SAN DIEGO – The NFC South welcomed the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to its leaderboard on Sunday.
Combined with the Falcons loss to the Chiefs, the Bucs moved into a tie with the Falcons for first place in their division after beating the Chargers 28-21 at Qualcomm Stadium.
A 12-yard touchdown pass from Jameis Winston to Cameron Brate and a 2-yard conversion toss to Mike Evans proved to be the difference for the Bucs, who won their fourth straight and improved to 5-1 on the road.
The Chargers came into the game with the fourth-best scoring offense and the fifth best passing attack in the league and they had little trouble justifying the latter ranking in particular during the first half.
Using mostly dump offs, including several to running back Melvin Gordon, Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers completed 10 of 14 passes for 147 yards and a touchdown during the first 30 minutes.
That allowed San Diego to take a 14-7 lead into the locker room at the break. That lead could have been bigger or smaller of the two team’s kickers had been a little more efficient.
Chargers kicker Josh Lambo and Buccaneers kicker Roberto Aguayo both missed field goals during the first half, Aguayo’s miss coming at the end of the half on a 31-yard attempt.
It was a disappointing ending to what had become a game of attrition for the Bucs, who lost tight end Luke Stocker (ankle) and wide receivers Cecil Shorts (knee) and Adam Humphries (concussion) to injuries.
Despite the loss of three weapons, Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston still managed to complete nine of 15 throws for 123 yards in the half, which also included Winston throwing an interception.
Winston’s pick came five plays into the Bucs first possession but a sack by Gerald McCoy four plays later on a third-and-5 play allowed Tampa Bay To get the ball back without surrendering any points.
The Bucs, already down 7-0 off a 15-yard Rivers touchdown pass to Dontrelle Inman, then tied the game on a 2-yard Doug Martin run, the 22nd touchdown run of Martin’s career.
The Chargers regained the lead on their next possession, finishing the drive with a 2-yard touchdown run by Gordon, who accumulated 94 total yards during the opening half.
Aguayo made amends, sort of, for his miss at the end of the Bucs first drive of the second half, making good on a 27-yard attempt that (finally) cut the Chargers lead to 14-10 with 8:25 left in the third quarter.
The Bucs then took the lead on Lavonte David’s first pick six of the year, a 14-yard return of a Rivers pass that Vernon Hargreaves III tipped in the air on a first-and-10 play from the 8.
The Chargers came right back, though, and regained the lead on a 40-yard Rivers touchdown pass to Tyrell Williams, who beat Brent Grimes for score that gave San Diego a 21-17 edge.
The game had become an exchange of scores at that point and the Bucs continued the trend on their next series, driving to what prove to be a 35-yard Aguayo field goal that cut San Diego’s lead to 21-20.
The Bucs appeared to take control of the game there, forcing the Chargers off the field on San Diego’s next series and regaining the lead with another Winston touchdown pass on Tampa Bay’s next possession.
With his running game struggling Winston went to the pass and threw for 16 yards to Freddy Martino and 21 yards to Jacquizz Rodgers before hitting Brate with a 12-yard TD toss.
Winston followed up by hitting Mike Evans with a 2-yard toss for the two-point conversion.