It's not hard to understand why the San Diego Chargers, who recently ended a three-game skid and are at .500 at the season's midway point, remain very optimistic about 2012. After all, they've been here many times before.
In five of the last eight NFL seasons, in fact, San Diego has hit the halfway point with a record of either 4-4 or 3-5. In each of those five occasions, they finished the season at 8-8 or better and in four of the five they ended up either alone in first place or tied for the AFC West lead. Also in that span, the Chargers took a pair of 5-3 records to 12-4 finishes and strong playoff berths.
So, suffice it to say, the 2012 Chargers aren't exactly conceding this season.
"The facts are we're 4-4 at the halfway mark and we're a game out of first place in our division," said Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers, who has been at the helm for many of those second-half surges. "All that's happened – we had a little rough stretch, we lost some games in a tough fashion there towards the end, three in a row – we were battling through that. We're right in the thick of our division. Certainly, we would have loved to have won a couple of those games, but at the same time we've got a shot here at the halfway mark. We're a game back with eight to play, so in a lot of ways that's really positive."
Consecutive losses at New Orleans, at home against Denver and at Cleveland had pushed the Chargers below .500, but they got a Thursday-night win over division rival Kansas City in Week Nine and are still just one behind Peyton Manning's Broncos. One victory might not sound like much of a momentum-builder, but the Chargers played both the Saints and especially the Broncos tough, and they'll get Denver again right after visiting Tampa.
"We were able to get a division win against Kansas City," said Rivers. "We were able to get a long weekend, get a little rest, and we know what we're in for going to Tampa. They're also a 4-4 team, won three of their last four, and they're playing really well. It's a big game for both teams. Each of us are trying to keep it going."
The Bucs have in fact won three of four, as Rivers notes, and have displayed the league's most productive offense in the process. It's definitely fair to say the Bucs have gathered some momentum going into this matchup of 4-4 teams, but only one of the two squads can leave Raymond James Stadium with that impetus intact. Complicating matters is the fact that the Bucs and Chargers are essentially in two different races, and they don't have a lot of built-up animosity or knowledge of each other.
"It's a group we don't have a great familiarity with, because we don't play but once every four years," said Rivers of the Buccaneers. "You remember the last time we came there in '08, and I think that Ronde Barber is the only player that was on that defense who is still there. This is a different group, and a group that's not like a division opponent or an AFC opponent, a team that you see a lot. It's a defensive scheme that really mixes it up and is diverse – a new staff and everything there. It's certainly a challenge. We're excited about it but know what a challenge it's going to be."
Rivers knows that nothing builds in-game momentum like a string of big plays. The Buccaneers' most recent game is a perfect example, as they essentially silenced the Raider crowd at O.co Coliseum last Sunday with Doug Martin's three long second-half touchdown runs, only to hear the volume cranked back to 11 when Carson Palmer started hitting one big pass after another. The Bucs have given up their share of big plays this season, primarily through the passing game, but Rivers knows that's a blade that can cut both ways.
"There are some big plays that have been made on them in the past few weeks, but at the same time it is a defense that is attacking and fast, and that takes the ball away," he said. "They've given up some plays but they also do a good job of creating turnovers and creating negative plays. I haven't broken it down statistically play by play, but you look at how their number one in rush defense – they create a lot of negative plays. They're just a real active front and in the linebacker group. I think that's the biggest thing that stands out. Certainly there are individual guys that stand out, but it's just an active group that flies around and attacks. We're definitely have to play well to win."