The red-hot Buccaneers travel to San Diego in search of their fourth consecutive win
The San Diego Chargers (5-6) may be in last place in a potent AFC West division, but it’s fair to say that that they are the best 5-6 team in the league. If just a handful of plays had gone their way, the Chargers would be at or near the top of their division, and possibly in the discussion for being one of the top teams in the NFL. Case in point: the Bolts scored their third win of the season over a division-leading team last week by knocking off the Texans in Houston by a score of 21-13. It was San Diego’s fourth win in its last six contests. The Chargers return home to face a red-hot Tampa Bay team. While San Diego’s chances of winning the AFC West are pretty slim to none at this point, the Chargers can potentially vie for a wild card berth, especially if they win this afternoon
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-5) have been one of the strongest teams in the NFL over the last three weeks, scoring improbable wins over two of the best teams the league has to offer. Last week’s 14-5 home victory over NFC West leader Seattle was impressive. But there aren’t many teams that can go into Arrowhead Stadium and come out with a win. The Bucs did just that with a 19-17 victory over the Chiefs in Week 11.
Dirk Koetter’s team will look to make it four in a row this week despite having to make the cross-country trek to San Diego. Tampa Bay trails Atlanta by just one game in the NFC South and sits just a half game behind Washington in the wild card race. An all-important victory today would keep the Buccaneers in the thick of the playoff hunt, while a loss would put a halt to their recent momentum.
Tampa Bay at San Diego
Kickoff: Sunday, Dec. 4 at 4:25 p.m. ET
TV Channel: FOX
Spread: San Diego -3.5
Three Things to Watch
1. A Red-Hot Tampa Bay Defense vs. Potent San Diego Offense
An injury-plagued Tampa Bay defense has certainly taken it lumps this season, but things have really taken a turn for the better in recent weeks as this group has gotten much healthier. During the current three-game winning streak, the Buccaneers have allowed just three touchdowns and have collected 10 sacks. It’s just three games, but during this stretch Tampa Bay leads the NFL in scoring defense (10.7 ppg), takeaways (nine) and third-down defense (23 percent conversion rate).
Those impressive stats aside, the Bucs will have their hands full this afternoon against a Chargers’ offense that rankings among the league’s most productive. San Diego is third in the league scoring (28.5 ppg), fifth in passing (271.5 ypg), and eight in total (371.2 ypg) offense. It will be interesting to see if Tampa Bay’s defense can continue its strong play against Philip Rivers and company on the Chargers’ own turf.
2. Mike Evans vs. Casey Hayward
Perhaps the game’s most intriguing one-on-one matchup will be between Tampa Bay’s top wide receiver and San Diego’s emerging cornerback. Evans’ 10 touchdown receptions are tied for the most in the NFL, while he’s second in both catches (73) and receiving yards (1,020). Evans surpassed the 1,000-yard mark last week for the third straight season, becoming just the fourth wide receiver in NFL history to do so in each of his first three years in the league.
Evans’ worthy adversary today will be Hayward, who has kept the Chargers’ secondary together despite being decimated by injuries. A free agent addition this offseason, Hayward’s six interceptions are the most in the league. He’s also first in passes defended with 16.
Hayward won’t be tasked with shadowing Evans for the entire game, but he will be assigned to the elite receiver more often than not. Hayward should benefit from safety help over the top. That being said, Evans is a half a foot taller than Hayward (6-5 vs. 5-11) and is a nightmare matchup for any and all defensive backs San Diego may put in his path. It will be a challenge to say the least.
The Chargers have turned the ball over 23 times this season, making them the most generous team in the NFL in that regard. Philip Rivers’ 12 interceptions are the second most of any quarterback. A stingy Tampa Bay defense, that has generated a league-best nine takeaways over its last three games, will attempt to take full advantage. Only three teams in the NFL have more takeaways (20) than the Buccaneers on the season.
Tampa Bay has had its own issues with ball security, committing 18 turnovers thus far. An opportunistic San Diego defense, which has generated the second-most takeaways (23), will look to exploit that weakness, especially when Jameis Winston drops back to throw the ball. The Chargers lead the league with 14 interceptions, while Winston has thrown 11. One way or another, there is a very good chance that turnovers will play a vital role in the outcome of today’s game.
Tampa Bay enters this game as one of the hottest teams in the NFL, winners of its last three games and 4-1 on the road this season. The Buccaneers need to maintain their momentum, as they have drawn to just a game behind Atlanta for first place in the NFC South.
Regardless, I’m not sure that Tampa Bay has enough on offense to match up with the San Diego. And while the Bucs’ defense has been on a tear of late, it will be a tall order for them to slow down a potent Chargers passing game. Tampa Bay has struggled mightily this season against really good passing teams, and San Diego certainly falls into that category. If Tampa Bay can win the turnover battle, the Bucs have a good shot at winning the game. Otherwise, they will have a tough time outscoring a resilient Chargers team playing at home.
Prediction: Chargers 27, Buccaneers 24
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.