27 after Smith's 30-yard kickoff return. However, an uninspiring three-and-out followed and the Bucs' defense had to go back onto the field with more than four minutes left in the half. Even worse, Josh Bidwell's shanked punt went just 25 yards to the Charger 45.

The Bucs defense was equal to the challenge, getting the needed three-and-out thanks to DE Jimmy Wilkerson's seven-yard sack on third-and-four. The resulting punt went into the end zone, giving the ball back to the Bucs at their own 20 with 1:56 to play.

Garcia went into the no-huddle again and quickly hit Bryant twice for gains of 14 and 16 yards. After a holding call on the Chargers put the ball at the 31, Garcia tried to go deep to Bryant in the end zone but the pass was a few yards out of the receivers' reach. On third-and-10, Garcia scrambled long enough to locate an open Michael Clayton but Clayton was unable to snatch a pass thrown a bit behind him. Matt Bryant came on to nail a 49-yard field goal to pull the Bucs back within one score.

There were only 17 seconds left after that score, but that's all San Diego needed to render Bryant's kick moot. A 28-yard return by Sproles put the ball at the 36 and a 25-yard strike over the middle to Jackson got it to the Bucs' 39. Kaeding came on to try a 57-yard field goal and hit a blast that would have been good from 67.

The Bucs did get the ball first to start the second half, and a 17-yard catch-and-run by Clayton got the ball to the Bucs' 42. An impressive catch by Smith got nine yards and set up his own two-yard run for a first down at the Chargers' 37. The Bucs faced a third-and-five at the 32 moments later and Garcia had time to fire a sensational deep out to Bryant for a first down at the 15. Two plays later, Garcia took off on a second-and-13 and finished his scramble with an all-out head-first dive to the seven. On third-and-two, Garcia faked a handoff to Askew, and as the big fullback dived over the middle Garcia scrambled around left end, following a block by TE John Gilmore into the end zone. That closed the gap to 20-17 midway through the third period.

Once again, the Chargers struck right back, this time with Sproles returning the ensuing kickoff out to the San Diego 47. However, Tampa Bay's defense got the three-and-out it needed and the Chargers punted from midfield. The Bucs started again at their own 18 and needed just three plays to take the lead. On first down from the 29, Garcia scrambled right and just got a deep throw off before he was crushed by 309-pound DE Igor Olshansky. Waiting on the other end, a good 15 yards behind the last San Diego defender, was Bryant. He caught it cleanly and scored easily after Clayton blocked S Clinton Hart out of the way.

Sproles got his next return out to the San Diego 37 and Tomlinson immediately ripped off a nine-yard run. A 16-yard out by Jackson got the ball to the Bucs' 36. On third-and-four from the Bucs' 30, Rivers had time to find Jackson the sideline again for a gain of 10. The drive reached the Bucs' five, where the Chargers faced a third-and-goal. After the teams switched sides to start the fourth quarter, Rivers scrambled out of the pocket and threw a five-yard TD pass to Gates to put San Diego back on top, 27-24.

The Bucs then fell victim to their second turnover, as a pressured Garcia threw an errant pass right into the arms of LB Stephen Cooper. Cooper got the ball to the Bucs' 37 but an intentional grounding call on Rivers moved it back 10 yards. San Diego eventually punted from the Bucs' 36 and the ball went into the end zone for a touchback.

An 11-yard pass to Hilliard over the middle made it first-and-10 at the Bucs' 33, but the Bucs faced a third-and-10 after a deep pass to Bryant was just out of his reach. A sack on third down forced the Bucs to punt it away as the clock dipped below 10 minutes to play. Sure enough, Sproles struck again, returning Bidwell's 58-yard punt 43 yards to the Bucs' 46.

Two Tomlinson runs moved the chains and then, on second down from the Bucs' 32, the Chargers set up a perfect screen pass to Sproles and he took it all the way in for the score, restoring the Chargers' 10-point lead with 7:18 to play.

Garcia scrambled for seven yards on third-and-five, absorbing a big hit at the end that left him with blood dripping down his nose. With blood running all over his mouth and chin, Garcia scrambled again on third-and-three but was stopped for no gain. The Bucs had to go for it on fourth down and just barely got it on a short pass to Hilliard. The officials had to bring out the chains, which gave Garcia time to wipe away some of the blood.

With the clock ticking down to three minutes, the Bucs faced a third-and-three at the San Diego 48, and that's when all hope drained out of the game. Garcia tried to dart a hard pass in to Hilliard but CB Quentin Jammer tipped the ball away and Cason intercepted it and returned it 59 yards for the clinching touchdown.