Pictures from the Buccaneers' Week 13 match-up with the Chargers.
Twenty years ago, San Diego was the start of something great for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Six years after that, it was the site of the team's greatest triumph.
A 28-21 win over the Chargers at Qualcomm Stadium on Sunday may not match the significance of either of those events, but it does put the Buccaneers closer to ending an eight-year playoff drought. And it just might be the same sort of franchise kickstart that an emotional 1996 game gave a club that would rise from there to victory in Super Bowl XXXVII, both also at Qualcomm.
WATCH: BUCS VS. CHARGERS HIGHLIGHTS
In the short term, the Buccaneers' victory puts the team into a first-place tie with Atlanta in the NFC South, with four games to go. The Falcons currently hold the tiebreaker due to a slightly-better division record (3-1 to 2-1) but Atlanta's 29-28 loss to Kansas City on Sunday gave the Bucs a chance to catch up. In addition, a loss by Washington to Arizona allowed Tampa Bay to leap over the 6-5-1 Redskins into the second NFC Wild Card spot.
The Buccaneers secured their fourth straight win and their fourth consecutive win on the road, improving to 7-5 and 5-1 away from home. It's Tampa Bay's longest winning streak since a four-game run in 2012. This also marks the first time that a Tampa Bay team has won twice in the state of California in the same season; the Bucs defeated the 49ers in San Francisco in Week Seven.
Keith Tandy's goal-line interception with three minutes to play sealed the victory after the Bucs had taken the lead on the previous possession on Jameis Winston's 12-yard touchdown pass to tight end Cameron Brate.
"I went in the huddle and knew we had the right play," said Winston of the go-ahead score. "Cam looked at me, I looked at him and we were like, 'Let's score this touchdown, baby.' He went up there and got it, took a hit but came down with the ball."
The lead changed hands three times in the second half, as the Buccaneers went up 17-14 on Lavonte David's 15-yard pick-six before the Chargers answered with Philip Rivers' 40-yard touchdown pass to WR Dontrelle Inman. Inman was also the intended receiver on Rivers' last pass of the day, but Tandy was there to prevent the tying score and allow the Bucs' offense to run out the clock. Tandy was in the starting lineup for the first time to replace the injured Chris Conte, and he was one of several reserves to step up in a big way.
"That's nothing new," said Winston. "This team, we're playing as a family. We have one team, one heartbeat. We're just replacing guys and guys are showing up and showing out. God bless Keith Tandy; he's been going through a lot but he stepped up. He carried a big stick to help us win."
The Bucs moved the ball well throughout the day – gaining 349 yards of offense and converting five of 13 third downs – and had a 28-21 lead with nine minutes to play after Jameis Winston's 12-yard touchdown pass to tight end Cameron Brate. Winston completed 20 of 30 passes for 280 despite losing two of his primary targets, wide receivers Cecil Shorts and Adam Humphries, early in the game. Brate helped fill the void with six catches for 86 yards and the score and wide receiver Freddie Martino, who entered the game with two career receptions, added four grabs for 56 yards.
"We didn't start out the game the way we wanted to," said Brate. "We had a couple guys go down with injuries, which was pretty tough to watch, but we really responded well as a team. The offense got off to a slow start and the defense really stepped up for us. They held them after we threw the first pick. Lavonte had the pick-six and you can't say enough about what they've done the past couple weeks."
Trailing 14-7 at halftime, the Buccaneers grabbed their first lead of the game on Lavonte David's interception and 15 yard touchdown return of a pass deflected by rookie cornerback Vernon Hargreaves. That put the visitors up 17-14 but the Chargers took the lead right back on Rivers' 40-yard touchdown pass to Tyrell Williams. After a Roberto Aguayo field goal narrowed the lead to one point, the Bucs took their final lead on Brate's touchdown and a two-point conversion catch by Mike Evans.
David had a big impact on the outcome, as it was his diving pass deflection on third down that had killed San Diego's previous drive before the pick-six. The Bucs' offense failed to move the ball after San Diego's punt, but Bryan Anger's booming 54-yard punt down to the Chargers' eight-yard line set up the defensive score.
Rivers threw for 225 yards on 15-of-26 passing, but other than the long touchdown to Inman spent much of the day adeptly checking down, particularly to RB Melvin Gordon. Gordon finished with 138 yards from scrimmage, but only 44 of those came after halftime, and all of his 54 receiving yards were in the first half.
WATCH: LEARN MORE ABOUT CAM BRATE
"Melvin Gordon is a great back and he was making things happen in the first half," said David. "But once we eliminated that we were able to settle down and play our game. It was a great adjustment at halftime and guys came out playing harder. We made an emphasis on getting takeaways, which has been a big key to the turnaround of this defense. That's what we've been preaching on and guys stayed resilient. We just stayed in tune with everything that was going on throughout the game. All we could focus on was getting better each play.
Hargreaves and David combined for the biggest defensive play for Tampa Bay for the second week in a row. In a Week 12 victory over Seattle, Hargreaves was in the process of tackling TE Jimmy Graham in the fourth quarter when David arrived and forced a fumble, then returned it across midfield.
"It was a great play by Vernon Hargreaves," said David. "Tight coverage and getting a hand on the football, tipping it up. Coach always preaches, 'Run to the football.' That's what I did, and great things happen when you run to the football."
San Diego took a seven-point lead into halftime as both offenses moved the ball well in the first half. The Chargers had the only takeaway of the first half but it didn't result in any points. San Diego had a 200-159 edge in net yards at the break. Each team missed on a field goal try, though the Buccaneers' attempt was the more painful miss, a 31-yard try at the end of a strong drive at the end of the second quarter.
The Chargers took the game's opening possession 75 yards for a touchdown, running eight plays without facing a third down. A tackle-breaking 17-yard reception by Gordon got the ball just over midfield and, three plays later, Rivers found a wide-open Dontrelle Inman in the left slot and Inman turned it up for a 35-yard score, just diving across the goal line.
The Bucs' first possession was costly in several ways. WR Cecil Shorts converted a third down with a 14-yard catch over the middle but was lost for the rest of the game with a knee injury. He was carted off the field after a lengthy delay and well wishes from the entire Bucs' bench. Tight end Luke Stocker also sustained an ankle injury on that drive. Finally, the possession ended on an interception by Hayward near midfield as Winston tried to get the ball to Evans.
The Buccaneers' defense grabbed some of the game's momentum back with an important stop. Gordon started the drive with a 17-yard run but a holding penalty and a third-down sack by Gerald McCoy forced San Diego to try a 53-yard field goal. Josh Lambo pulled his kick well wide to the left and the Bucs took over at their own 43.
The Bucs drove 57 yards from that point to tie the game. Winston twice scrambled to his left before finding Evans for gains of 13 and 22. Humphries made it first-and-goal with a perfectly-executed tunnel screen, knifing down to the three-yard line. Two Martin runs took it in from there, the second one an impressive second-effort on which he appeared to be stopped at the line of scrimmage before lunging forward and extending the ball over the line.
San Diego responded with another 7-yard drive, this one largely the work of Gordon, who caught passes of 11 and 17 yards and scored on a two-yard run on second-and-goal. Rivers also made sharp passes to Inman for 19 and TE Hunter Henry for 14 to make it first-and-goal at the five.
The Bucs got into position to tie the game or at least shorten the lead just before halftime but Roberto Aguayo pushed a 31-yard field goal try just to the right. Winston kept the drive alive near midfield with a sharp pass to Humphries on third-and-six, then overcame a pair of offensive penalties to move into San Diego territory. A 17-yard strike to WR Freddie Martino in traffic set up a fourth-and-one and the Bucs converted with an underneath handoff to Peyton Barber for two. Completions to Brate and Shepard got the ball into the red zone but a critical sack by Joey Bosa kept them out of the end zone.
The Bucs got the ball to start the second half and once again put together a lengthy drive to set up a field goal try. Aguayo nailed this one from 27 yards to cut the Chargers' lead to four points. The drive lasted 13 plays and chewed up six-and-a-half minutes but stalled inside the 10. Martin got the drive moving with 23-yard catch-and-run to midfield and later converted a third-and-one with a dive over the top. Winston converted the next third-and-short with a four-yard pass to Brate after escaping a sack, then gained a first down with a 12 with a 15-yard pass to Martino. Russell Shepard made a diving catch in the end zone on third down from the four but he had stepped out of bounds moments earlier, invalidating the touchdown.
A diving pass breakup by LB Lavonte David kept Rivers from converting a third-and-16 on the ensuing drive, leading to San Diego's second punt of the day. With both Adam Humphries and Cecil Shorts out due to injuries, rookie CB Vernon Hargreaves fielded the punt and got nine yards on the return to the Bucs' 30. However, the Bucs quickly punted it back after Martin was stopped on a third-and-two carry.
One big play each by special teams and the defense and the Bucs had their first lead of the day. First, Bryan Anger blasted a high, 54-yard punt that Isaiah Burse fair caught at the San Diego eight. On first down, Rivers faked a handoff and tried to throw a quick slant to Tyrell Williams but Hargreaves got an arm around to deflect it and David picked the ball out of the air and returned it 15 yards for a touchdown.
The lead didn't last long. Two tackle breaking runs by Gordon for 11 and 22 yards got San Diego over midfield and then Rivers went deep. Williams got behind CB Brent Grimes and Rivers hit him as he crossed the goal line for a 40-yard touchdown.
A 38-yard strike down the middle to Brate got the ensuing drive started on the right foot, and the Bucs converted a subsequent third down on a Winston scramble and a defensive holding call. However, Evans draw an offensive pass interference penalty on third-and-two from the 16. When San Diego declined, the Bucs chose to kick the field goal and make it a one-point game with 13 minutes to play.
A three-and-out and a short punt got the ball right back in the Buccaneers' hands at their own 46. Winston immediately found a wide-open Martino down the right seam for a gain of 16, and a screen to Rodgers on the right sideline picked up 21 yards to the 17. Two plays later, Winston threaded a pass through traffic to Brate in the end zone for the go-ahead score. The Bucs went for two in an attempt to make it a seven-point lead and got it when Winston rolled out to his right, stopped, avoided a near-sack and fired a pass to Evans in the back of the end zone.
Ayers sacked Rivers for a loss of seven on the first play of the Chargers' next possession but two catches over the middle by Gates moved the sticks. On third-and-one from the San Diego 47, after a Chargers timeout, Gordon took it up the middle and fought for just enough to gain a new set of downs. Rivers escaped up the middle for nine yards on the next play but that was the last positive play of the drive for the Chargers. Rivers tried to hit Inman deep down the left sideline but Tandy had tight coverage and was able to make a leaping interception in front of the receiver. The resulting touchback put the ball at the Bucs' 20 with 2:56 to play.